With Broad Strokes Architecture review: Dynamic, free-spirited building promises to draw in the community

November 24, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

In the two years that the American Visionary Art Museum has been taking shape on Baltimore's Inner Harbor, it has moved from the fringe to the center in three ways:

* The "outsider art" it features, created by self-taught artists often living on the edge, has received wide exposure recently through exhibits by mainstream museums and books issued by mainstream publishers -- even a spot on "60 Minutes."

* The museum's constituency has grown from a lone founder in a tiny office above Harbor Court's garage to an influential network of patrons with congressional sanction to operate America's "national repository and education center for visionary art."

* Even the setting, a once-neglected corner at the foot of Federal Hill, gained new visibility as road improvements and new attractions combined to expand the perceived boundaries of the Inner Harbor.

So it is altogether fitting that the $7 million museum opening today, the first in America dedicated to visionary art, looks as if it's at the center of the action, the eye of the storm.

In many ways, the three-story museum at 501 Key Highway seems not a static structure at all but a giant top that just landed in Baltimore and is spinning so fast it appears to be standing still. And it seeks to draw everyone into its orbit.

Where none existed before, says museum founder Rebecca Hoffberger, "we have created a new center -- our own center."

To create a suitable home for visionary art, the architects needed to be visionary, too. From the day the museum's design was unveiled, it was clear Ms. Hoffberger and crew had a building that promised to be as unconventional as the art it would contain.

Sometimes, designs look good in model form but lose their energy in the construction stage. This is one case in which the final result maintained the verve and dynamism that made the original design so compelling.

If anything, the building has become richer over time as a result of embellishments that could be right only for a project as fanciful as this. Its free-spirited design stands as an antidote to the stifling conservatism that too often pervades new local architecture.

What other museum, after all, has its own nondenominational wedding altar? ("We think a lot of people will want to get married here," Ms. Hoffberger says.) Or gargoyles depicting the chief donors? Or a 55-foot-tall, wind-powered scrap metal whirligig? It's offbeat, whimsical touches such as these that will set this place apart and make an impression on people who wouldn't be caught dead in a more conventional museum.

While it's easy to admire the sense of humor evident throughout the building, it's also important to note this design was a &L pragmatic response to a difficult site and building program, developed by talented local architects who had a strong vision of their own.

The museum was created in and around a 1913 paint company warehouse whose curving wall followed the bend of Key Highway. Last used to store trolleys, it was awarded to Ms. Hoffberger by the Baltimore Development Corp., which wanted to encourage a "museum row" to form at the base of Federal Hill.

The lead designers were Rebecca Swanston, architect and south Baltimore resident; and Alex Castro, artist, architect and museum exhibit designer. They were assisted by Michael Wigley of Davis, Bowen & Friedel, a Salisbury-based firm that produced the construction documents. J. Vinton Schafer & Sons was the general contractor.

The designers were asked to create a 35,000-square-foot building with space for permanent and changing exhibits, offices, a library, classrooms, cafe, gift shop and theater. Their response was to save the trolley barn's shell and build a rectangular structure at the south end of the block to house mechanical systems, restrooms and elevators.

At night, a jewel box

Between these brick bookends they created a new structure that swirls in concert with the shell of the old building, forming a unified whole. Enclosed by curved concrete walls, the addition suggests the movement and energy of the art inside. As seen from above, the museum resembles a human heart. At night, it looks like a jewel box along the water.

One of the building's best features is its clear circulation pattern. Starting at the Key Highway entrance, visitors ascend a ramp that leads them up the building's perimeter, following the curve of the road.

Once inside, they circulate through the museum in a counterclockwise motion, spiraling from gallery to gallery and floor to floor. At the top they'll find the Joy America Cafe, a rooftop restaurant that rewards visitors with panoramic harbor views. Its balcony is an ideal spot from which to study Vollis Simpson's wind-powered "Whirligig," rising from the plaza below.

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