Justice gets a new approach, a new look

November 25, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Did you hear the one about the tourists who tried to check into Baltimore's new booking center?

It seems a family was driving down the Jones Falls Expressway in search of a hotel. Approaching the city skyline, they spotted the long gray building with a temporary "Omni" sign and pulled off. But a construction worker set them straight. "Omni is the name of the general contractor, not the hotel chain," he said. "The only way you'll get in here is by breaking the law."

The story may have been embellished in the retelling. But the fact that it has been making the rounds of the local tourism industry is a credit to designers of the new Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, which opens Tuesday.

The $54 million fortress for justice, at Madison Street and the Fallsway, is one of the most handsome buildings to be completed in Baltimore this year. Its long, low profile is especially pleasing next to the JFX, an elevated ribbon of concrete that reinforces the building's linearity. At the same time, it conveys a sense of security without being somber.

"It's a new front door to the corrections system," said James Kessler, senior principal for Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum, one of the building's designers. "There is an austerity, but there is a fairness and a justice as well."

Inside, the booking center is a technological marvel that promises to improve the way arrested people are charged and processed. Its opening represents a fundamentally different way managing the justice system, said Leonard Sipes, spokesman for the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the center's operator.

"I think it's going to send word to the offender population that it's not business as usual," he said. "It's a new day."

The building is the result of a reorganization of the booking process launched by the corrections secretary, Bishop L. Robinson. In the past, arrested people were taken to precincts scattered throughout the city. Mr. Robinson recommended consolidation into a single center with the latest technology.

A booking center is different from a prison in that the people housed inside have not been brought to trial. Because Americans are presumed innocent until proved guilty, Mr. Kessler said, the architectural environment of the center as intended not to be punitive.

Yet, because the booking center will process people who might be hardened criminals, it had to be designed for maximum security.

The job went to a joint venture of Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum of Washington and Smeallie Orrick & Janka of Baltimore. A specialist in correctional facilities, including Baltimore's Supermax, HOK was responsible for the basic design. SOJ was responsible for project management and construction administration. Gilbane Building Co. was the construction manager.

The building's linear design was dictated largely by the step-by-step booking process and by the narrow dimensions of the site, a 100-foot strip west of the Baltimore City Detention Center.

The architects designed a five-story building that is separate from the rest of the corrections complex but roughly parallel to it.

The building's west facade provides a hint of the spaces inside. The two lower levels, behind a nearly windowless base, are reserved for booking. That is where individuals will be interviewed, fingerprinted, photographed and funneled to a court commissioner.

The top three levels are devoted to housing -- up to 811 beds in all. Inmates reside in "pods" that can each hold 50 to 56 people, either in cells or a dormitory arrangement.

In either case, bunk beds line the outer walls and dayrooms occupy the middle.

These living spaces are Spartan, with tables and beds bolted to the floor so they don't become weapons. But they also reflect the philosophy of providing humane conditions.

Defendants can eat meals and watch television in the dayrooms. They also have access to an infirmary, a library and a gym.

In designing the exterior, the architects took cues from the surrounding area.

Mr. Kessler said he was impressed by several nearby warehouses -- large concrete buildings with brick infill panels, constructed starting in the 1920s to store goods shipped through the port. They became the inspiration for the look of the booking center, which also has a concrete frame with brick infill panels.

The designers also established visual links between the new building and the larger corrections complex, which dates to the early 19th century.

For example, they removed stone from the old western boundary and reapplied it to a new wall along Madison Street.

They designed the building's north and south ends to echo the massing of towers and turrets on the Gothic-style administration building. They clad the base with a rusticated, precast surface that recalls walls of the original city jail.

2nd-longest in city

Aware that the building would be long -- the second longest in the city, after the warehouse at Camden Yards -- the architects broke down its scale by dividing the facade into three segments, corresponding to the pods of housing inside.

"We didn't want a mean-looking building with an 800-foot-long wall," Mr. Kessler said. "We wanted to show that it's residential."

Perhaps the most striking features are the building's windows.

Each opening on the upper three levels corresponds to the location of a bunk bed -- a reminder that there are human beings inside. A single square window is for the lower bunk, and a strip window across the top is for the upper bunk. None is operable.

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