MICA project is a positive step for city

Outlook: Brown Center will bring attention to overlooked section.


March 26, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

When the Maryland Institute, College of Art opens its newest building in 2003, much of the attention is likely to be on its striking design: a crystalline sculpture clad entirely in translucent white glass.

Created by Charles Brickbauer with Ziger/Snead Architects of Baltimore, the $12 million Brown Center promises to be a new icon for the campus and a symbol of Baltimore's growing prominence in technology and design.

But an equally significant achievement is the way the college and its architects have reclaimed a forgotten section of the city and made it the setting for such a dramatic structure.

In recent years, planners have looked to Baltimore's Inner Harbor as the likeliest site for a signature building that could be the local equivalent of the Opera House in Sydney, Australia, or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

In the 1970s and 1980s, they considered the Mount Royal Cultural District to be a prime setting for a series of landmark-quality buildings housing the arts. Several buildings have been constructed there, including Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and additions to Lyric Opera House, but all of the building activity to date has been in the area bounded by Charles, Chase, Howard and Dolphin streets.

Even advocates for the Mount Royal cultural district probably would not have predicted that a parking lot across from Maryland Institute's Main Building at 1300 Mount Royal Ave. would become the setting for one of the most daring local building projects to be unveiled in years, but that's the way it has turned out.

Maryland Institute President Fred Lazarus, who was scheduled to formally announce plans for the Brown Center at a news conference today, said the college gained control of the half-acre parcel in the mid-1990s, as part of its acquisition of the AAA building at 1401 Mount Royal Ave. The college moved quickly to renovate the AAA building for academic use, but it kept the land in reserve for future expansion.

The idea of using the former AAA lot to build the Institute's first all-new academic structure in nearly 100 years came from the design firm of Ayers Saint Gross, which completed a campus plan in 2000 that identified possible sites for expansion.

Ayers Saint Gross recommended that the college use land east of Mount Royal Avenue between Lanvale and McMechen streets - on the crest of a hill overlooking the Jones Falls Expressway - to construct a series of buildings containing housing, classrooms, offices and student support services. And it identified the land across from the Main Building as the best place to build the first structure, which could then serve as a link between the existing campus and the new growth area.

The college hired Brickbauer and Ziger/Snead to design that initial building, with the charge that it be an architecturally distinctive structure that establishes a contemporary image for the campus.

The building will house departments in the college's growing digital arts curriculum, including computer animation, digital imaging, video, environment and interior design, graphic design and graduate photography.

One of the college's trustees, investment manager Eddie Brown, was so excited by the project and the all-glass design that he and his wife Sylvia donated $6 million to help build it. Construction is expected to begin next year.

The AAA property turned out to be a terrific building site because it is on high ground, close to the rest of the campus and visible from many directions. The Brown Center's architects have discovered that their building will be easy to spot not only from Mount Royal Avenue but from the Jones Falls Expressway and Howard Street - two of the most heavily-traveled corridors in the city. That alone will make it more prominent than many other buildings in the Mount Royal cultural district.

Even the parcel's irregular shape turned out to be an asset. According to Brickbauer, the site is one of the most complicated parcels he has ever worked on, because the bordering streets do not come together at right angles.

But the complex geometries of the site actually turned out to be a blessing, Brickbauer said, because in responding to the irregular shape of the parcel and other site constraints, he came up with an irregularly shaped building. In retrospect, he said, the site constraints led him to create a more dynamic design than if the site had been less complicated.

Preservation post mortem

Recent attempts by local preservationists to save Memorial Stadium and historic buildings on Redwood Street will be the topic of discussion during a free forum noon Wednesday at the Johns Hopkins University's Downtown Center, Charles and Fayette streets. Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, will be the lead speaker of the forum, sponsored by the Baltimore Architecture Foundation.

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