Columbus Center bids 'to jolt you' It will face harbor like ship set to sail


September 16, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

The design of the $160 million Columbus Center is intentionally schizophrenic -- half festive exhibit hall, half serious science lab.

But a recent design modification cleverly pulls the two halves together, visually and thematically.

It involves placing the building on a curved platform, juxtaposed against an unusual environmental exhibit.

The shape of the platform strongly suggests a ship's deck, with the bow facing toward the harbor and the stern facing Pratt Street. It will be covered in studded carbon steel or patterned concrete that recalls ship's decking -- a sharp contrast to the brick promenade around the rest of the Inner Harbor.

Near the south end of this curving deck will be a sunken area containing a freshwater marsh exhibit, with natural grasses and other plants indigenous to the Chesapeake Bay region. Reaching in from the harbor to meet the arc of the implied ship's deck, this triangular "water feature" will be an evocative abstraction of an estuarine environment. A series of four wooden gangplanks will cross it, providing access to the front entrance.

The Columbus Center, now under construction on Piers 5 and 6 and due to open in early 1995, will contain a national research center for marine biotechnology, a center for marine archaeology, a training and development facility, and a three-level exhibition hall beneath a Teflon-coated fabric roof.

Hargreaves Associates, a San Francisco-based landscape architecture firm, won a national competition earlier this year to design $4 million worth of landscaping and site improvements around the center.

While its competitors focused on geometrical layouts of plantings and ways to maintain vehicular access to Harrison's Inn, Hargreaves came up with a poetic metaphor that suits both the mission of the center and the design of the building, by Zeidler Roberts Partnership.

Designers George Hargreaves, Glenn Allen, Mary Margaret Jones and their associates started with the notion that the Columbus Center is "embarking on a voyage into the unexplored," and that the voyage is "a quest for knowledge and discovery," not unlike the one Christopher Columbus made 500 years ago. That premise led to the idea of turning the entire landscape into a vessel.

The landscaping portions of the project will take shape starting next spring and be complete by fall. The plaza will be the "people-place surrounding the center," the designers say, while the marsh is "the event which celebrates the meeting of land and water."

Hargreaves is a 10-year-old firm with a reputation for creating designs whose impact comes from metaphor, allegory and illusion. Since winning the competition, it has added a local consultant, Catherine Mahan and Associates.

Initially, the designers didn't know whether it would be feasible to create a marsh, and they weren't certain whether a metal deck would be too hot in the summer. In recent months, Mr. Allen said, the designers have satisfied themselves that the marsh can, indeed, be created as a self-contained ecosystem, but the second issue is still under study.

Metal decking can warm to 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. On especially hot days, would such a surface turn Pier 5 into a giant griddle, so hot that no one would want to visit? Might children fall and injure themselves on the searing metal, leaving the city vulnerable to lawsuits?

If it turns out to be inadvisable to use metal, designers say, the team will go with patterned concrete poured to resemble studded metal. "Obviously, we're not going to put in something that people are going to trip on and fry," Mr. Hargreaves said. But "the more you can contrast with the promenade, the better it's going to be."

One hopes they can pull it off. The metal decking is unusual, but that's exactly what Hargreaves Associates was trying to create -- a design that would get attention.

"It's meant to jolt you, to put you in a frame of mind so you'll back up and start thinking about some of the larger issues involved in the project," Mr. Hargreaves said.

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