On museum front, form vs. function

Design: Architectural drawings for the new African-American history facility have experts debating the meaning in the mortar.

July 28, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

What is African-American architecture supposed to look like?

Designers of the proposed Maryland Museum of African American History and Culture are struggling with this question as they draw and redraw plans for a 72,000-square-foot building on Pratt Street near Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

The $26 million project is meant to celebrate the achievements of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass and other black leaders from Maryland.

But museum officials, who hope to open the facility by 2002, ran into skepticism from a city architectural review committee last week when they presented plans for the building that looked to some like a bland row of boxes and cylinders.

To one member of the city's Design Advisory Panel, the four-story museum looked more like the Towson public library than something that would represent vibrant and dynamic black culture.

The panel has some say in the matter: It will recommend, after additional meetings with museum officials, whether the city should issue a building permit for the state-funded project.

The hourlong grilling of the museum's designers Thursday raised such philosophical questions as whether African-American architecture should boldly incorporate African symbols, such as circles or pyramids.

Also debated was whether it is misguided to try to create a "black-looking" building, because African-American masons built many of the traditional-looking buildings that form the heart of Baltimore and other cities.

Unanswered was whether any building could be considered African-American -- no matter how conventional it looks -- if it is the work of black architects.

Elliot Rhodeside, a member of the eight-member review panel, said he didn't like the blandness and cautiousness of the museum's design, which was created by black and white designers.

"The drawings are so somber. African-American culture is so vibrant," Rhodeside said. "I think you can really be bold to really reflect African-American culture."

M. J. "Jay" Brodie, executive director of Baltimore Development Corp. and a member of the review panel, also voiced objections to the design. "I don't get any sense from this building that this is an African-American museum as opposed to being one of 35 other things."

Phoebe B. Stanton, professor emeritus of architectural history at the Johns Hopkins University and a committee member, complained about the museum's "passe" look and location on the far side of the entrance to Interstate 83 from the Inner Harbor. "To me, it's absolutely wrong," she said of both the design and location.

The comments frustrated museum officials. They said their 32-member board has debated the design of the building for almost a year and has considered more than 50 sketches.

Rejected early in the planning was the suggestion that the museum use the failed and vacant Baltimore City Life Museums, next to the proposed construction site.

"African-Americans are tired of leftover seconds. We wanted a brand-new building," Aris Allen, a vice chairman of the museum corporation, said in March.

The museum was designed primarily to function well as a 300-foot-long, 60-foot-high hall for educational exhibits, museum representatives said. The building has to accommodate an outdoor cafe, 200-seat auditorium and administrative offices.

Museum board members decided that it should fit gracefully with the contemporary architecture of downtown Baltimore instead of being intrusive. The design is meant to emphasize an American look, although the proposal contains a subtle symbol of Africa -- a circle, which is meant to suggest the circular arrangements of homes around a courtyard in West African communities.

Next to the entrance to the proposed building on Pratt Street is a cylindrical structure meant to house a black history exhibit and evoke a feeling of community and family, said Alan Reed, an architect with Associated Baltimore Architects who worked on the design.

George L. Russell Jr., chairman of the Maryland African American Museum Corp. board, said the committee has debated the subject at length and concluded it is impossible to condense something as complex as African-American culture into a simple architectural design.

He rebutted the comments of architectural review panel member Melvin L. Mitchell, who suggested that the museum take a single idea -- such as African-American music -- and try to craft it into an architectural statement.

"The concept of an African-American design is elusive. It doesn't exist," Russell said. "You may express the idea of music. But my idea of African-American culture may be different, and so might many other people's ideas."

In choosing a relatively nondescript design of brick and reflective glass, the museum board tried to move away from the boldly symbolic look of another new black history museum.

The $38 million Museum of African American History in Detroit, which opened in 1997, features a large domed rotunda ringed by circles of pillars.

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