Of Richard Burns Up-and-coming architect has a vision, and it's changing Baltimore's image


June 27, 1993|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

From the outside, it's a simple-looking thing, a nondescript bungalow that you'd be half-inclined to overlook in the green hills of Oella. The white shingles and red roof have much to compete with in these parts, most of all the Patapsco River, which rushes by where the yard ends.

You find Richard Burns here on a steamy Saturday morning, smiling and shirttail out, as sweat trickles down his face. He's been working for hours, cleaning up wood scraps and empty paint cans from his house, a building he's taken to calling "this damn house," since its renovation is approaching the two-year mark.

For architects, there are extra pressures in designing their own homes. Rich Burns is no exception. If anything, his task may be even tougher. He is envied and admired these days, since landing some of the city's most sought-after projects -- all during a time when many firms are downscaling or just plain dying.

"From the outside, I wanted it to be modest," he says, walking into his home. "Not until you come into the house did I want you to get a surprise."

Simple outside, slick within. He points to the polished concrete blocks that line the fireplace, shows off the industrial metal pipes that double as banisters and leans against the only piece of furniture in the place -- his Le Corbusier chaise.

"Nothing screams in this house," he says. "I wanted it to be strong and powerful but quiet. Driving by, it's unassuming. You have to know it to realize there's all this happening inside."

The words echo through this empty space. You wonder for a moment, though, whether he's talking about the house or himself.


Rich Burns is not given to self-analysis. Sure, he'll discuss his partners, his clients, his mother, his high school girlfriend, the Dalmatian he hopes to own soon. Just don't ask him to sit and yak about life, motivation, blah blah blah . . .

Dressed in a blue pinstriped suit, tortoise-shell glasses and bow-tie, he sits in his office, looking every inch the thinking-man's architect. With his Keith Haring prints, Saab convertible and car phone, he seems the essence of hip. Yet, he's also refreshingly un-hip, ordering tuna on white toast for lunch, living with his mother in Westminster (until his home is finished) and wearing Hush Puppy-style shoes.

As the design partner for Design Collective, the Baltimore firm he owns with two other architects, his style sets the tone for all projects -- whether it's a modest townhouse community or a sprawling entertainment complex.

These days he's thinking big. There's the HarborView high-rise he's nearly finished; the conversion of the Power Plant he's about to begin; and a new health sciences library for the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus in the works.

"I hope my work lifts the human spirit," says Mr. Burns, 41.

Others in the design community believe it does.

"He's the best -- cutting edge, avant-garde, very creative," says Henry Johnson, a partner in Johnson/Berman, an architecture and interior design firm that has worked with Mr. Burns for years. "We discovered him a long time ago. Now one of Baltimore's best-kept secrets has been found."

Mr. Burns has become so immersed in urban projects that he and his two partners -- Dennis Jankiewicz and Ed Kohls -- recently changed the name and location of their 43-employee firm, moving from Columbia to Baltimore and dropping Columbia from the company's name. (It was formerly called Columbia Design Collective.)

That will make life easier during their next job, the renovation of the Power Plant into Sports Center U.S.A., a museum and entertainment complex. Mr. Burns landed the job after entering a national design competition that involved sketching renovations for the exterior.

But Mr. Burns did much more than that. In addition to redesigning the facade, he created interior spaces -- and a promenade that would act as a gateway linking the Power Plant to the rest of the Inner Harbor.

"His firm went beyond the depth that anyone else did. They over-prepared and were over-passionate. That's what set them apart," says Lynda O'Dea, president of Sports Center U.S.A.

Passion for buildings

When it comes to architecture, Rich Burns is indeed passionate.

Tooling around town in his mustard-yellow Saab, he's late for a meeting. Yet that doesn't stop him from critiquing the scenery.

On Light Street, he spies the USF&G building: "I like this building, the simplicity of it. But it's isolated. I wish it did more for the city."

The Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, blocks away, gets less favorable reviews. "It's anti-urban and anti-people. It's this exposed-concrete form."

Scarlett Place fares the worst. "A 15-story brick wall. It's very unfriendly. It's like a fortress."

As for his own success, it's often attributed to talent and his chameleon-like abilities as an architect.

"You learn very quickly that to be a good architect you've got to be an artist, a politician, a community activist," he says.

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