New front door for Baltimore Tomorrow's hello: Proposed Welcome Center nods to city's flavor and future.

February 18, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

If one building could sum up Baltimore through its architecture, what would it look like?

Would it have a brick exterior? Marble steps? Oriel windows? Would it be part of a row, or freestanding? Modern or traditional?

It might be tempting for an architect to reach deep into the grab bag of history and come up with some nostalgic image that says Bawlamer -- Formstone-covered rowhouses, perhaps, or the quirky crenelations of the Bromo Seltzer Tower.

But that wasn't the approach taken by local designers of a proposed Inner Harbor pavilion that will represent Baltimore to millions of visitors each year, a $2.5 million "Welcome Center" due to open in early 1997.

As conceived by Design Collective of Baltimore, the two-story Welcome Center is the antithesis of the predictable exercises in postmodern pastiche that are turning so many American cities into architectural theme parks. Instead of harking back to some forgotten past, the architects responded with a glass and masonry structure that looks confidently to the future.

Yet they also managed to interject subtle design references that pay homage to the living, breathing, marble steps-scrubbing city beyond the Inner Harbor. In the process, they have given Maryland's largest city a spirited new symbol for its continuing renaissance -- "The Baltimore Pavilion."

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Designers of the 8,000-square-foot Welcome Center were specifically asked to make it look like a "Baltimore building" because its chief mission is to promote the city and region.

Funded by the city and state, it will be constructed starting this spring and operated by the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. The goal is to create a one-stop orientation center where tourists, conventioneers and business travelers can get a brief introduction to the city and pick up information about attractions, hotels, restaurants and events in Baltimore and Maryland.

Facilities open to the public will include audio-visual displays, an orientation film, changing exhibits, ticket sales, restrooms and an information counter where guides will answer questions, and back-of-the-house spaces will include staff offices. It's expected draw upward of 2 million visitors a year -- more people than annually visit the National Aquarium -- just in time for the city's bicentennial.

The design of the visitors center would be a key issue no matter where it was located, because sponsors want it to make a strong first impression on out-of-towners. But its appearance is especially critical given its prime location -- the west shore of the Inner Harbor, just south of the Light Street pavilion of Harborplace.

Design Collective got the commission because it was half of a team that won a 1994 competition to recommend improvements for 20 acres of Inner Harbor shoreline. Martha Schwartz Inc., a prominent landscape architecture firm from Cambridge, Mass., is the second half of the team and designer of the public spaces around Welcome Center.

The building itself will present two faces to the city, Janus-like.

On the east side, facing the harbor, it is quite extroverted -- a giant porch that reaches up and out to the harbor, providing a civic profile to incoming tall ships and shade to passers-by. Beneath a sloping metal roof will be a curving two-story "bay window" that lets people outside look in and lets those inside enjoy panoramic views of the harbor.

On the west side, facing Otterbein and other parts of West Baltimore, the building is much more introverted. Defining the eastern edge of Light Street is a series of brick volumes that are lined up like abstract rowhouses. These are unified by a nautically detailed canopy, marble steps and street-level windows that allow pedestrians to see through the building to the harbor. On the south side is a small theater that reads as a sculptural object within the glass pavilion. It will be clad in yellow Kasota stone, selected for its warmth and richness.

According to Richard Burns, principal in charge of the project for Design Collective and a Baltimore native, the building presents two faces to the public because it contains two different kinds of spaces -- open information and exhibit areas, and closed offices. Its dual nature also reflects an effort to create a building that responds to different site conditions -- the harbor side and the city side.

Mr. Burns said he did not want the visitor center to upstage the Science Center, aquarium or other blockbuster attractions nearby. At the same time, he wants to give it enough presence to stand out from the smaller kiosks and booths dotting the shoreline.

Questions raised

While the building was going through the design-review process, some members of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's staff questioned whether it was "Baltimore enough."

Mr. Burns said he didn't want to copy Harborplace and make the center a third green-roofed pavilion because it doesn't have the same mission. He also did not want to be too nostalgic with

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