Will Charm City turn into Venice on the Patapsco?

March 27, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

If you can't take the museum to the waterfront, then take the waterfront to the museum.

That's the premise behind Baltimore's "faux canal," the $12.5 million combination floating open-air market, urban sculpture park and outdoor history museum planned for the stretch of Market Place between Pratt and Water streets.

It wouldn't be a navigable canal but an elaborate public sculpture that simulates a boat-filled waterway. The goal is to extend the allure of the city's refurbished harbor front into the heart of the city, encouraging people walking along the Inner Harbor to venture three blocks in land to visit the proposed Baltimore Children's Museum at 34 Market Place, as well as the soon-to-reopen Fishmarket nightclub complex.

New York environmental artist James Wines, working with Anshen & Allen of Baltimore, unveiled plans for it last fall.

Since then, the redevelopment of that area has gained momentum with the announcements that NationsBank donated $3 million to help build the museum and that developer David Cordish wants to reopen the Fishmarket starting in June. In November, city voters will be asked to approve a bond issue that would provide initial funding for the canal and other revitalization projects.

The canal concept has taken knocks from skeptics who question going to such lengths to transform Market Place. They say the corridor could simply be spruced up and converted from a car-oriented thoroughfare to a pedestrian-oriented one.

But what makes Mr. Wines' vision so appealing is his desire to do more than provide a gateway to the emerging museum and entertainment district. He wants to make Market Place a destination in itself -- and his canal may be just the way to do it.

"The waterfront sells," Mr. Wines argues. "Look at Florida. Look at Venice. Look at all the canal cities in the world. The allure of the waterfront draws people. That's the principle here. Psychologically, people connect to it."

As the head of SITE, a 23-year-old multidisciplinary design firm that stands for Sculpture in the Environment, Mr. Wines is one of the most creative and charismatic designers working in America today. Though based in New York, he has strong ties to Baltimore. He grew up in the area and graduated from Towson High School in 1951. The canal would be his first Maryland project since 1978, when his "Tilt Building" for Best Products Co. opened in Towson.

An art historian and sculptor before he began designing buildings, Mr. Wines has gained widespread attention for espousing a philosophy he calls "De-Architecture." For him, architecture is an intellectual exercise, a vehicle for social commentary rather than an end in itself. While others experiment with form and structure and style, he strives to create buildings ,, that have meaning and provoke thought. The canal is very much part of that continuum.

As designed for the Baltimore Development Corp., the canal would actually be a series of 3-foot-deep, 44-foot-wide channels of water that would occupy the west side of Market Place. It is conceived as a visual extension of the inlet between Inner Harbor Piers 4 and 5, but a narrow roadway would also be retained on one side so cars could drive through. Near the children's museum would be a 1-foot-deep canal, shallow enough for children to wade in, and kid-sized boats.

These shallow bodies of water would serve as a starting point for the architects to explore a number of other ideas about the city and the waterfront. The canal would be filled with a fleet of authentic old-time barges and fishing schooners doubling as vendors' kiosks and outdoor cafes. Nautical flags, cranes with large banners and an array of food and crafts would bring color to the corridor. The canal would also feature a variety of artifacts created by local artists, keyed to a nautical theme and "flowing" together to create one interactive collage.

The boats serving as commercial kiosks would be collected from various local sources, painted in their natural colors and conditioned for the normal use of a sea-going vessel. Alongside these floating vessels would be a series of beached "ghost boats" -- replicas of oyster-tonging vessels and other crafts that once plied the bay -- forming a harbor scene in monochrome, as if it were frozen in time and slowly fading away.

These ghost boats would be created through a variety of techniques, such as covering actual objects with a monochromatic finish, and casting hulls in concrete or fiberglass. Soft objects, such as furled sails, ropes and life preservers, would be cast in metal or stone to ensure durability.

What the designers are creating with this interplay between real boats and fading ghost boats is an outdoor museum that alludes both to the present-day waterfront and to Baltimore's past as a working waterfront. It doesn't advocate turning back the clock, but says those days shouldn't be forgotten. It says there are still plenty of traces of Baltimore's maritime history for anyone who cares to notice.

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