Columbus Center inspires 'What is it?' but shows great promise

August 01, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

The Columbus Center wins the award for the Inner Harbor's least understood $160 million project.

"What is it?" seems to be the most-asked question about the curious-looking building at Pratt Street and Market Place.

But about a year from now visitors will be lining up for shows at the Horseshoe Crab Theatre. Or walking through the cavity of a huge rockfish that has nearly everything except the scent of a dead striped bass. Or learning some of the secrets of a living cell. Or walking along a concrete stairway shaped like a DNA strand.

And while other Inner Harbor attractions are landscaped with beds of geraniums and petunias, the Columbus Center will have its own man-made wetland saturated with rain water collected from its swooping roof. This freshwater marsh will be planted with nursery-grown species called common three-square, pickerelweed and lizard tail.

The center is an ambitious concept designed to be one-fifth exhibit hall and four-fifths laboratory.

During the summer of 1994, it looks like an eccentric building with eyes of an insect (the skylights), the legs of a grasshopper (exterior ducts) and the canvas of a circus tent (the exhibit hall). The place seems intentionally unconventional, eye-catching and a little crazy. If some people don't care for its appearance, that's because the place is carefully calculated to be looked at. It insists you give it your attention.

Check out the interior drain pipes that plumbers are installing this summer. The pipes are clear glass so they won't corrode. And what about those pipe-like chambers on the Little Italy side of the building? They are fume-hood journals, part of the system that removes impurities from the air. And just in case you don't believe this place is for real, the part of the center that is scientific lab is white in color; the parts that correspond to administration are gray.

"Twenty percent of the building is to tell people what is going on in the other 80 percent of the building," says J. Stanley Heuisler, the center's director and moving force.

The center's lack of recognition has as much to do with ignorance of marine biotechnology, defined as "the utilization of marine organisms for industrial and commercial application." In other words, the scientists here might one day figure out what binds barnacles to a ship's hull and use that adhesive for a glue sold in a hardware store.

There is a philosophical intent under the giant display tent -- it's the big white Teflon-coated, Fiberglas-impregnated awning that faces the Power Plant. Its exhibits are being designed to arrest the imaginations of the many young visitors the place is expected to have. The center is being designed to appeal to curious young minds, especially those who might want to pursue marine biotechnology. The goal is to make science attractive and non-threatening.

Technophobes, defined as people who are scared of science and technology, are supposed to exit the center shouting, "I'm not afraid of marine biology. I can hack it!"

The designers are taking commonplace Maryland aquatic symbols -- such as horseshoe crabs, lighthouses and striped bass (rockfish) -- and using them as design models. The horseshoe crab, an ancient form of life that appears on local beaches in late spring, becomes the form for the center's 40-seat theater. The gills on the walk-through rockfish will move. The lighthouse beacon will be the computer brain center.

The staircase, which winds through the air like a bouncy kite, is made of heavily reinforced concrete.

"The stairway replicates a strand of DNA," says Columbus Center employee Wayne Wiggins.

The trick, of course, is to make the large displays compelling and non-static, or the "total immersion experience" the place is being touted as. Certainly the exhibition space, bathed in the hazy white light the skylights and Teflon awning provide, is one of the most dazzling chambers in the Inner Harbor today. Even before the exhibit panels, waterfalls and sea-life tanks arrive, the place has the feel of a winner.

This environment ought to be helped by a planned Center for Marine Archaeology, where Chesapeake craft buried under water for decades can be studied.

The building is a year away from total outfitting, but there's a large model of it and its exhibit hall. The model is open to the public at the Candler Building, Pratt Street and Market Place.

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