Arrival excitement missing from building Review: Prize-winning design for Lyric addition loses an essential element of drama.

November 16, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

When the design for the latest expansion of the Lyric Opera House was completed several years ago, it received high praise for enlivening the 100-year-old theater -- and a design award from the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

What the jury liked most was the willingness of the architect, Jonathan Fishman of RCG Inc., to introduce elements that departed from the brick banality of the appendages grafted onto the theater in the recent past -- appendages designed by his own firm.

Judges said that the addition evokes the "celebration of arrival" one expects from a major performance hall and that it had the potential to transform the block "into a dramatic civic focal point."

As built along Mount Royal Avenue, however, the three-story addition didn't exactly turn out the way the architects planned.

It has a curving metal skin that contrasts with the brick walls on either side, and a large glass window that reveals the rehearsal hall inside, as planned by RCG.

But it's missing a key element intended to complete the composition -- a marquee-like armature that was to support giant letters spelling out "LYRIC" on both the Mount Royal Avenue and Maryland Avenue sides of the theater.

More than anything else, these signs helped express the energy and excitement of the theater. But they were eliminated at the last minute to reduce construction costs and avoid confusion about the theater's main entrance, according to Robert Pomory, president of the Lyric Foundation.

There was concern, Pomory said, that any large signs would make people think the addition was a new main entrance to the theater lobby, when it wasn't.

Whatever the reasons, eliminating the marquee weakened the final design. Without it, the copper colored skin of the addition, which was meant to be a backdrop to the marquee, became the final surface.

As a result, the addition lacks visual punch.

In essence, the exterior was a series of layered planes -- a reference to the layered planes of sets and scenery in a stage production. If one layer was to be eliminated, the architect should have had a chance to come up with a new design.

The quality of the construction work -- by Roy Kirby & Sons -- doesn't help matters. Some of the metal panels are visibly bulging out in the middle like pillows, rather than following a smooth line.

There are some strange design details, too -- such as the point near the entrance where the metal skin turns into a dark brick wall before it meets the sidewalk.

Inside, the building provides the back-of-the-house accommodations it was built to provide. The layout is efficient and functional (although the green room appears rather small.)

But outside, it's a missed opportunity to make a statement about the activities inside. In its compromised state, the exterior lacks the one characteristic that would have justified the architect's original approach -- a sense of theatricality.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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