Afro-American museum picks design team

The Urban Landscape

Collaboration: RTKL Associates, Freelon Group to create the $26 million museum that will be built at Pratt and President streets.

March 09, 2000|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

MARYLAND'S largest architecture firm, RTKL Associates, is well-known as a designer of office buildings and retail centers. It also creates hospitals, hotels and "urban entertainment" centers.

Now, RTKL is part of the team tapped to design Baltimore's newest attraction, a $26 million Maryland Museum of African-American History and Culture.

The Maryland African-American Museum Corp., a quasi-public group that is building the 72,000-square-foot museum, disclosed this month that it has selected a joint venture of RTKL and the Freelon Group, a design firm from Durham, N.C., as the new architects for the project, which is planned for the northeast corner of Pratt and President streets.

Freelon and RTKL were chosen over five other groups that bid to design the building, which will be the second-largest African-American museum in the country after one in Detroit. The team will replace Associated Baltimore Architects, whose contract was terminated in December.

The winning team is a collaboration between "a young, emerging African-American firm with a proven record of success designing cultural institutions" and "a seasoned Baltimore firm" with multi-disciplinary resources, "a unique group of designers focused on `the guest experience' and a demonstrated focus on quality and excellence," said Nikki DeJesus Smith, chief executive officer of the museum corporation.

The architects were chosen because they expressed their vision, understanding of the project and approach with "passion, conviction and a tremendous amount of energy, creativity and thoughtfulness," she said. They "demonstrated to the interview committee their sincere commitment to seeing the project completed in a way that honors the spirit of the African-American experience in Maryland."

The state has appropriated $23 million of the $26 million needed to design and build the museum; the rest will come from other sources. The board hopes to open the museum by the end of 2002.

The selection is a major civic commission for RTKL and Freelon and a chance for them to demonstrate their talents in museum design. It is particularly meaningful for Gary Bowden, senior vice president of RTKL and the highest-ranking African-American architect there, and Philip Freelon, president and founder of the Freelon Group.

After working on a wide range of projects, Bowden said, he sees this project as a chance to make a lasting contribution to Baltimore and Maryland, where he has lived for 30 years.

Now 59, Bowden said he is at the career stage where he is looking to take on projects that have "personal meaning." He said the museum is meaningful to him because he is an African-American, in a "majority" firm with a multicultural staff.

"This is not the kind of project that you might expect from RTKL," he said. "I think we'll be able to bring a certain passion about the project that some of the other groups couldn't bring. It's great to be able to do a building for your own hometown."

It's also a significant commission for Freelon, which has established a reputation as a rising star among African-American firms.

"We're delighted to have been selected," Philip Freelon said. "We think it's going to be one of the most important buildings to be constructed in Maryland in the next 10 years, maybe even beyond that. We think it's a great opportunity to deliver a building that's inviting to all people, not just African-Americans, a building that will welcome everyone and express the spirit of the African-American people."

Although this is the first time RTKL and Freelon have worked together, Bowden and Freelon have known each other for years. When he was studying for a master's degree in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Freelon said, he was recruited to work for RTKL by a former principal, George Pillorge.

Freelon said he stayed in contact with RTKL over the years. When he learned that the museum corporation was looking for an architect, Freelon said, he suggested to Bowden that the two firms collaborate.

Additional members of the winning design team are Mahan Rykiel Associates, the landscape architect, and Delon Hampton Associates, the civil engineer.

Bowden said he hopes the building itself can be a vehicle for telling rich stories about African-Americans in Maryland.

"I think it should have a spirit about it that makes you know it's about African-Americans," he said.

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