A rich tapestry rises on the Inner Harbor

URBAN LANDSCAPE

The new six-story Lutheran Center owes much of its blended design to the work that goes on inside.

October 17, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Nothing symbolizes the humanitarian efforts of Baltimore's newest nonprofit organization, Lutheran World Relief, more vividly than the hundreds of thousands of quilts it delivers each year to communities in need around the world.

Made by members of 18,000 Lutheran congregations, often at old-fashioned quilting bees, the bedspreads provide warmth for victims of wars or natural disasters in areas such as Kosovo, East Timor and earthquake-stricken Turkey. Beyond that, their handcrafted quality sends a message to recipients that someone, somewhere, cares about them.

Quilts are a recurring motif at the Lutheran Center, a six-story office building at 700 Light St. that will be dedicated at 4 p.m. next Sunday as the new world headquarters for Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.

At the building's main entrance is the Good Samaritan Quilt Plaza, a promenade paved in a tri-color quilting pattern. On the first level is a high-ceilinged "quilting room," where church groups can make quilts for shipment overseas.

But perhaps the strongest expression of the quilting theme is the design of the building itself. The exterior is made up of a series of interlocking forms and materials that are carefully woven into a three-dimensional tapestry that is, in many ways, the architectural equivalent of a quilt.

Each side of the building was designed to be different, in response to the scale and materials of the area it faces. The result is a powerful essay in contextual modernism -- a taut work of architecture that not only suits its occupants but helps express what they do.

As one of the last buildings to be constructed on the "front row" of the Inner Harbor, it also manages to pull off one of the most difficult feats in urban design: to create a building that at once fits in with its surroundings and stands out as an object unto itself.

Fitting in

The 47,000-square-foot, $6.7 million Lutheran Center houses five organizations in all. Besides Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, which moved from New York City last month, there are offices for the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Foundation; and the Eastern Region Office of Tressler Lutheran Services.

The center rises on a compact urban site owned by nearby Christ Lutheran Church, immediately south of the Christ Church Harbor Apartments. It's at a key crossroads where the modern Inner Harbor West redevelopment area meets the tightly knit south Baltimore historic district.

Designing a building that's compatible with the many scales and materials in this transitional area, from the tiny rowhouses of Federal Hill to large attractions such as the Maryland Science Center, is a classic exercise that would challenge any architect.

The design team consisted of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates of New York -- an internationally prominent firm that has worked for such clients as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Harvard University and Walt Disney Co. -- and Marks, Thomas and Associates of Baltimore.

This is the first building in Maryland for Gwathmey Siegel, which is internationally known for its ability to fit buildings into difficult urban contexts while working in a modernist vein. Charles Gwathmey and Robert Siegel were the design principals for Gwathmey Siegel, with Thomas Levering as the associate-in-charge and Greg Epstein as project architect. Paul Marks was the principal-in-charge for Marks, Thomas, with Mark Heckman as project manager and George Shannon as project architect. The general contractor was Bovis Inc.

Although the building stands on its own, the architects conceived of it as a new southern end for the Harbor Apartments, a long, modern building by Donald Hisaka that always presented a blank face to south Baltimore.

To help knit the building into its setting, they designed each exposed side so that it reflects the area it faces. The Inner Harbor side is primarily metal, glass and sand-colored brick, like many of the large-scale office buildings downtown. The west side, facing the brick church, has a red brick skin. The south side, facing Federal Hill, has a combination of red brick, sand-colored brick, metal and glass. Windows vary in size as well, from the strip windows on the harbor side to the smaller windows facing the church.

Gwathmey said the design team did not consciously try to evoke a quilt in the exterior design, but he acknowledged that the interlocking forms might be read that way. "I think our work tends to do that anyway," he said. "It's collage-like."

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