Designs and dreams

December 11, 1991

Almost from its inception, the vision for the Christopher Columbus Center was two-fold. Not only would it foster ground-breaking research in marine biotechnology, nautical archaeology and related fields, but it would also be housed in a world-class building. The structure itself would symbolize the center's mission of keeping the United States in the forefront of marine research, while serving notice that Baltimore is now a city ready and willing to support pace-setting architecture.

So there is no way to minimize the disappointment produced by the announcement last week that the center's board of directors is ending its relationship with Richard Rogers, the London architect who was selected for the project in an international competition last year. Rogers is known for his richly detailed designs, which often express classical styles in innovative industrial forms. Two of his better-known buildings, the Pompidou Center in Paris and the new Lloyd's of London headquarters, may not be beloved by everyone -- but they certainly deserve attention. Unlike the pleasing but workmanlike pavilions of Harborplace, Rogers' buildings in themselves would have attracted the interest of architects and tourists alike far into the future. His departure from the Columbus Center project is a major loss for the city.

Clearly, the board's decision was not an easy one. In essence, current economic realities presented a stark choice: Stick with Rogers and the high fees and costs associated with visionary architecture -- and risk alienating the state legislature, Congress and other funding sources with the cost overruns that are virtually inevitable with this kind of project. Or recognize that getting the project built and moving ahead with scientific research will require some unpleasant compromises. Given that choice, the board opted for pragmatism.

The new design team, Zeidler Roberts Partnership of Toronto, will not produce a bad building; but its design probably won't attract world attention either. Even so, the end of one aspect of the Columbus Center vision doesn't detract from the importance of the scientific enterprise it represents. The scientific vision will go forward -- and that, at least, is good news.

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