ICON in stone and steel

Sydney has its opera house, Bilbao its Guggenheim Museum. What might such a signature structure, set on one of the harbor's most prominent sites, do for Baltimore?

Cover Story

September 24, 2000|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

For those following the Olympics, it's impossible to avoid images of Australia's most famous work of architecture, the Sydney Opera House.

Whether it's serving as a backdrop for fireworks, finish line for the triathlon or logo for NBC cameras, Jorn Utzon's 1957 masterpiece has become a powerful symbol of the 2000 Games and Sydney's emergence as a world-class city.

As Baltimore prepares a bid with Washington to play host to the 2012 Olympics, more than a few Marylanders may wonder if it, too, needs a signature building on the order of the opera house. And if so, what should it be for and where should it go?

Local architects, planners and other design experts are sharply divided on the subject. Some say Baltimore already has the National Aquarium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and that it shouldn't try to build a landmark for the sake of building a landmark. They warn that Australia's showpiece took nearly 17 years to complete and came in millions of dollars over budget, and that erecting a similar structure today could be more trouble than it's worth.

But others love the idea of a world-class building on Baltimore's skyline, and think that the best site would be Harbor Point -- the former Allied Signal chrome plant property that juts into the water between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point, now cleared and ready for development.

They note that many cities are known by their landmarks -- whether it's Hagia Sophia in Istanbul or the Eiffel Tower in Paris -- and that a new architectural icon could help put Baltimore on the map. In fact, they say, early plans for the Allied property envisioned that part of it would be reserved for a signature building.

Advocates for more adventurous architecture point to "the Bilbao effect" -- the acclaim and attention that can come to a city or region when it gains a landmark as dazzling and instantly recognizable as Frank Gehry's titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

"These buildings help attract tourists and businesses and instill a sense of pride in city residents," said Richard Burns, a principal of Design Collective. Burns said he visited the Bilbao museum earlier this year and was impressed by the changes it had triggered in the region. "If we're going to compete with other cities -- not just for tourism but to bring in new businesses and improve the quality of life for those who live here -- we have to go further in terms of architecture."

Klaus Philipsen, an architect who heads ArchPlan Inc. of Baltimore, was involved in early planning for redevelopment of the Allied property when he worked with Cho Wilks and Benn Architects. He recalls that designers considered setting aside a key portion of the 27-acre parcel for open space or a public building such as a performing arts center, and that the Sydney Opera House was cited as an example of the sort of structure that might be appropriate there.

Planners later decided to build a performing arts center in and around the old Hippodrome Theater on the west side of downtown. But Philipsen said he still likes the idea of a signature building at Harbor Point.

"That would be a fantastic site to do it," he said. "It could be an opera house -- a reincarnation of the Lyric."

Baltimore doesn't get many architectural tourists because it doesn't have the same caliber of modern buildings as some other cities in the United States or Europe, Philipsen noted. "We have a wonderful architectural fabric, but no one comes to see the architectural fabric. Once in a while, you have to have a daring, signature building that stands out to make you appreciate the fabric."

Mario Schack, an architect who serves on Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel, said he believes the National Aquarium in Baltimore represented an attempt by its architects to do for Baltimore's waterfront what the opera house does for Sydney. He also sees the Inner Harbor, in its totality, as a place that successfully represents Baltimore.

"Even with all the jumble around it, the Inner Harbor is still an outdoor living room for the city, and it's very symbolic of Baltimore," he said. "It's very identifiable."

What defines an icon?

To be an icon, a building needs not only the right design but also the right site, Schack said. "If there were a site such as the Allied property that has sufficient land around it, I don't see why we wouldn't be ready for something like this. It certainly brings in tax dollars and people. Why not?"

M. Jay Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said the use of the signature building is also important to its success.

"If there is a use that would produce a signature building, fine," he said. "But I wouldn't just produce a sculptural object without a good reason. We shouldn't force it to happen just because we think we need a work of sculpture."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.