A first choice that's second-best

An important new museum of African-American history and culture needs a much better site than the one projected for it.

August 01, 1999|By EDWARD GUNTS | EDWARD GUNTS,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Designers of the Maryland Museum of African-American History and Culture have been grappling with architectural issues such as how Afrocentric its exterior should be, how to reduce the building's apparent scale, where to put the front door -- important questions all.

But there's another issue that doesn't seem to be receiving the same scrutiny, even though it could be even more important to the $26 million museum's success or failure: The land selected for this critical project -- a long and narrow site at the northeast corner of Pratt and President streets -- makes no sense for a museum as large and potentially significant as this one.

Located on the eastern edge of downtown and cut off from the waterfront by a six-lane boulevard, the property is even farther from the center of Baltimore's Inner Harbor than the Port Discovery children's museum on Market Place.

Squeezed between the restaurants of Little Italy and the Death Alley of failed museums along President Street, it's a background site, offering neither sufficient prominence nor prestige. The land fronts on a highly congested intersection with poor pedestrian access and no space for auto drop-offs. It has limited outdoor space, minimal tie-in with the subject matter, no room for on-site parking and no room for expansion.

Worst of all, perhaps, it offers little opportunity for synergy with other African-American museums and institutions already open or planned for downtown Baltimore.

"I think it's a terrible site," says Phoebe Stanton, professor emeritus of art and architectural history at the Johns Hopkins University and longtime member of Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel.

"This is a museum that's going to have visitors from all over the country coming to see it. It should be in the Inner Harbor. It's too important. It certainly is as important as fish."

Questions raised

Sponsors of the museum, a nonprofit consortium known as the Maryland African-American Museum Corp., say they are content with the location (donated by the Schmoke administration) and pleased to be part of the growing array of attractions on the eastern edge of downtown.

But as the project goes through the design-review process, it's becoming increasingly clear that the parcel may not be as much of a gift as the sponsors think. In many respects, this is turning out to be a case where the museum helps the area more than the area helps the museum. And that raises the following questions:

* Why would an organization that wants to build a first-rate showcase for African-American history and culture -- the second largest museum of its kind in the country, after one in Detroit -- be so willing to settle for a third-rate site on the periphery of the Inner Harbor?

* Equally important for a project to be built primarily with state funds: Is it smart growth to construct a museum in a location that could be detrimental to the project itself?

There is time to reconsider the site, since construction has not yet begun. One waterfront parcel in particular would be a much better fit. But as long as state planners try to force the building onto a site that's all wrong for it, they may never be able to create the top-quality museum they want -- no matter how bold or Afrocentric the exterior design.

The latest plans for the museum call for a four-story, 72,000-square-foot building that would occupy most of the site at Pratt and President. The main entrance would be off Pratt Street, and the exhibit space would be on the south end of the site. Staff offices and other areas not open to the public would be on the north end.

Besides exhibit space, the museum will contain a 200-seat auditorium, a resource center, an interactive learning center, a museum shop, a cafe, classrooms, meeting rooms, offices and reception areas.

The building is being designed by Associated Baltimore Architects, a joint venture of two Baltimore firms: Grieves, Worrall, Wright & O'Hatnick; and Amos, Bailey and Lee. Miles, Friedberg and Molinaroli of Washington is the exhibit designer.

No 'leftover seconds'

In preliminary plans, the building's design is somewhat reminiscent of the Maryland Science Center as seen from the Inner Harbor promenade -- a modern building composed of abstract geometrical shapes, creating solids and voids. Near the corner of Pratt and President streets would be a large cylindrical shape -- a symbolic form intended to mark the entrance and serve as a visual icon for the museum.

Nothing about the architecture comes across as specifically African-American -- in part because the museum board wanted the building to fit in with the context of the Inner Harbor rather than literally re-create forms associated with African culture. That may be a valid decision for a society that can be disdainful of ebonics in any form; still, the resulting look is disappointingly generic.

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