Ship ahoy on the harbor

URBAN LANDSCAPE

A proposed office and retail center puts sails on Pier 4, but the design may not float.

July 04, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

At first glance, the top of a proposed addition to Baltimore's Inner Harbor looks like a pair of canvas sails billowing in the breeze. On closer inspection, it's apparent that those sails are rising above one of the piers, not the water.

Did some misguided mariner make a wrong turn coming out of the HarborView marina? Was this errant schooner washed ashore in a freak squall?

Not exactly. This is the design for a $40 million office and retail center, sculpted to evoke a tall ship. What resembles sailcloth is actually the curving glass shell of a nine-story tower, rising from the middle of Pier 4. On the inside would be seven levels of offices above two levels of stores and restaurant space. No sails, just sales.

It's part of a bold attempt by local developer David Cordish to elevate the status of the office building by giving it a shape that's more dynamic and memorable than the peanut-butter-colored shoe boxes along Pratt Street. He thinks Baltimore architecture is too boring and that office builders in particular could take some lessons from the urban entertainment industry.

The result is the most provocative design for the Inner Harbor since Cordish's last nautical-themed proposal for the same location, the daffy Bubba Gump shrimp-boat restaurant that would have been parked in the inlet near the Power Plant. This is a man who clearly has boats on the brain.

His latest plan has met resistance from some members of the city's Design Advisory Panel, which has withheld its approval so far. They question the wisdom of putting a show-off building so close to cherished landmarks such as the National Aquarium and the Power Plant. They fear that too many geometrical shapes could turn the Inner Harbor into even more of an architectural circus than it is already.

And the review panel, whose opposition helped sink the Bubba Gump plan, is right to be protective of such a prominent waterfront setting. But while his sailboat on steroids could benefit from further refinement, Cordish just may be onto something this time. If nothing else, by trading one maritime motif for another, he has moved the discussion from "let's milk Hollywood for all it's worth" to "learning from Las Vegas."

Son of Power Plant

The Cordish Co. is the local firm that redeveloped the Pier 4 Power Plant as an entertainment and office complex. It was so successful -- it's now 100 percent leased and drawing more than three million visitors a year -- that chairman David Cordish concluded there was strong demand for even more office and retail space nearby. He subsequently began negotiating with the parent of the Chart House chain to buy out the lease of the restaurant just south of the Power Plant and construct a mixed-use building in its place: The Son of Power Plant.

After staging a limited competition, Cordish representatives picked a design by the firm of Pickard Chilton of New Haven, Conn. The principal in charge is Jon Pickard, a former associate of the noted architect Cesar Pelli. One of the last projects Pickard worked on with Pelli was the twin Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the tallest buildings in the world.

Pickard proposed the sail forms to make the annex stand out while complying with city-imposed height limits: up to 135 feet for the bulk of the building with another 45 feet for rooftop mechanical equipment and other "architectural treatments."

The billowing effect would be made by wrapping a glass skin over a steel frame, tapered with a sail-like silhouette. The glass forms actually occupy only the southern end of the Chart House parcel, which is between the Power Plant and the aquarium's Marine Mammal Pavilion. They would be connected to a rectangular structure partially clad in brick -- a reference to the Power Plant.

It looks like a collection of buildings, but on the inside each level is essentially one space, so an office tenant could occupy the entire floor. The commercial levels would have at least two tenants -- a new Chart House and a major retailer that would be new to the Baltimore area -- possibly a branch of the FAO Schwartz toy emporium or L. L. Bean clothiers.

As presented to Baltimore's design panel, the Power Plant annex would contain about 160,000 square feet of leasable space. The area at the top would be used to conceal mechanical equipment and finish off the sail shape.

Pickard said he struggled to come up with a composition that is appropriate for its setting and will contribute to the vitality of the Inner Harbor. The tall glass element provides a visual marker that divides the Power Plant side of the pier from the aquarium side, without imitating either structure or turning the pier into a giant brick wall. It establishes a new architectural cadence on the pier: the curved "sails" seem to back away from the aquarium's forms and thus make less of an intrusion on that institution's turf.

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