Proposed Crab is more than a mere gimmick

ARCHITECTURE REVIEW

March 12, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

They can't be serious, can they?

A giant crab sculpture on Rash Field as the winner of a national competition to improve Baltimore's famous Inner Harbor?

Have the judges lost their minds? Overdosed on Old Bay seasoning?

Well, no, actually.

There's a method to the city's madness. As the architect Robert Venturi once said about Main Street, the Crab is almost all right. Almost exactly right.

The Crab, also known as "Blue Crab Park," is one of half a dozen "big ideas" proposed by a team of architects and landscape architects that just won the competition to redesign Rash Field and the west shore of the Inner Harbor.

It may or may not actually get built as part of Mayor Kurt L. `D Schmoke administration's $7.5 million plan to make the harbor-front more of a destination in time for Baltimore's Bicentennial in 1997.

For now, it's simply under consideration. Part of its shock value is that it seems more the kind of idea that would have been embraced by William Donald Schaefer when he was mayor, rather than the more reserved Schmoke.

The design team, headed by Martha Schwartz Inc. of Boston and Design Collective of Baltimore, won the competition by proposing a grab bag of ideas for drawing people to the Inner Harbor.

Though conceived as one of many components in a larger plan, the Crab generated the most response from the five jurors who reviewed it last month. It also has the potential to be the most controversial public sculpture since George Sugarman's "Baltimore Federal" piece appeared in front of the Garmatz federal courthouse in the 1970s.

Already, crabby naysayers are trashing the design as a dumb idea.

They say it would be the height of tackiness, and could be topped only by a monument to the beehive hairdo. They'd like to smash it with a giant Claes Oldenburg crab mallet.

But what makes the Crab far more than a competition-winning gimmick -- and worth pursuing as an element of the Inner Harbor make-over -- is that it can be read and enjoyed on any number of levels, many of which tap into deep-seated feelings about zTC Baltimore. It is:

* Buildable and functional. The crab would be created out of a series of grassy knolls, mounded so that people would be able to make out the crab outline only if they stood at the top of Federal Hill, or in one of the city's highrises. At wharf level, it would look like a curiously bumpy landscape. People would be able to picnic on it, jog around it or skate through it. Because they wouldn't be able to see the crab shape from most angles, the image wouldn't wear thin over time.

* Art with a capital A. The Crab is part of a design movement in which architects, landscape architects and environmental artists are searching for ways to enrich the built environment. Instead of plopping down pieces of abstract sculpture, they strive to create forms in the landscape that have meaning or tell a story. The Crab would put Baltimore at the forefront of this movement.

* Evocative and provocative: By blowing the Crab up to giant proportions, the designers conjure up all sorts of images: The Betty Boop and Woody Woodpecker floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Christo wrapping the Florida Keys in pink gauze. The Godzilla movies that emerged from Japan in the 1960s. This would be The Crab That Ate Baltimore -- or at least HarborView. It's the kind of image that sticks in your mind and grows on you.

* Very Baltimore. The crab is an enduring and recurring image for many Baltimoreans -- from the stained glass crab at BWI airport to the steamed variety at Obrycki's. This harbor crab appears to be a docile creature -- an amiable crab for amiable Baltimoreans. As seen in plan, it is quite elegant and stylized -- almost Art Deco in feel, like the stone horses in front of the War Memorial. One can picture plenty of spinoffs -- annual crab cake festivals, visits from "Santa Claws" at Christmastime. It would be a rallying point for crab lovers everywhere.

* Proof that Baltimore has a sense of humor. The city needs a lot of things more than a giant crab sculpture. But this is one of those cases where public funds are available for "open space" improvements and can't be shifted to hire police officers or teachers. By commissioning a whimsical crab instead of a more pretentious sculpture, Baltimore would be showing that it doesn't take itself too seriously.

With Baltimore's Bicentennial three years away, there's still plenty of time to study pros and cons of building the Crab -- and the Natural History Spiral and the Neighborhood Walk and all the other ideas up for consideration.

Alternatives

Planners need to find out what the Crab would look like in the winter, when the grass turns brown. Costs must be calculated, and alternative uses should be weighed. Some might argue that since Rash Field was designed to be a football field, and Baltimore now has a team in the Canadian Football League, it would be the logical place for the team to practice.

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