A building design that just doesn't float To build or not to build a Bubba Gump restaurant is not the only question. There is also this: Why does it have to be so ugly?

August 23, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Bubba, bubba, toil and trouble.

If the witches from "Macbeth" were stirring their caldron in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, they couldn't come up with a more pungent brew than what the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. has cooked up for the downtown waterfront.

This summer's bid by the California-based restaurateur to build its first East Coast branch on a barge in the Inner Harbor has triggered a debate with Shakespearean overtones, as warring factions trade barbs in a rare and ugly public feud.

Lords of the National Aquarium in Baltimore contend that construction of a restaurant in the inlet between Inner Harbor Piers 3 and 4 would set a dangerous precedent by blocking water views and preventing them from building a footbridge they need.

The House of Cordish, prospective landlord for Bubba Gump, boasts that it has the legal permits necessary to erect the controversial shrimp restaurant and promises that its presence will add life to the brooding brick Power Plant, which it is developing into a $30 million entertainment center.

Missing from the dialogue so far has been any rigorous examination of the restaurant's design. If Baltimore's elected officials are so eager for development that they're willing to allow buildings to rise in public waterways, the least they could do is apply the same high design standards to them as they would to buildings on land.

The Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. was inspired by the hit movie "Forrest Gump." Four other restaurants in the chain, a joint venture of Paramount Pictures and Rusty Pelican Restaurants, are located on urban waterfronts inside existing buildings.

To take advantage of the prime harbor setting they've negotiated with the Cordish Co., the restaurateurs say they want to construct a building from scratch that would evoke a Louisiana shrimp boat - specifically, the vessel Forrest Gump buys when he goes into the shrimping business to fulfill a promise to his dead Army buddy, Bubba.

In a recent presentation to Baltimore's architectural review board, architect Richard Coleman of Coleman Caskey Architects Irvine, Calif., showed plans for an 8,000-square-foot building that would rise 14 feet above the wharf, with an enclosed area for year-round dining and an upper deck for use in good weather. Complete with a full-service kitchen and market for souvenirs, this not-so-shrimpy restaurant would seat up to 185 patrons indoors and another 50 on the upper deck. A sign at the top would bear Bubba's logo, a smiling shrimp.

Scott Barnett, president of the restaurant chain, said the atmosphere will be "gregarious and festive," with the movie showing continuously while waiters fire off Forrest Gump trivia questions. Coleman said he wants it to look like "an old barge that's been sitting against the pier for some time."

However, judging by the preliminary drawings, Baltimore's Bubba Gump would not look much like a floating vessel at all, but a utilitarian wooden box, dressed up to accommodate a restaurant. The siding is plain; the windows, non- descript. It looks like the Unabomber's hovel, if the Unabomber had gone into the shrimp business.

In many ways, Coleman Caskey's schematics bring to mind the old Connolly's seafood restaurant, an unprepossessing green shed that stood on the north end of Pier 5 until it was torn down nearly a decade ago in the name of urban renewal.

The Bubba Gump people may argue that their building's resemblance to Connolly's is proof that there is historical precedent for a humble structure on the waterfront, and that's quite true.

But Connolly's was the type of eyesore that Baltimore's planners have tried for the past 35 years to remove from the Inner Harbor. It was one of the last links to the rotting wharves and stinking banana boats that characterized the derelict waterfront of old. Even though the restaurant had a following, no one lay in front of the bulldozers to save it.

Now, to suit its theme, Bubba Gump wants to bring back what others succeeded in wiping away, except that this sanitized reincarnation of Connolly's would occupy a prominent portion of a waterway instead of a pier. Under the smiling logo, though, it's just another ugly seafood shack, not even attractive enough to put up along Coastal Highway in Ocean City.

Aside from the issues of paving over the waterfront and evoking unflattering imagery, the most grating aspect of this Bubba Gump is the forced hokeyness of the design and how little it would fit in with its immediate surroundings.

As rebuilt over the past three decades, the Inner Harbor has become a showplace of modern architecture, with first-rate works by such designers as Cambridge Seven (the National Aquarium in Baltimore), Benjamin Thompson Associates (Harborplace) and Pei Cobb Freed (the World Trade Center). There have been misses, too, including Scarlett Place, Harbor Court and the visitors' center on Constellation Pier.

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