A bold new building for art institute

A dazzling plan for the Brown Center features a thoroughly original design, `the intersection of place and idea,' as one architect puts it.

Architecture : Review

March 25, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

For too many years, Baltimore has been a wallflower at the architectural cotillion.

Los Angeles made a striking impression with its new Getty Center. Bilbao, Spain, captured the world's attention with its Guggenheim museum. Even sleepy Milwaukee is turning heads with its winged waterfront museum addition by Santiago Calatrava.

While these and other cities waltz off with the accolades, Baltimore has waited meekly for its chance to be the belle of the ball. That wait may soon be over.

Tomorrow, representatives of the Maryland Institute, College of Art will formally announce plans to build the Brown Center, a $12 million home for courses in art and design technology. The five-level building has been designed by Charles Brickbauer with Ziger/Snead Architects of Baltimore for a prime site in the Mount Royal cultural district.

Judging from initial drawings, it will be the sort of dazzler that Baltimore hasn't seen in quite some time - a highly sculptural and thoroughly original design that makes the most of a prominent urban location.

The promise of the Brown Center lies in its crystalline form, its translucent glass skin, the way it will play off nearby structures, and the reassuring message it sends about art and architecture. There has never been anything quite like it, and yet it seems entirely appropriate for and expressive of its setting and purpose. It has the potential to be Baltimore's first great building of the new millennium.

A center for digital arts

Named for Eddie and Sylvia Brown, who are donating $6 million of the $12 million construction cost, the center will be the first all-new academic structure to rise on the Maryland Institute campus since the Main Building opened at 1300 Mount Royal Ave. in 1907. All other campus buildings, except for student housing completed in 1992, are adaptations of structures built for other purposes, from a train station to a shoe factory.

With 61,000 square feet of space, the Brown Center will house departments in the college's growing digital arts curriculum, including graduate photography, digital imaging, computer animation, digital media arts, video, environmental and interior design, and graphic design, plus a 550-seat auditorium.

The site is a half-acre parcel directly opposite the college's Main Building, on the east side of Mount Royal Avenue. Just outside the Bolton Hill historic district, the land was identified in a 2000 master plan by Ayers Saint Gross as the key location to connect the current campus with an area designated for future growth.

Ziger/Snead is a 17-year-old firm that was responsible for the institute's last major academic structure, a $5.5 million conversion of the AAA office building at 1401 Mount Royal Ave. to the Bunting Center, containing a library, classrooms and faculty offices.

Brickbauer, the design architect, has been associated with Ziger/Snead since 1995 and is widely regarded as one of Baltimore's best architects. A diehard modernist who studied at Yale University, he got his start working with Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on the Seagram Building in New York and has never lost his Miesian penchant for clarity and attention to detail.

Throughout his career, Brickbauer has explored different ways to build with glass. His past projects, either with Ziger/Snead or his previous partnership, Peterson and Brickbauer, include the shimmering green glass office building in Mount Washington that houses the law firm of Piper Marbury Rudnick and Wolfe; the Baltimore Washington International Airport's traveler-friendly 1979 terminal; the mirrored glass cube in Towson that serves as Baltimore County's Public Safety headquarters, and the Blaustein Exhibition Center, with its cast iron facade from the Fava Fruit Co., "folded" like an accordion.

Institute president Fred Lazarus asked the architects to design a building that would not only help the college meet its space needs but establish a contemporary image for the campus and capture the vitality of its programs.

Brickbauer responded by taking what might have been a conventional building and turning it into a work of sculpture. Because the land is at a point in the city where two different street grids intersect to create one irregularly shaped parcel, he said, a rectangular floor plate would not have made efficient use of the property. Instead, he decided to make the floor plate a parallelogram, with the exterior walls lining up with two streets that frame the site, Mount Royal Avenue and Howard Street. But he didn't stop there.

He also tilted the building's west wall at a 63-degree angle to Mount Royal Avenue - the same 63-degree angle he derived from the intersecting street grids. As seen from the side, it juts out toward the street like the prow of a ship. That makes the Brown Center one of the few non-rectilinear buildings that has the same basic profile when seen from the side or from above.

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