Arts center delay doesn't bode well for the architects

March 25, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

Don't look for the "beached whale" to take shape on Baltimore's skyline any time soon. Don't expect to see the work of "Mr. Adobe" either. Sponsors of the design competition held to select an architect for the $60 million performing arts center proposed for the Mount Royal cultural district don't appear close to announcing a winner.

More than a month has passed since a six-member jury met to review presentations by four prominent architects vying for the commission to design a two-theater arts center on the former Baltimore Life Insurance Co. property at 901 N. Howard St.

The Friends of the Performing Arts, the private group planning the project, said it would announce a winner on Feb. 25. But the date came and went without any announcements or any explanation for the delay.

This is not a good sign for any of the competitors -- groups headed by Antoine Predock, Arata Isozaki, Rafael Vinoly and a Toronto-based firm called Lett/Smith. Even if one team were selected now, it would always be remembered as the group that made such a lukewarm impression it took a month to declare a winner.

No builders of a $60 million project -- especially one this important to Baltimore's future -- should begin working with an architect with whom they are anything less than ecstatic. It is a formula for disaster.

Planners have several options: They could still announce a winner and begin working with that team to design the center. They could try to marry more than one of the competitors. Or they could reject all the entries and find another way to pick a designer. The sponsors left themselves that option by reserving the right not to award a design contract due to "lack of funds or dissatisfaction with the design proposals," among other reasons.

Still weighing options

Hope Quackenbush, leader of the Friends of the Performing Arts and one of the six jurors, said this week she is still weighing her options for the state-owned site and will disclose a plan of action as soon as she can.

The former head of Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, a non-profit group that operates the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Mrs. Quackenbush said she wants to confer with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Gov. William Donald Schaefer before making any announcements. In the meantime, she has declined to reveal how the jury ranked the finalists.

Mrs. Quackenbush added that she has been focusing on the status of the city's request to the state legislature for $250,000 to begin designing the center -- money that presumably would be used to hire the competition winner.

The concern about money is just one reason for the lack of an announcement. In a meeting with the Mount Royal Improvement Association this month, Mrs. Quackenbush said that while each design contained some elements that the jury liked, none of the competitors satisfied the jury completely.

"We got some remarkable designs," she said. "We got some real doozies. One of them looked a little bit like a beached whale" -- an apparent reference to a rounded, curving form proposed by Arata Isozaki.

But "there is not one obvious winner," she went on to say. "We have not made a decision."

The designs presented on Feb. 22 were widely divergent.

Mr. Predock -- who jokingly calls himself 'Mr. Adobe' because he comes from Albuquerque, N.M. -- proposed an "urban chandelier" featuring crystalline glass shapes set against white marble and metal.

Mr. Isozaki, from Tokyo, proposed lozenge-shaped buildings clad metal.

Peter Smith of Lett/Smith proposed the most conventional complex, a compact pair of side-by-side theaters that picked up the architectural vocabulary of the Mount Vernon historic district.

A mini-Times Square

And Mr. Vinoly proposed a high-tech, mini-version of New York's Times Square.

The other jurors have not discussed their reactions. But to anyone in the audience during the presentations, it was easy to see what Mrs. Quackenbush meant when she said there was no clear winner.

For the competitors, the key to winning the competition was to do more than just design a beautiful sculptural object, like the Sydney [Australia] Opera House. That may have worked for a waterfront setting. But in this case, the winner also had to design a building that would help the entire area by reinforcing its identity as Baltimore's cultural center.

It had to establish links with the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and the Maryland Institute and the state office complex. It had to work smoothly with Howard Street and the light rail line. It had to draw people who would spill out into the streets before and after performances. In short, it had to do for the Mount Royal district what Oriole Park does for Camden Yards. Otherwise, the state would be wasting the land.

The buildings by Mr. Predock, Mr. Isozaki and Lett/Smith, while interesting to one degree or another as objects, were primarily inward-oriented structures that would do little for the surrounding area. All seemed better suited to a waterfront site than to the cultural district.

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