Off the soap box, on to e-business

New buildings at the old Procter & Gamble site give shape to an emerging 'Digital Harbor' concept.


July 02, 2000|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

"Where is this 'Digital Harbor' that everyone's talking about?" a young woman asked during a recent breakfast at the Johns Hopkins University.

"I just moved to Baltimore, and I've been looking for it. Isn't it somewhere out towards Locust Point?"

There is no quick answer to these questions. "Digital Harbor" is a phrase that private business owners and public officials have begun using to describe Greater Baltimore's technology community and the area's potential to be a magnet for even more Internet entrepreneurs seeking unconventional space to house their companies.

Coined by Wes Shaffer of Cornerstone, a Baltimore-based public relations and advertising firm, and picked up by real estate developer Bill Struever and others, the phrase is a memorable moniker for a region, like northern California's Silicon Valley or North Carolina's Research Triangle. It builds on the widespread recognition of Baltimore's Inner Harbor yet takes it into the 21st century and the realm of high technology.

But "Digital Harbor" isn't so much a place as a state of mind. It doesn't necessarily even refer to the waterfront, since "harbor" can mean any sort of safe haven or home port.

If all goes as planned, though, Baltimore will soon get a set of buildings that will begin to give physical expression to this relatively abstract concept, a place newcomers will be able to visit and sense the possibility behind the catch phrase.

The buildings will rise on the grounds of Tide Point, a $67 million office center that Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse is creating within the shells of five buildings that were formerly part of the Procter & Gamble soapmaking plant in Locust Point.

Named for products made there -- Joy, Tide, Ivory, Cascade and Dawn -- the Procter & Gamble buildings date from the late 1920s and are rapidly filling with tenants.

As part of its development agreement with the city, Struever Bros. received permission to construct several more buildings around the perimeter of the property to house restaurants, a day-care center, conference facility and other amenities.

These could have been the dullest of additions. But Struever and his architects decided to create buildings that can both frame the historic Procter & Gamble structures and stand out from them like works of sculpture along the water. While the renovated buildings will house individual companies, these new structures will contain the common spaces that serve everyone. Architecturally, they will give the area a completely different dimension.

The most provocative of these buildings is also the smallest. It's a two-story glass and metal structure that will be constructed at the western tip of a public promenade along the water's edge, directly across the harbor from Fells Point.

The ground floor will contain a coffee bar or small cafe. The upper floor will be a seating area featuring sweeping views of Baltimore's harbor, with much of the floor space cantilevered precariously over the wharf to heighten the overlook effect. The glass walls will be coated so that images can be projected on them -- graphics about Fort McHenry, for example, or historic Baltimore steamships.

Though small in terms of square footage, this building will have a big impact as a calling card for Tide Point in particular and Baltimore's rejuvenated waterfront in general.

By day it will be a playful new lookout point for the harbor -- light and shimmering, in contrast to the heavier industrial buildings that are being renovated for office use.

At night it will glow from within like a Japanese lantern, or light up like the Domino Sugar sign. It can even be transformed to a screen for outdoor movies, like the ones shown in Little Italy. Futuristic, evanescent, more than a little mysterious, it can be whatever one wants it to be -- just like the Digital Harbor.

Two other structures planned for the perimeter of Tide Point will contain restaurants. A fourth, rising four stories, will house a day-care center, conference facility and offices. With 75,000 square feet of space, this will be the largest of the four and will form a gateway to Tide Point for those arriving from the west.

Mexico connection

These unusual buildings are being designed by a newly formed architectural firm with offices in New York City and Baltimore. Its name is TEN W Architects, and it's affiliated with a Mexico City-based firm known as TEN Arquitectos.

TEN refers to Taller de Enrique Norten, or studio of Enrique Norten. It's a 15-year-old firm headed by Mexican architects Enrique Norten and Bernardo Gomez-Pimienta. The two are known for their modernist compositions, often characterized by light materials, complex forms and technical innovation.

The W refers to a new partner of Norten's but an architect familiar to many in Maryland -- Barbara Wilks, an award-winning designer who has worked in Baltimore since 1974. Last year she left the firm of Cho Wilks & Benn in Baltimore (now Cho Benn & Holback) to work in New York City.

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