Center's architecture: a scientific cabaret that is confusing, strangely unwelcoming COLUMBUS CENTER

Architecture review

March 12, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

From the beginning, the premise was inspired: To take the sort of laboratory building that usually is found on some remote campus and open it to the public so people can learn about the research that is changing their lives and children can see scientists as role models.

And what better place for such a venture than Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the hugely successful tourist destination where education and entertainment have been melded to create a new urban model of "edu-tainment."

Columbus Center, the marine research facility and exhibition hall that will open in phases starting this week, is itself a bold architectural experiment.

It is one of the first attempts anywhere to take a complicated subject such as marine biotechnology -- defined as "the use of marine organisms for industrial and commercial application" -- and make a public attraction out of it, while creating a setting for serious research.

As a vehicle for economic development and scientific exploration, Columbus Center appears poised to fulfill its planners' expectations. The labs are functional, spacious and adaptable for a range of experiments. They will give Maryland an edge in teaching and research.

As a work of architecture and urban design, however, Columbus Center is less impressive. In attempting to design a building that fulfills so many goals, the architects have created a confused and confusing building that doesn't seem appropriate either for its mission or its prime waterfront site.

Their effort to make this research-oriented building into a public attraction has resulted in an overly theatrical structure with a tone and materials that are inconsistent with its scientific purpose.

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Columbus Center was designed by Eberhard Zeidler, principal-in-charge of the project for the Zeidler Roberts Partnership. Mr. Zeidler, 69, has spent much of his career developing two kinds of buildings: research facilities and people-oriented complexes on urban waterfronts. This is the culmination of both.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is the first time that a project of this nature has been done," he said. "The whole idea is to excite people about what is going on."

Situated on the north side of Piers 5 and 6, the building has two distinct parts, reflecting its dual personality. On the east side is a five-level research block, with bands of gray and white metal indicating which floors contain the labs and which contain administrative offices.

On the west side is a large white, tent-like structure that encloses the "Hall of Exploration," a 33,000-square-foot exhibit space still under construction. After it opens in spring 1996, visitors will be able to tour an elaborate exhibit about the research work under way inside the laboratories in the other fourth-fifths of the building, and perhaps meet some of the scientists who work there. It is expected to attract 400,000 to 500,000 people a year.

The confusion starts with the incongruous exterior forms, the tent and the lab block.

Made with Teflon-coated Fiberglas, the tent has a shape that is vaguely zoomorphic, with elliptical skylights that look like bugs' eyes and an undulating canopy that suggests a seashell. It is attached to the rigid metal lab block like a barnacle adheres to the hull of a ship. It's a way of suggesting the aquatic nature of the work going on inside.

But in the effort to make references to the center's functions, the architect generated too many disjointed images. The laboratory side, which one would expect to be the calmer of the two sides, is a melange of different building materials, including corrugated metal, flat panels, glass and stone.

Rising out of the Little Italy side and lighted from within at night, are four curving hoods -- fume exhausts for labs inside -- that look like oversized parts from a Eureka vacuum cleaner. Also, that side of the building emits an ominous hum at night, according to residents of nearby Scarlett Place. Some say they can hear it from their balconies across the inlet as they gaze into the glow of the exhaust vents.

The rusticated stone base helps the building to meet the wharf, but since there is no other stone on the outer walls, it seems out of place. Together, these warring idiosyncrasies add up to a building that is less than the sum of its parts.

For all the effort to make a building that is accessible and friendly, this one is strangely unwelcoming, almost intimidating. Its surface is cold and unforgiving -- attributes that may suit a factory or a prison, perhaps, but not a venture that seeks to be embraced by the public.

The tent is hard to warm up to as well. It is clunky, oddly proportioned and surprisingly heavy.

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