Thinking big - but not big enough

A new arts center planned for Hopkins' Homewood campus is a welcome addition, but does it have to be so introverted?

August 29, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

When students return to the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus next month, they'll be attending a university that just cracked U.S. News and World Report's prestigious annual Top 10 list.

While Homewood's rise in the rankings (from 14th to a tie for seventh) might be cause for celebration, students are more likely to benefit directly from the university's improved physical environment.

A new interfaith center just opened near University Parkway. Shops and restaurants are filling the base of the Homewood apartments at Charles and 31st streets. And contractors have made considerable progress on the next major addition to campus: a $17 million arts center at Charles and 33rd streets.

Designed by Tod Williams, Billie Tsien and Associates of New York and scheduled for completion by the fall of 2000, the arts center is one of the most provocative buildings to get under way in Baltimore this year. Its location has alarmed environmentalists, who didn't like seeing mature beech and oak trees felled for its construction, and its modernist design will make the campus architectural mix even more eclectic.

Still, of all the buildings that Hopkins plans to construct at Homewood, the arts center offers the best chance of forging a much-needed bridge between the North Baltimore campus and the Charles Village community.

The center was given one of Homewood's most prominent development sites -- half an acre between its main entrance and the Baltimore Museum of Art's Levi sculpture garden; it incorporated uses that will appeal to students and non-students alike; and its world-class design team produced an architectural gem that promises to benefit Hopkins and its neighbors for years to come.

Perhaps the chief drawback to the arts center is its size. Considering the valuable real estate Hopkins made available for this project and the excellent design work from its architects, it's too bad the arts center isn't even more ambitious in scope, so its impact on the surrounding area might be that much greater.

Although Hopkins trustees describe the low-slung buildings as an "arts center," the term is somewhat misleading. The 50,000-square-foot center won't contain a large theater or the kind of ornate concert hall found inside the Peabody Institute. It's not so much a Lincoln Center-type arts complex as a casual collection of collegiate meeting spaces -- a student union with arts overtones.

The center will house a cafe, lounges, music practice rooms, a dance studio, art studios, a film and media center and a 200-seat theater for events open to Hopkins students and the general public.

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Hopkins has a terrific academic reputation, especially for pre-med studies, but it has sorely lacked student amenities. Before construction began on this project, its arts facilities weren't even as up-to-date as those at much- smaller Villa Julie College in Baltimore County.

One of the major benefactors of the center is an anonymous alumna who enjoyed her years on campus but regretted that there wasn't more to do after classes ended. She is giving $7.5 million to help make sure future Hopkins students don't have the same problem.

Recognizing that the center's function and location would make it a signature building, the Hopkins trustees staged a limited design competition to select its architect rather than follow the university's standard procurement process. Besides Williams and Tsien, finalists included Bohlin Cywinski Jackson of Wilkes Barre, Pa. (one of the designers of Bill Gates' estate in Washington state) and Heikkinen Komonen Architects of Finland.

Williams and Tsien, who are married, lead one of the most highly regarded firms in American architecture today. They are the only architects to make Newsweek magazine's recent list of "100 Americans for the Next Century." They've won national recognition for a range of projects, including the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and a large addition to the Phoenix Art Museum. Because this will be their first project on the East Coast and their first student arts center, it is likely to receive international attention within the design community.

In their competition-winning design for Hopkins, the architects proposed to break the arts center into three low-rise buildings that would frame a triangular outdoor courtyard. One end of the courtyard would feature views toward the BMA's sculpture garden, while another end would provide access to the Merrick Barn, home of Theatre Hopkins.

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