Q: How do you get an architect's attention?
A: Hey, waiter!
That joke, making the rounds in Baltimore architecture circles, is an example of the gallows humor that pervaded the design profession during 1991. It turned out to be a surprisingly good year for local architecture but, because of the recession, an awful one for local architects.
Several long-anticipated projects, most of them arts-oriented, proved to be more than worth the wait, including the Walters Art Gallery's Museum of Asian Arts, the flexible Head Theater at Center Stage and the cathedral-like Pier Six Concert Pavilion.
A temporary exhibit mounted by the fledgling Museum for Contemporary Arts showed the potential for reuse of the former Greyhound bus terminal on Centre Street, and the expanded Towson Town Center opened with a healthy dose of wit and whimsy. The Japanese sculpture studio at the Maryland Institute, College of Art won a national Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects for RTKL Associates.
But the recession put a damper on just about everything else, as local designers suffered from the same slowdown in work that plagued their colleagues all across the country. In fact, much of the year's design news involved projects that didn't move ahead as planned. The ambitious Worldbridge cultural center in Middle River died, and with it an intriguing design by Emilio Ambasz. Kentlands, the neotraditional community in Gaithersburg planned by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, was taken over by its lender. Tall buildings for downtown Baltimore by Kevin Roche and John Burgee went on the back burner, and developer Leonard Attman backed away from plans to buy part of Redwood Street to build an office tower.
What's particularly disconcerting about the dropoff in design work and subsequently layoffs among local firms is that they negate many of the gains made by the industry during the 1980s, when numerous talented young architects broke off from larger organizations and set up thriving businesses of their own. One looks to 1992 with a sense of trepidation for them, especially.
There is also a disturbing tendency on the part of many clients to settle for less quality during a recession. Government officials, in particular, tend to greet any new project with open arms, regardless of architectural merit, simply because it promises to generate new construction jobs and provide a sign of progress.
The proposed 75-foot-high replacement for the Severn River Bridge is one example of an ill-conceived project that would be devastating to the scenic waterway and the historic town of Annapolis, but planners insist on moving ahead because they have federal money in hand. The decision by the board of the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration to part ways with British architect Richard Rogers, after failing to reach agreement on a design contract, is another troubling sign. The danger is that recessions eventually go away, but bad buildings don't.
Not all the fallout from the recession was negative, though. It indirectly helped save a number of historic buildings by eliminating pressure from developers who might have been tempted to raze them and build something larger in a more robust economy. Among the buildings saved at the end of 1991 were the Hansa Haus (leased to a bakery and cafe), President Street Station (given a new roof but still in search of a use), Camden Station (the subject of an ambitious restoration that will be complete next spring) and the old Trolley Works building on Covington Street (slated for recycling as part of the American Visionary Arts Museum.)
At year's end, there was perhaps no more telling sign of the times than the opening of a $1 million replacement facility for the Our Daily Bread soup kitchen at Cathedral and Franklin streets. With most of the local glamour projects debuting during the first half of 1991, the soup kitchen was by default one of the more substantial projects to reach completion during the second half of the year. While the architects at Ayers Saint Gross could take satisfaction that they had a hand in creating it, others could simply be grateful if they hadn't yet become patrons.
The best of '91 . . .
* Museums: The Walters Art Gallery's Hackerman House renovation (Grieves, Worrall, Wright & O'Hatnick); the temporary museum inside the Greyhound bus terminal (Ziger Hoopes & Snead); and plans for the American Visionary Arts Museum (Rebecca Swanston and Alex Castro): Unusually diverse approaches to showcasing a wide range of art.
* Center Stage's Head Theater (Ziger Hoopes & Snead): A theater of infinite possibilities.
* Pier Six Concert Pavilion (FTL Associates): A Gothic cathedral on the water.
* Wolman and Ivy halls, Johns Hopkins University (Frank Gant Architects): Pragmatic renovations that helped save a part of vintage Baltimore that might have been wiped off the map.