A building of Gothic proportions


University law school will be state of the art inside, medieval on the outside.

August 15, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

The Gothic period in architecture lasted roughly from the mid-12th to the mid-16th centuries in Western Europe. But it's still going strong in late 20th-century Baltimore, judging by the latest plan for a $42 million addition to the University of Maryland's downtown campus.

The university intends to start construction this fall on a five-story building at Baltimore and Paca streets that will serve as the new home for both its School of Law and part of its School of Social Work.

The interior will feature all the modern spaces and high-tech amenities needed to accommodate the graduate schools' contemporary curricula. But the exterior will be a throwback to medieval times, with brick towers, stone trim, arched windows and a crenelated turret. All that's missing are the flying buttresses.

By infusing a modern building with Gothic overtones, the univer-sity is sending contradictory signals. On the one hand, the decision to give a new structure such a backward-looking veneer is more than a little disquieting -- especially on the eve of a new millennium, especially on a campus that wants to be known as a center of the life sciences.

On the other hand, the new law school promises to be one of the better buildings on campus -- stately, tranquil, dignified. It will form an important link between the center of the campus and the west side of downtown. It will help give the law school a stronger identity on campus and off. And if it's got to be Gothic, a client can't do much better than the architects involved, Hartman-Cox of Washington and RCG Inc. of Baltimore.

Whether the university was justified in taking this route may not be entirely clear until construction is complete in late 2001. It's not the most adventurous building on the horizon. Yet in its own way, this convergence of old and new, rational and romantic, is very much what the client wanted. The university -- and the city -- could have done worse.

The 240,000-square-foot law school replacement is part of a $1 billion campaign to expand and upgrade UniversityCenter, the west-side district that contains the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus and the University of Maryland Medical System. It will be one of the first new buildings on the west side of downtown since the city unveiled a $350 million revitalization plan last year.

The new building will replace Lane Hall, the existing law school building on Baltimore Street between Paca and Greene streets. The law school moved this summer to temporary quarters near Greene and Lombard streets so the existing building, a relatively non- descript structure dating from 1965, can be razed to make way for new construction. A 1980 wing containing the Thurgood Marshall Law Library will be retained, renovated, reclad in suitably Gothic garb, and connected to the replacement.

Administrators say a new law school is needed because Lane Hall no longer has the space or facilities to accommodate the latest instructional methods in legal education. In keeping with the university's wishes, the architects designed the interior so it would contain all the computer hook-ups, "distance learning" classrooms, video equipment and other technological marvels that today's students expect. They also put classrooms closer to faculty offices, to promote interaction between students and teachers.

"This is not a law school building that would have been built in the 1950s or 1960s," said professor and former law school dean Donald G. Gifford. "Inside, it's very much a 21st-century building. It will be as modern a law school building as exists anyplace in the country."

But it would be hard to tell how well equipped and innovative it is by looking at the exterior, which recalls civic high schools from the 1930s. With its stone base, brick piers and arched windows, the law school could be a cousin to Baltimore's Gothic "Castle on the Hill" -- the City College high school at 33rd Street and the Alameda.

The local architect, RCG, has worked on numerous college buildings, including the University of Maryland's new nursing school. Hartman-Cox Architects has a national reputation for putting the class in classrooms -- and other spaces that need careful attention. In the 1980s, it designed a handsome office tower for One South Street in Baltimore that would have evoked the skyscrapers of the 1930s, but it was never built. This will be its first project in Baltimore to reach the construction stage.

When they scrutinized plans for the building, members of the state and city design review panels noted the discrepancy between the modern interior and the "Collegiate Gothic" exterior, but came to no consensus.

"I thought [the Gothic era] was long gone, but maybe it's not," said architectural historian and city review panel member Phoebe Stanton. "It's amazing that this thing surfaces at the end of the 20th century."

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