Hopkins' new building a beacon of optimism

Architecture: Review

January 28, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Baltimoreans had enormous hopes for the city's future when they began rebuilding the central business district in the 1960s, and that optimism was reflected in its architecture.

Gleaming office towers rose in the Charles Center renewal area. Landscaped plazas were created for the many newcomers expected to live and work downtown. One restaurant alone -- the old Charcoal Hearth at the base of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre -- was equipped to serve hundreds of diners at every meal. Now that was optimism!

Baltimore's newest public building is a throwback to those heady days when people dared to think big about downtown, and wanted their architecture to show it. Its unabashedly Modernist design -- a glass and granite composition accentuated with an electronic news ticker, and nary a pilaster or pediment in sight -- compares favorably with the best buildings constructed in Baltimore over the past 40 years.

One could even argue that this new building improves on the original plan for Charles Center because it injects a use that was not initially part of the mix: higher education.

The glass-sheathed "lantern of learning" that opened at the southwest corner of Baltimore and Fayette streets on Jan. 2 is the Johns Hopkins University's new Downtown Center. Located where the old Hamburger's clothing store used to be, it's the new administrative headquarters of Hopkins' Graduate Division of Business and Management and one of five locations for its School of Professional Studies in Business and Education.

This $6.1 million, 35,000-square- foot academic center has twice the amount of teaching and office space contained in Hopkins' former downtown location two blocks north, and is expected to attract more than 2,500 students a year. Its clean lines and translucent glass walls create an impressive new address for Hopkins, which didn't previously have a strong physical presence downtown.

Besides satisfying Hopkins' expansion needs, designers of the Downtown Center made an even larger contribution to the public realm: an architecture of optimism for a city on the rebound.

As designed by Ziger Snead Architects of Baltimore, Hopkins' Downtown Center makes the same sort of bold yet refined architectural statement as the elegantly-proportioned One Charles Center office tower at 100 N. Charles St., designed by the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and opened in 1962.

By working with an architectural vocabulary similar to that of Mies' tower, the designers of Hopkins' building rekindled the '60s notion that architecture can make a difference in the way people feel about their city -- and that Modern architecture, in the right hands, can convey civic pride and optimism in a way no other design approach can.

The Modern movement in architecture took hold in America after World War II, a period when many designers wanted to make a break from the past. It produced buildings that were devoid of ornament and whose structural systems were left exposed. Their form-follows-function directness was considered an ideal expression for revitalization districts such as Charles Center.

Architect Steve Ziger, principal in charge of the project, said he chose to work in a modern idiom because he wanted to create a building that fits in with nearby structures and conveys confidence about the city's future. Just as One Charles Center provided a soaring symbol of the corporate sector's faith in Baltimore 40 years ago, he said, Hopkins' new academic center represents a renewed commitment to downtown today on the part of the university and the building's owner, attorney Peter G. Angelos.

Its design "recalls a day when there was hope for the city," Ziger said. "I believe that Modern architecture can still express the optimism that the earlier buildings did."

'We believe in downtown'

The switch from Hamburger's to Hopkins is one of the most dramatic and fortuitous transformations in Baltimore's urban landscape since the Charles Center renewal effort was launched more than 40 years ago. The change is so complete that many passers-by may not even realize that the Hopkins building uses the same structural skeleton as the clothing store.

As constructed in 1963, the clothing store was connected to the One Charles Center office tower by a wing that spanned Fayette Street. As long as Hamburger's kept it as its downtown flagship, the store was an asset to Charles Center. After Hamburger's went out of business in 1992, however, the building was converted to a discount clothing store and then closed altogether.

The vacant building was poorly maintained and soon became an eyesore on Charles Street. It also formed a visual barrier between the east and west sides of downtown, and turned part of Fayette Street into an oppressive tunnel.

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