An Unwelcome Addition Architecture: The enormous sequel to the Convention Center will serve its purpose from the inside but offers nothing to the urban landscape.

September 06, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The building reflected in the windows of the Convention Center addition in Friday's Today section was misidentified. The building shown is Camden Station.

The Sun regrets the errors.

In most forms of architecture, columns are welcome and essential elements of a building's "anatomy." From the massive pillars of the Parthenon to the slender shafts of contemporary high rises, columns reveal more about a work of architecture than any other single feature.

But to the convention industry, they're architectural pariahs. Meeting planners don't want bulky columns blocking views of products or speakers. To them, "column-free" is the best accolade a convention center can receive.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

That simple truth is all one needs to know to understand why the $151 million addition to the Baltimore Convention Center, opening today, looks the way it does.

To make the building attractive to the convention industry, builders eschewed columns and erected enormous triangular trusses that can span great distances without requiring many vertical supports.

The result is a most unusual work of urban sculpture -- not so much a building as a bridge engulfed by meeting rooms.

It promises to function well as a setting for conventions and exhibits. But as a highly visible companion to Baltimore's 1979 convention center, which drew praise primarily for not calling attention to itself, this bridge goes too far in the other direction.

In their quest to please conventioneers, the designers have replaced the dreaded columns with an even more dreadful and ungainly structural system, which robs their building of any grace it might otherwise have had.

By any measure, the convention center that opened 17 years ago at Pratt and Charles streets succeeds both as a meeting place and a work of urban design.

Quiet, recessive, low-slung, transparent -- it's the antithesis of the big, ugly boxes where cities used to hold conventions. The secret to its success was an elegant "catenary" system, a series of curving trusses that gracefully span the exhibit halls, without calling undue attention to the building.

Loschky, Marquardt & Nesholm of Seattle and Cochran, Stephenson & Donkervoet of Baltimore -- two firms whose principals had collaborated on the original building -- were hired to design the expansion for the Maryland Stadium Authority, the state agency in charge of constructing it. But the architects could not repeat themselves, even if they had wanted to.

First, the stadium authority and the agency in charge of booking the center, the Baltimore Area Conventions and Visitors Association, wanted the addition to be much larger than the first phase.

Planned for the area bounded by Pratt, Howard, Conway and Sharp streets, the expansion had to provide 185,000 square feet of exhibition space on one level -- nearly twice that in the original -- as well as meeting rooms above. On top of that -- literally -- the convention bureau wanted a finished ballroom, the largest in Maryland.

To span the necessary distances and support the weight of the ballroom, the designers needed a different structural system. Working with Jack Christensen, structural engineer for the original building, they devised a series of giant bridgelike trusses, 27 feet deep, that would require only a handful of columns in the main exhibit space.

These interconnecting trusses were positioned in the middle of the building, so the bottom became the roof of the exhibit hall, and the top became the floor of the ballroom level. Then, the designers slipped the meeting rooms in between the tops and bottoms of the trusses. It means conventioneers can literally walk over, under and through the building's structural system.

In a very real sense, "the architecture is the structural system," said team member Richard Donkervoet.

Ingenious

This engineering-driven design was ingenious in several ways: It enabled the designers to span the cavernous exhibit hall with only four columns interrupting the space.

It gave operators both the amount of space they sought and the flexibility they needed to avoid long periods of inactivity. The new exhibit hall can be subdivided with large partitions so one exhibit can be set up, one can be taken down and one can be in progress -- all at the same time.

The biggest benefit of all is its organizational clarity -- a key to the success of any convention center. It's easy to find one's way around the building, and the walking distances are manageable.

The trusses themselves, meanwhile, have become the building's signature feature, visible from both inside and out.

Some observers are likely to be fascinated by the optical effects created by the colliding triangular forms, set against the imported Pilkington glass. Others may be less impressed by the play of geometry, and more intimidated by the size and shape.

What makes the structural system less than totally satisfying as a work of sculpture, however, is that it can never really be appreciated that way.

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