Good intentions sometimes produced bad designs for buildings in Baltimore

December 30, 1990|By Edward Gunts

We've seen it time and again -- so often, in fact, that it seems there ought to be a formula to explain it:

The architectural quality of a new building is inversely proportional to the amount of good intentions behind it.

Over the past year, there certainly was no shortage of building projects that were launched with the best of intentions -- yet turned out to have the worst of designs. If one theme could sum up the architectural activity in Baltimore during 1990, it might be the Year They Made a Good Thing Worse.

The USF Constellation, the Enoch Pratt Free Library's central branch and the Peabody Institute were among the victims of well-meaning additions or proposed additions that ended up detracting from what was already in place. And if anyone tried to point out the design flaws before the damage was done, the architects and their clients would simply wrap themselves in a cloak of altruism and take umbrage that anyone would question their work -- or warn that naysaying could only jeopardize the realization of their noble endeavors.

That doesn't mean 1990 was entirely a year of disappointments. It also brought the completion of several local buildings of national significance, the emergence of talented young designers and the timely re-evaluation of some old decisions. That's enough to make anyone who cares about Baltimore architecture optimistic that the pendulum will start swinging in the right direction -- preferably sooner rather than later.

By far the biggest flap over a building came this summer when a tan, two-story structure appeared seemingly overnight alongside the Constellation: an $875,000 ticket booth, gift shop and orientation gallery for the 1797 frigate in the Inner Harbor. The intentions here certainly were noble, and as buildings go this one was serviceable enough -- except that as seen from the east it substantially blocked views of the harbor and of the very attraction it was meant to promote.

The problem arose when designer Mario Schack, one of the most gifted and respected architects in the city, was given an impossibly large building program to fit on Constellation dock. It was compounded when Baltimore's Architectural Review Board, of which Mr. Schack is a member, approved it behind closed doors apparently without realizing the adverse impact it would have on the vessel.

If there is a positive side to the building it's that it called attention to a number of potential problems with the city's design review process, including the fact that some buildings are erected in key locations with absolutely no public review. And for a &L relatively small project, it had a big impact.

By year's end, the head of the agency that monitors downtown development was no longer in his job and two city architectural review boards had agreed to open their meetings to the press, ending more than 20 years of closed-door sessions. Unfortunately the Constellation building is still in place, and the non-profit group that operates it has a lease on the site until the year 2028.

Another example of the good intentions-bad design syndrome is the state Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped planned for the southeast corner of Park Avenue and Franklin Street -- a noble project if ever there was one. Architect Fritz Read of Ayers Saint Gross wanted to express the uncertainty experienced by those who have lost some or all of their eyesight, and he did so by designing a giant window for the building that would tilt at a precarious angle over the sidewalk. It was an intriguing notion, but the window looked more like a sports car's headlamp than a fitting neighbor for the Enoch Pratt Free Library next door. After much review, the design got the go-ahead, but without the tilt in the window.

The Peabody Institute needed a $15 million fund drive to stay in operation, but it found enough money to complete a $10 million addition housing a music library, practice rooms and faculty offices. The budget was so tight, architects said, that they couldn't replicate the handsome stonework of neighboring buildings, so they opted for a stripped-down brick version instead. The result brings to mind a comment by George Chappell, the first architecture critic of the New Yorker. "Apparently in many building operations," he lamented, "the cost of construction leaves nothing over for the design."

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