Creativity's Chrysalis

As an incubator for artistic endeavors, the unusual Mattin Center at Johns Hopkins University fills a void for students and builds a bridge to the surrounding community.

Architecture: Review

April 15, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

College is a journey, a time and place of transition. Students train to be teachers, scientists, doctors, but they haven't made it yet. They meet people from different cultures, and develop skills and opinions they'll carry with them the rest of their lives.

Transition and transformation are themes of the Mattin Center, a $17 million student arts center that will be dedicated at 4:30 p.m. Friday on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus.

From the eclectic mix of materials -- including a new "Johns Hopkins brick" -- to the many pathways and overlooks incorporated into the design, this is a building that celebrates the journey, the process of becoming, rather than the arrival at any final destination. It's a place where students will spend more time creating art, practicing music, rehearsing plays and planning events than they will showing off the results of their endeavors. It's also open to the public, providing a much-needed link between the university's campus and Charles Village to the east.

As with many journeys, there are bumps along the way. The brick walls along Charles Street don't adequately convey the complexity and richness of spaces inside. Some rooms don't suit the assigned uses. Others are sublime.

As students get to know and use this new amenity, however, it should become clear that there is nothing like it on the Homewood campus -- or anywhere else in Baltimore. It promises to make the journey a little easier for many Hopkins students, and perhaps richer, too, as they proceed down their separate academic paths.

"This is a transforming gift," said university president William Brody. "It will make an enormous difference in students' lives."

Improving quality of life

Named for the family of Christina Mattin, a 1975 Hopkins graduate who donated $7.5 million toward construction, the center was built to meet a need. Hopkins is a top-ranked institution of higher learning, but it has a reputation for offering a poor quality of campus life. Some candidates enroll elsewhere as a result.

Recognizing the potential of the arts to contribute to a science-oriented campus, Hopkins planned a center where students can spend time exploring their interests in music and the performing and fine arts. It's not so much a regional venue as a student union with arts overtones. Plans called for a variety of places where students can go between or after classes, from offices for campus organizations to painting studios to a cyber cafe. The location was a half-acre parcel along Charles Street between the university's main entrance and the Baltimore Museum of Art's Levi sculpture garden.

The idea appealed to Mattin, a London resident who majored in the social sciences and whose favorite professor was art historian Phoebe Stanton. "I wanted Johns Hopkins to have an arts center," she said. "With all the other strengths at Hopkins, it seemed to me a real void on the campus."

A unifying center

Such a center, she added, will give students who have artistic talent but aren't taking arts courses for credit "an opportunity they might not otherwise have had to explore their creative sides."

Hopkins staged a limited design competition and selected the highly regarded New York firm of Tod Williams, Billie Tsien & Associates to design the center. William Vincent and Betty Chen are the project architects. Henry H. Lewis Contractors is the construction manager and general contractor.

Instead of creating one 50,000-square-foot building, Williams and Tsien broke the center into three low-rise structures framing a triangular outdoor courtyard. The buildings have been set into a hillside previously covered by trees -- a controversial aspect of the project. Lower levels are made of block and brick, upper levels of steel and sandblasted glass. Besides using wood-molded red bricks, the architects worked with a manufacturer to create a "Johns Hopkins brick" speckled with a metallic glaze that gives it a gray or blue hue, depending on the color of the sky.

Each building serves different purposes. One provides offices and meeting rooms for student groups. One contains a black box theater, cafe, dance studio, digital media studio and Hopkins' student life office. One houses music practice rooms, art studios and darkrooms.

The largest and most unifying space is the courtyard, a serene outdoor room with three Japanese maples and a fountain in the center. Accessible from four directions, it's both a campus crossroads and a destination, a place of passage and of gathering.

The architects made a high percentage of space available for circulation, including ramps, stairs and overlooks. These pathways reinforce the sense of coming and going, while making the center an inviting place to take a break or just people-watch. The BMA now opens the northern gate to its sculpture garden so people can stroll between it and the arts center.

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