Columbus Center plan neither fish nor fowl


March 22, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

For all its success as a people magnet, Baltimore's Inner Harbor has always been an either-or kind of place. Unless they live there, most people go either for business or pleasure; very few go for both at the same time. And the harbor front has become a repository of buildings that address one need or the other almost exclusively.

The lines began to blur several years ago when the Gallery at Harborplace complex at Pratt and Calvert streets opened, with large spaces reflecting both sides of the Inner Harbor -- offices for business, and a shopping gallery and hotel for leisure time. But its outward appearance was mostly corporate.

Now the Gallery's architect, Eberhard Zeidler of the Zeidler Roberts Partnership, has come back with another harbor project that is likely to blur the lines even more. Proposed for the northern half of Piers 5 and 6, the Christopher Columbus Center of Marine Research and Exploration will combine laboratories for marine biotechnology with exhibit space where visitors can see scientists at work. Responding to this dual mission, Mr. Zeidler conceived a building that attempts to sum up everything that the Inner Harbor is about under one roof: work and play. Public and private. Imagination and reality. Rather than being another either-or building, it's Baltimore's first both-and building.

The Toronto-based architect then went even further out on a limb and proposed that the public half take on a kind of zoomorphic imagery, intended to reflect the activities inside. Its chief feature would be a white ribbed Teflon skin that looks as if a giant sea serpent has taken up residence on the Inner Harbor. "Like a giant shell or a mollusk," the architect says, "the sculptured white roof form will stand out during the day and glow like a beacon in the night."

What Mr. Zeidler may have created is the world's first "mer-building" -- half fish and half building. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke dubbed it "Science on the Half Shell." The question is: Does it deserve to sink or swim?

As sea creatures go, the Columbus Center image is not particularly scary, like Jules Verne's killer squid, or trendy, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It has more of a benign, naive quality, like the friendly sea serpent of the old Beanie and Cecil cartoons, or Puff the Magic Dragon.

The organic roof would cover a 33,300-square-foot exhibition area on the west side of the pier, with entrances on the north and south. It would adjoin a five-level laboratory building on the east, a metal and glass structure with subdued high-tech detailing. Under the canopy, visitors would be able to see through a glass wall into the research area, and elements such as a diver's training tank would animate the space.

The idea of splitting the pier down the middle offers several organizational advantages. It results in a plan that is simple to follow and promotes activity along Pratt Street as well as the water's edge. It works well with the idea of putting cars out of sight below wharf-level, and leaves space for a skating rink on the south. Most intriguing is the chance to explore dualities: serious-whimsical. Hard-soft. Organic-inorganic. The possibilities are endless.

As the architects move from a preliminary planning stage into a more detailed level of design, however, the serpentine solution remains more than a little troublesome. One source of concern is the material recommended for the public side -- a fiberglass-reinforced Teflon skin that would be stretched over a steel frame. It is surprisingly lightweight, not unlike the surface of the nearby Pier 6 concert tent. For the Columbus Center's budget of $161 million ($76 million for actual construction), one might have thought the city would get something a bit more substantial. One also has to wonder whether it will stay white for long; the old Pier 6 tent certainly didn't.

Mr. Zeidler said he has worked with this material before and believes the roof could last 25 years or more. And he promises the non-stick Teflon will be self-cleaning. But even if that is the case, the building's appearance still seems inconsistent with the mission of a world-class scientific institution. Whether it's permanent or not, the side facing the Inner Harbor looks temporary, flimsy, frivolous. It's a tepee, a child's pup tent, a World's Fair pavilion. Along with the Pier 6 music shell, it would turn the area into Tent City. And if it looks lightweight, it could send the message that science is lightweight.

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