Museum back on drawing board


Revisions: Disappointed by preliminary plans for Maryland's African-American museum in downtown Baltimore, sponsors have dropped the original architects and designer and will select a new team to complete the project.

February 17, 2000|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

AFTER SPENDING more than a year developing a design for the Maryland Museum of African-American History and Culture in downtown Baltimore, sponsors of the $26 million project are going back to the drawing board.

Maryland's Department of General Services has terminated the contract of the original architects and exhibit designer so that another team can be selected to complete the project.

Nikki Smith, administrator of the state's African-American Initiative program and liaison to a citizens group that is overseeing planning for the museum, said officials hope to interview candidates in the next week or so and select a new architect by March. A new exhibit designer will be selected later in the year.

Smith said the decision to terminate the first architects' contract was made by the Department of General Services in December and had the backing of Maryland African-American Museum Corp., the group planning the museum.

"The [museum] board supported the action," she said. "We were all in agreement that it take place."

The 72,000-square-foot museum is being planned to celebrate achievements of African-Americans in Maryland. The city donated a 300-foot-long site at the northeast corner of Pratt and President streets. The architect was Associated Baltimore Architects, a joint venture of Amos Bailey & Lee Ltd. and Grieves, Worrall, Wright and O'Hatnick Inc., with Miles Fridberg Molinaroli of Washington as the exhibit designer.

The designers proposed a four-level building containing exhibit space, an auditorium, a cafe, offices and storage areas. Its brick-and-glass exterior was designed as an assemblage of geometrical forms.

The preliminary plans drew heavy criticism from a design review panel consisting of members of the city's Design Advisory Panel and the state's Architectural Review Board. Members said they did not think the designs adequately expressed the nature of the museum or the spirit of African-American culture.

"I don't get any sense from this building that this is an African-American museum as opposed to being one of 35 other things," panel member M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., said at one meeting.

Panel member Elliot Rhodeside agreed with Brodie's assessment. "The drawings are so somber. African-American culture is so vibrant," he said. "I think you can really be bold to really reflect African-American culture."

This is the second time in a decade that planners have changed the designer of a major Inner Harbor attraction. In the early 1990s, sponsors of the $160 million Columbus Center on Piers 5 and 6 terminated a contract with British architect Richard Rogers and hired the Zeidler Roberts Partnership of Toronto.

Smith said the original designers of the African-American museum project completed some work that ought to be valuable to the new team, including a survey showing underground utilities that must be relocated before construction can begin. But she said the new team will be free to take a different design approach.

Though the site and scope of the project are the same, she said, one change in the procurement process this time is that the state will have separate contracts with the architect and the exhibit designer.

The state has appropriated $23 million of the $26 million needed to design and build the museum, with the understanding that the rest will come from other sources. The museum board hopes to open the facility by the end of 2002, Smith said.

Designer Bran Ferren forming technology company

The man who designed the public exhibits at Columbus Center has taken a new job.

Bran Ferren, head of research and development for Walt Disney Co., announced this month that he and another Disney researcher, Danny Hillis, are leaving to form Applied Minds, a technology company.

Before joining Disney in 1993, Ferren headed an East Coast company that was hired to design marine-themed exhibits for the Columbus Center's Hall of Exploration, the area under the white canopy on the west side of the building.

The hall drew a fraction of the number of visitors that was projected and closed less than a year after it opened. Ferren's subsequent link with Disney, however, has been noted as one of the reasons that a subsidiary, Walt Disney Imagineering, agreed to design exhibits for Port Discovery, Baltimore's children's museum.

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