Addition awkwardly imitates original building

December 26, 1990|By Edward Gunts

Baltimore was Clone City long before anyone thought of expanding the National Aquarium. Harborplace was inspired by Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, and Coldspring was a take-off from Moshe Safdie's Habitat '67 community in Montreal. The aquarium itself was a direct descendant of the New England Aquarium.

But in many ways the Marine Mammal Pavilion was Baltimore's trickiest case of idea-snatching to date: the clone of a building from its own Inner Harbor -- in fact, the sculptural centerpiece of the harbor. And it presented quite a challenge for the architects, Grieves Associates of Baltimore: Should they resist the urge to imitate Cambridge Seven Associates' landmark on Pier 3, or give in and make their building the ultimate clone's clone?

With the $35 million pavilion set to open today on Pier 4, visitors will finally have a chance to see how their struggle with the Other Building turned out. But early signs are that they played to something of an architectural stalemate:

On the interior they didn't try to replicate the first building at all, and came up with an impressive new space that complements the original surprisingly well. The Lyn P. Meyerhoff Amphitheater shows every indication of becoming a unique educational resource for the region, a monster hit for Baltimore's tourist industry, and a must-see attraction for any self-respecting Baltimorean.

On the exterior the architects did try to establish a visual link by echoing the parent building, but they resisted making their version too close to the original. The result is an awkward imitation -- neither different enough to stand comfortably on its own nor similar enough to seem entirely sympathetic with the original. It raises new questions about the design strategies at play when one architect uses another's work as a starting point.

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From the beginning architect James Grieves -- with associates Nancy Nes, David McCarthy and Robert O'Hatnick -- set out to make the interior different from anything in the original aquarium. They envisioned it as a bright, airy building that would let the outside in -- a deliberate contrast to the dark, Piranesian "world of water" on Pier 3. They wanted people to be free to move in many directions, as opposed to the one-way sequence on Pier 3. Above all they wanted to create a healthy habitat for dolphins and beluga whales, unlike the ulcer-causing dolphin tray on Pier 3.

At the heart of the building, the amphitheater is something of a cross between a stadium and theater -- except there is water where the stage ought to be. In the center are four interconnected pools, separated by lily pad-like formations where trainers stand, and framed by semicircular rows of seating. Acrylic windows enable spectators to view the mammals underwater either from their seats or a special "splash zone," and two giant "vidiwalls" show close-ups of the mammals and help convey concepts such as the adverse effects of tuna nets on dolphins.

The setting can change in mood from serene to lively, but it is always in keeping with the restrained tone of the 30-minute behavioral demonstrations, which stress education over show biz. There is not a bad seat in the house (although side rows offer underwater views that center seats don't). The entire

experience is great fun and ends all too soon.

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If the addition's interior represents a clear break from the original, the exterior looks as if the architects could not decide whether to copy it or ignore it. From a distance the pavilion seems similar, but on closer inspection it is about as true to Cambridge Seven's masterpiece as the movie version of "Bonfire of the Vanities" is to Tom Wolfe's book.

The inconsistencies are exemplified by the dueling pyramids. Instead of having its peak pointing toward Federal Hill as those on the first building do, the pyramid atop the pavilion has its highest point facing back toward Charles Center. Its trim is white instead of black -- an allusion to the bright-dark contrast -- and its roof is opaque rather than clear. Mr. Grieves says the design is best suited to the dolphins and spectators given sun angles and other factors, and from some vantage points it looks fine. But from others it's utterly jarring. One wants to pick it up and turn it around to line up with the rest. It will spark debate for years to come.

Window treatments are inconsistent as well. Instead of the modernist strip windows Cambridge Seven used, the Grieves design has punched windows in various shapes, including at least four different-sized portholes outlined in red. Mr. Grieves said he wanted to accentuate the fact that the pavilion offers numerous framed views of the city for everyone inside, unlike the parent building.

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