Designing Maryland's museum to celebrate black history...


August 06, 1999

Designing Maryland's museum to celebrate black history, culture

The Architectural Review Board's criticism of the proposed design for the Maryland Museum of African-American History and Culture was right on target ("On museum front, form vs. function," July 28).

The drawing of the museum in The Sun was bland. It doesn't evoke any feeling of Africanism or of the contributions by African-Americans to Maryland. It shows no pride.

What is lacking is a significant African-American presence on the design team. This was lost when principal designer Michael Amos passed away last year.

It is gross naivete to say this museum "should fit gracefully with the contemporary architecture of downtown Baltimore." No building in downtown Baltimore was designed by a black architect.

As a people, we have never been gracefully included in anything. We have been most noticed when we have been bold.

I don't agree with the suggestion in the article that "it is impossible to condense something as complex as African-American culture into a simple architectural design."

The celebrated Detroit Museum of African American History is a stellar example of integrating African American culture into a gorgeous structure which evokes the feeling of ownership.

For this design team to "not want to make . . . an Afrocentric philosophical statement" is deplorable.

What is wrong with making an Afrocentric philosophical statement? No black architect would ever make that statement.

One can be, and must be, proud of both one's African and American heritage.

This design team has a long way to go to make this museum design a success both for the African-American people to whom it is dedicated and for the general citizenry who will frequent and support it.

Leon Bridges, Baltimore

Defining an African-American architecture is certainly difficult. The museum should not represent one expert's opinion or stereotype of African-American culture. It should include all in the design process, creating a structure that invites all to visit.

Public participation in this project has been extensive, allowing many to have a voice. I appreciate having been included in this process.

And, having seen the design, I find it beautiful, appropriate and considerate.

The museum's proposed site forms an important link between the Inner Harbor and Little Italy, two well-visited areas.

Since the site is adjacent to Little Italy's delicate-scale townhouses, the building's designers should resist the "look-at-me" character of the buildings across President Street on the harbor.

This design does. It creates the needed transition between the mega-sculptural buildings of the Inner Harbor and the small-scale neighborhood of Little Italy.

Apparently the historian on the design panel, familiar with recently built more flashy (and expensive) museums such as the Guggenheim Bilbao, feels that careful massing and elegant restraint are "passe."

These things are never passe. Good design is never passe.

Too many "look-at-me" buildings in proximity can destroy the urban fabric of a city.

A more dramatic building would be a mistake, a poor neighbor creating a clash of cultures and overshadowing the subtlety of Little Italy.

Bryan Bell, Baltimore

Bad location, bad design could make museum a flop

As a state taxpayer and former City Life Museums public relations coordinator, I was relieved to see Ed Gunts question locating the Maryland African-American Museum at Pratt and President streets ("A first choice that's second best," Aug. 1)

Pratt and President is one of the worst pedestrian intersections in the city. As a consequence, the museum could anticipate only a trickle of visitors -- those bold enough to cross six lanes of President Street while dodging cars turning right off of Pratt Street.

The museum would fare better with school and tour groups. But their buses lined up on President Street would create a dangerous situation at that intersec- tion. And the narrow sidewalks would make off-loading large groups from buses, especially children, an adventure.

It is also disappointing that the best design this site can inspire from a talented group of architects looks like a warmed-over cousin of the Waxter Center at Cathedral and Eager Streets.

How many people would go out of their way to visit something that looks like that?

The Maryland African-American Museum has the potential to be a major tourist draw, but not if it is hard for tourists to reach or they aren't inspired to visit.

Neither the state, which is providing most of the funding, nor the city can afford another debacle like the City Life Museums or the Columbus Center.

As Mr. Gunts pointed out, it is not too late to find a decent site for the museum. Let's hope someone has the wisdom and the courage to lead the search.

James C. Hunt, Baltimore

City should investigate Conaway's work habits

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