Fabric canopy is Columbus Center's signature


October 15, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

The most provocative feature of Baltimore's newest showpiece, a $160 million marine research and education center planned for Piers 5 and 6, is the giant fabric canopy that will cover public exhibits on the building's west side.

Whenever designs for the Christopher Columbus Center of Marine Research and Exploration have been presented to Baltimore's architectural review board, panelists have raised sharp questions about that canopy:

How long will it last? How well will it hold up in cold weather? How will the city keep it clean? Why use such a seemingly impermanent material for such an important structure? What ever happened to the idea of building civic monuments that last for hundreds of years?

The design still has not received final approval from the city, although the basic concept of using a "Teflon-coated, fiberglass fabric" canopy has been approved. Architects from the Zeidler Roberts Partnership are scheduled to meet with the review panel again next month.

In a previous design, the translucent membrane was stretched over a steel skeleton so it looked like a giant mollusk.

In a revised design unveiled during groundbreaking ceremonies Monday, the canopy was still a prominent feature, sharing the site with a more conventional metal-and-glass laboratory building to the east.

"Extraordinary, evocative"

In this latest version, two layers of a high-strength, off-white roofing material called Sheerfill will be attached to four skylights above the exhibit area and draped like a curtain to meet the lab wing. Much of the design interest comes in the way the skylights pop out from the mountainous membrane like insect's eyes, or the headlights of a 1937 Cord convertible, or craters on a lunar landscape.

Stan Heuisler, president of the non-profit group building the center, calls the design "an extraordinary and evocative piece of architecture that the whole world is going to know and remember."

For the past several months, architects have been experimenting with different canopy designs and evaluating how well they meet their structural, aesthetic and cost criteria. Architect Eberhard Zeidler says he doesn't start out by trying to evoke a specific image, like that of a sail or a sea serpent. "What we try to make is the most efficient structure," he said.

Planners say it's wrong to think they have given up on the notion of building a structure that lasts. During the review process, they've prepared reports indicating that the life expectancy of a Teflon-coated fabric roof is at least 25 years and probably much more. They say it's hard to prove because such roofs haven't been in existence that long. The Columbus Center's canopy will be no less durable, they promise, than roofs on steel or masonry buildings -- many of which need to be replaced every 20 years or so.

The Columbus Center is part of a trend in which all kinds of buildings are going up with translucent membrane roofs. The new aquarium in Camden, N.J., has one. So does the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. So will the new Denver airport. Hospitals, hotels, shopping malls and convention centers are all being designed with fabric roofs. No longer valid are old connotations that the material is just for temporary tents. Mr. Zeidler has been a leader in exploring this construction technology.

How to clean it

While Teflon roofs may be the wave of the future, one part of the Columbus Center is decidedly old-fashioned. Planners say the best way to clean the Teflon surface is with a common household product: Murphy's Oil Soap. All the maintenance crew will have to do is spray on a solution of the stuff, they say, and the surface will be clean as new.

Considering how dingy the Pier 6 Concert Tent got after several years -- not to mention the heavy-duty pigeon droppings on City Hall -- one wonders if a household cleaner can really do the trick. If not, Columbus Center researchers may be able to find a better remedy.

As noted Monday by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the center will play a leading role in research related to "environmental cleanup." Perhaps its scientists will come up with a foolproof cleaner for this new generation of fabric roofs as one of their first discoveries.

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