Success creates dilemma for Maryland Institute

A STRUCTURE NOT BUILT TO LAST

January 06, 1991|By Edward Gunts

The temporary Japanese sculpture studio at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, a simple pitched-roof structure made of telephone poles, Fiberglas sheeting and corrugated metal, has been selected to receive one of the highest honors ever accorded a work of American architecture.

Designed by RTKL Associates and built at a cost of just over $100,000, the studio is one of a handful of buildings chosen to receive a 1991 national honor award in the annual design program sponsored by the American Institute of Architects.

The AIA won't officially announce the recipients until its awards dinner in Washington on Feb. 6, but the winning architects already have been notified. The decision makes the sculpture studio one of only 12 buildings in Maryland to be recognized by the AIA program since it was launched in 1949.

It also poses something of a dilemma for the Maryland Institute, which built the studio for Japanese artists visiting the United States on a one-year residency and didn't plan to keep it up after they left. The national award marks the second honor for the building, which also was cited in the awards program sponsored by the Baltimore AIA chapter last fall. The recognition has prompted some discussion among Maryland Institute administrators and others about whether the building ought to stay up longer, but so far there have been no decisions.

To complicate matters, materials used to build the studio were not especially durable, and the building has no heating, plumbing or other utilities. In addition, Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, which oversees changes in the Bolton Hill historic district, has ordered that the building come down no later than Aug. 31, 1991.

Fred Lazarus, the college president, said he knew RTKL submitted the building for consideration but was not in a position to say whether it won, pending the AIA announcement. He said he was very pleased with the attention the building has received in general and was undecided about the idea of trying to keep the building up or move it after the Japanese sculptors finish their work later this year.

"I don't have a firm position as to what will happen to the building," he said. On one hand "it would be a pity to see a building that has received so much recognition removed, even if it was designed to be temporary. But I am also a believer that something of beauty doesn't have to be there forever. Christo's 'Running Fence' was wonderful, but it couldn't last forever. The temporary aspect [of the sculpture studio] is part of its excitement and beauty."

Apart from its temporary nature, the building was an unusual commission in many ways for RTKL, which is best known for its large office buildings and other mixed-use urban projects in the United States and abroad.

The nature of the building itself was unusual: to house four Japanese sculptors who were coming to Baltimore to build a 33-foot-tall sculpture of Fudo Myoh-oh, an incarnation of Buddha who traditionally serves as a guardian keeping out evil spirits. Once it is completed, the sculpture will be moved to an as-yet-undetermined permanent location and the studio could be dismantled.

RTKL designed the building free of charge to help the college keep costs down. To come up with an appropriate design, the company sponsored an in-house competition that drew 15 entries. The winning design was by Keith Mehner, a 28-year-old architect who has since left the firm to join the Kerns Group in Washington. Ted Neiderman was the partner in charge of the project.

The building was constructed in a dell next to the Mount Royal train station, which houses the institute's main sculpture studio. As designed by Mr. Mehner, it is 41 feet wide, 56 feet long and 50 feet high -- about five stories tall. Its roof is made of corrugated galvanized steel held up by wood posts, and at ground level the sides are made of Fiberglas sheets that are reminiscent of rice paper. A skylight is made of the same material.

Mr. Mehner said before the building was constructed that the design reflects a "Japanese simplicity" in the emphasis on natural light and use of color and building materials. The materials were selected for their ability to be reused as well as their ease of assembly and disassembly.

In the local AIA awards program, jurors said the studio is reminiscent of the Ise shrine in Japan, "which is built and occupied while its twin is demounted in a continuous cycle. It proves that architecture can be significant without being permanent.

"We respect the restraint shown in the pavilion," they added. "It PTC had all the opportunities to be terribly cute but is actually quite simple and elegant. Formally and structurally, putting the pitched roof inside the post and beam frame is very successful. The spare and direct use of materials is well handled."

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