Unflinching design has earned library for handicapped both awards and criticism Hardhearted Structure

ARCHITECTURE REVIEW

November 14, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

The Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is an intentionally provocative architectural statement that calls attention to the needs of the disabled with all the decorum of Ted Danson in blackface.

With a prominently lidded north window that has prompted pundits to dub it the Seeing Eye Building, and a heavy entrance canopy that exudes the warmth of a prosthetic device, this $8.6 million public library comes perilously close to making fun of the very patrons it was built to serve.

Urban structures designed with such a brash, in-your-face spirit usually don't sit comfortably with their neighbors -- and this one is no exception. Perched at the southeast corner of Park Avenue and Franklin Street, it looks more like a Los Angeles disco than a fitting companion to the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Yet for confronting the needs of the blind and disabled in such unblinking fashion, the library's architects recently won the Grand Award in the annual design program sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects. And given the present climate of political correctness, it wouldn't be surprising to see them rack up even more awards.

Maryland's newest library, dedicated Aug. 30, was tapped for the honor in a year when the local architects' chapter, following a national trend, revised the competition guidelines to encourage recognition of "architecture in the public interest."

Philadelphia architects Susan Maxman, Peter Bohlin and Alan Greenberger, who judged 70 entries by reviewing boards containing photos, drawings and descriptions of each project, praised the library's "compelling, urbane presence" and "sophisticated use of materials." The plan is "simple and elegant," they added. There is a "clear and convincing relationship to the primary external gestures"; it is "particularly gratifying as a public project."

While the sentiment to recognize socially responsible works is healthy, and the library's mission is certainly worthy, the out-of-town jury could not have picked a more controversial building to receive the top honor.

Beneath the architectural pyrotechnics lurks a hardhearted structure that seems to be in the public's worst interest, an assertive and willfully disturbing creation that sends all the wrong messages about what is acceptable in architecture today.

Before construction began in early 1991, it was sharply criticized by two local design review panels for failing to fit in with its neighbors in the Cathedral Hill historic district.

The project reflects surprisingly lavish spending of taxpayer dollars, including imported steel radiators, an indoor copper roof over the Park Avenue entrance and expensive Artemide lights, which have a list price of $460 per fixture (plus $28 for each light bulb). The three-story-high reading room must run up quite a heating bill.

With information counters too high for people in wheelchairs and sharp edges at every turn (particularly on the metallic balcony railings and other metal objects), the library doesn't even comply fully with the latest federal guidelines for making buildings accessible to the disabled.

The architects say they completed their design work just before those federal guidelines -- the Americans with Disabilities Act -- went into effect, and time constraints prevented revisions that weren't absolutely necessary. But library officials point out the building does have plenty of features for sight-impaired patrons, including a tactile diagram of the floor plan, an electronic print-to-Braille translator and a talking, computerized catalog of the collection.

Still, the choice of such a strident and unsettling building as the best work of local architecture for 1993 raises questions about the validity of an awards program that allows out-of-town jurors to bestow honors on buildings without ever visiting them.

It also suggests the philosophical confusion that can arise when organizers of a design awards program start to encourage "special recognition" for socially responsible (read: P.C.) architecture.

Unusual project

The 46,000-square-foot library was designed by Ayers Saint Gross Inc. to replace a smaller facility inside a former midtown bowling alley. The city donated a site just west of the central Enoch Pratt Free Library for the state operation, which serves 17,000 patrons a year. L-shaped in plan, the building has three levels underground and two above.

What makes this project so unusual is that many patrons will never visit the building, much less see it. The library offers more than 200,000 books and 80 magazine titles in audio, Braille and large-print format, but more than 95 percent of its circulation is through the mail. In many respects, it has been more of a post office than a conventional library.

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