To Represent Baltimore: A Giant Crab? Replicas of Rowhouses?

March 06, 1994|By EDWARD GUNTS

TC Welcome to Baltimore, Hon!

What could say that better than a giant crab sculpture in the middle of Rash Field? Or a simulated row of brick houses with marble steps along Light Street? How about miniature replicas of Fort McHenry, the B&O Railroad Museum and the city markets, right by the waterfront?

Architects and planners have all sorts of ideas for improving Baltimore's famed Inner Harbor shoreline. But they seem to agree on one thing: When it comes right down to it, there really isn't much of Baltimore in the Inner Harbor.

Of the five teams of architects, landscape architects and artists that the Schmoke administration invited to take part in a 10-week design competition to generate ideas for the shoreline, all to one degree or another suggested that what the Inner Harbor really needs is more of a sense of the living, breathing, marble steps-scrubbing Baltimore.

"People can get the wrong impression about Baltimore by coming just to the Inner Harbor," Dennis Carmichael, a landscape architect with EDAW Inc. of northern Virginia, said last month during his presentation to a five-member jury. "If all they remember is Harborplace, the Hyatt and the Convention Center, that's not all Baltimore is."

"The Inner Harbor should be the front door to the city," Martha Schwartz, a landscape architect from Boston, said in her presentation. "It should reflect the cultural and natural history of the place."

History and hype

The competition was held to generate ideas for improving a 20-acre parcel including Rash Field and the west shoreline of the Inner Harbor -- already the city's front yard -- and making it a "major destination" unto itself. The city has tentatively budgeted $7.5 million to carry out an initial phase of work in time for the 200th anniversary of Baltimore's incorporation in 1997.

Winners will be announced later this week. And judging from the recent presentations, deciding exactly how to add that missing sense of the real Baltimore will be an important theme no matter who is tapped to chart a new course for the harborfront.

There can be a fine line, after all, between history and hype, heritage and hokeyness. The trick is figuring out how to acknowledge Baltimore's quirks and foibles -- its "Hon"-ness -- without descending into kitsch.

The five design teams offered a range of approaches to the problem, dividing roughly into two philosophical camps.

On one end of the spectrum were designers who were unabashed about putting more signs of Baltimore around the Inner Harbor. They contend that the modern buildings and open spaces are pleasant enough but don't really give visitors a sense of what the city is all about.

The team headed by Ms. Schwartz and Baltimore native Richard Burns of Design Collective made its point with a series of witty visual vignettes. The most outrageous one was "Blue Crab Park," a crab-shaped bas relief that landscape artists would create by sculpting mounds of earth.

To people passing by at wharf level, the area would look like a series of grassy knolls. But when seen from Federal Hill, the crab would reveal itself.

The same designers proposed that the harborfront be illuminated by lampposts with large translucent blue crabs on top. They designed a "natural history spiral" that would take people from wharf level into the harbor.

They want to re-create rowhouse facades with white marble steps as the enclosure for a 1,200-foot-long "neighborhood walk" that would tell visitors all about city communities. Each part of their plan was intended to remind visitors exactly where they are.

Mr. Carmichael, working with Grieves, Worrall, Wright and O'Hatnick of Baltimore, and local artists Linda DePalma and Paul Daniel, took a similar approach. He recommended that the west shore be turned into a series of exhibits touting Baltimore's heritage in shipping, railroading, industry, architecture and other fields.

As part of the competition, the city wanted each team to designate a location for a visitors center to replace the one at Pratt and Howard Streets. In effect, Mr. Carmichael's group recommended that the entire west shoreline be turned into a visitors center. "When you walk away, you should know more about Baltimore and the bay," he said.

Avoiding provincialism

On the other end of the spectrum were the groups that stopped short of making Baltimore the central theme of their designs.

A joint venture of Schnadelbach Associates and Crozier Associates recommended that the shoreline be transformed into series of lush gardens, with themes such as Earth, Wind, Sun and Water.

Landscape architect George Hargreaves called for the shoreline be a stage set for exhibits that focused on "the interface between man and water."

And James Wines of SITE Inc. proposed the "Harbor Arbor," a living sculpture that would connect all the disparate spaces one now finds along the promenade.

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