Aquarium designer opposes mural


August 12, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

When the environmental artist known as Wyland came to Baltimore this week to paint a "whaling wall" -- a large mural of a life-sized whale -- his mission was to raise public awareness about whales and the need to save the oceans.

In the process, though, he's stirring up a whale of a controversy about public art in Baltimore -- and where it does and doesn't belong.

The site of Wyland's Baltimore mural -- the 11th of 17 he's painting along the East Coast this summer -- is the Lee Electric Co. building at Hamburg and Russell streets.

But Wyland says his first choice for a site was the National Aquarium in Baltimore. He even picked out a wall for it -- the north side of the building on Pier 3, facing Pratt Street.

"The aquarium is a great building, but it could be that much greater," he said. "That wall is just a big, blank, cement wall. It would be the perfect whaling wall. It would be in total harmony with the aquarium."

The aquarium turned down Wyland's request to paint a mural on Pier 3. But this week the artist brought the matter up with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who visited the Lee Electric site to proclaim Tuesday "Whaling Wall Day" in Baltimore. The mayor praised the artist's work but said his request to paint a second mural at the aquarium needs further discussion.

"Apparently, there was some split on the [aquarium] board," the mayor said. "Let's just get this first mural finished, and when he's done, we can revisit the issue."

David Pittenger, the aquarium's deputy executive director, said any proposed changes to the city-owned aquarium have to be approved by Baltimore's Architectural Review Board, and it was not possible to complete the review process in time to meet Wyland's tour schedule.

The aquarium staff also consulted with the building's architect, Peter Chermayeff, a world-renowned aquarium designer with Cambridge Seven Associates.

Interviewed from Boston, Mr. Chermayeff said he was driving past one of Wyland's murals as he spoke on his car phone. He said he supports murals that brighten derelict buildings and invigorate sterile areas but is opposed to a mural on the aquarium.

"I admire the man's energy and talent," Mr. Chermayeff said. "But that doesn't make it appropriate to change a distinguished building which is a work of art in its own right. I don't think it's appropriate for the National Aquarium, not the front door of the building. I wish him well, but not there."

Mr. Chermayeff said Cambridge Seven always tries to incorporate art with architecture and did so in Baltimore. "It's my life's work."

But he said the wall that Wyland wants to paint is part of a complex composition that was designed for its total effect. The building's striated concrete walls, he explained, were conceived a backdrop against which more colorful forms and graphics are juxtaposed, from an orange pipe sculpture and neon lights to the blue escalator wall and colorful signal flag graphics. If the north wall were covered with a mural, he said, the composition would be unbalanced.

"Those walls, though plain, are not simply left over, waiting for a mural," Mr. Chermayeff said. "I'm not pleased that he should assume that blank surface is there as an opportunity for him. I don't want to be part of his postage stamp collection, one of a series of buildings where he has painted murals. I'd prefer it if he would leave a distinguished building alone and find some other place in the city where he could make a difference."

Walter Sondheim, chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee and former head of the agency that guides downtown development, agrees that the review board should be consulted. Works by Mark di Suvero, Kenneth Snelson and other noted artists all had to be reviewed, he said. "What he's proposing would be a major change for that building," he said.

The Inner Harbor lost two rare black pine trees yesterday, chopped down in their prime. The trees were rare because they were on the 10th floor "sky patio" of the office building at 400 E. Pratt St., a space vacated recently by RTKL Associates Inc. Visible for blocks, they were a conversation piece on the skyline because of their unusual location.

The space is being renovated for a new tenant, the W. B. Doner & Co. advertising agency. No one at Doner would return phone calls yesterday to explain why the trees got the ax.

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