Architects have gone back to the drawing board to design ambitious new projects THE YEAR 1993 IN REVIEW

December 26, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

A Venetian-style canal in the middle of Market Place. A performing arts center in the Mount Royal cultural district. An "avenue of the arts" along the Howard Street corridor.

Had anyone suggested two years ago that these ideas were being entertained by the fiscally conservative Schmoke administration, much less endorsed, he or she might have been laughed out of the room.

But a funny thing happened on the way out of the recession. And it signifies a new attitude about design that is taking hold all over Maryland.

After three years of limited budgets and lowered sights, 1993 was the year many of the region's architects and urban designers began to dream again -- if only on paper.

Maryland has certainly not shaken its economic doldrums entirely; plenty of talented designers remain out of work. But for many, 1993 was a turning-point year when they finally could lighten up, loosen up and think more expansively about the future.

Many of the better local buildings that opened during the past year, such as the Peabody Inn by Murphy & Dittenhafer, or the Barrister Court Apartments by Cho, Wilks & Benn, were relatively low-budget rehabilitation projects that demonstrated local designers could pinch pennies and still come up with splendid additions to the cityscape.

The beacon-topped condominium tower at 100 Harborview Drive brought new life to South Baltimore, while showcasing the talents of Baltimore native Richard Burns and his firm, Design Collective. Perhaps the most important new building in the country was James Ingo Freed's emotional blockbuster, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

The focus on paper architecture came about largely by default. Forced by a sluggish economy to rechannel their creativity, young architects turned to the realm of ideas to express their aspirations of city-making, since little was actually getting built. Public officials, unable to point to the completion of many new buildings in the private sector, also turned their attention to the paper world of renderings and blueprints to drum up support for future projects.

Economic downturns have always been good times for long-range planning. By year's end, the ideas were coming fast and furious, with designers exploring everything from an overhaul of the Inner Harbor shoreline to a new museum devoted to vaudeville. Some of the wackier ideas may be dismissed as the random ruminations of architects pent up in their drafting studios for too long. But for the most part, it was a sign that local designers were regaining their sense of optimism.

The best example of this new optimism is Baltimore's $12.5 million plan to turn a 2 1/2 -block stretch of Market Place into a faux canal, complete with old-time barges and fishing schooners doubling as vendors' kiosks and outdoor cafes.

The goal was to draw people from the Inner Harbor up to the Brokerage complex, future site of a $20 million children's center. In search of a bold solution, the Baltimore Development Corp. and its on-call planners, Anshen + Allen, hired New York-based designer and eco-sculptor James Wines of SITE Inc. He conceived the idea for the canal -- actually three separate, non-navigable pools -- and showed how to make it work. Some have criticized the design as another example of piecemeal planning around the Inner Harbor -- a serious problem in the past. But it's also the kind of serendipitous thinking that Baltimore hasn't seen for some time.

The Market Place canal is just one of many ideas on the drawing boards for Baltimore. A mayoral task force formed to revive the Howard Street corridor wants to save three historic theaters -- the Hippodrome, the Mayfair and the Town. Five architects have been chosen to generate new ideas for Rash Field. Several more are beginning studies for a 2,700-seat performing-arts center in the Mount Royal cultural center.

So far, the proposed theater has sparked the biggest controversy -- a debate over whether it should be on Howard Street or the waterfront. Wherever it ends up, an important job for planners will be to figure out what to do with the Morris Mechanic Theatre, so it doesn't become a black hole in the middle of Charles Center.

One of the year's highlights came in July, when the All-Star Game came to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Baltimore's newfangled, old-fashioned ballpark has done more to get people interested in architecture than any other local building in a generation. The accompanying effort by local building owners to light up the Baltimore skyline for the All-Star Game was a smashing success.

One of the biggest disappointments of 1993 is that state officials weren't able to proceed with construction of a companion football stadium in Camden Yards because Baltimore didn't get an NFL expansion team. State officials can and should still proceed with plans to create a waterfront greenway that was designed to link the second stadium with the Inner Harbor.

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