Project's lovelier the second time around

A chance to redesign a proposed downtown office tower brings a much better result.

Architecture: Review

April 29, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Is there an architect practicing today who hasn't wished, somewhere along the way, for the chance to go back and improve a previous design? A second chance is exactly what RTKL Associates got when it was commissioned to design downtown Baltimore's newest office building -- a $50 million, 18-story tower at 750 E. Pratt St.

The firm was hired in the late 1980s to design a 23-story tower for that location, but it was never built. Now a different developer wants to move ahead with essentially the same project. But instead of pulling a 10-year-old design out of the drawer, the new developer gave RTKL the opportunity to rethink its design and create a building that's appropriate for the city today.

The result is a building that works better as an office setting and as a gateway to Baltimore's central business district. The architects' chief accomplishment is that they took a stagnant and dated design and made it more dynamic and less of a postmodern pastiche. In the process, they demonstrated how the distinctive characteristics of a building's site can be used to shape the structure that rises there.

Work begins this week

The property is the air rights above the Concord Street substation, a $14 million facility built in 1989 by the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to distribute electricity to Baltimore's growing Inner Harbor area.

Aware of the land's value and the eastward movement of downtown development, BGE at that time asked RTKL to design the 60-foot-tall substation so it could support an office tower above. The idea was that a BGE affiliate, Constellation Real Estate Group, might develop the tower as a second phase of construction.

Those expansion plans were put on hold when the real estate market weakened in the early 1990s. But last year, local businessman Willard Hackerman, president and chief executive officer of the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. since 1955, stepped forward to buy the air rights and proceed with construction. His 320,000-square-foot project, called 750 East Pratt, will be the first office tower to rise in Baltimore's central business district in more than a decade. Whiting-Turner, which built the substation, will erect the tower as well. A ceremony to mark the start of construction will be held at noon Wednesday, and completion is expected by Dec. 1, 2002.

Bounded by Pratt, Concord and Lombard streets and the Fallsway, the site measures 92 feet wide and 323 feet long and would be a challenge to work with even if it didn't require building on top of a substation.

Unlike most sites on Pratt Street, the city's premier address, the long side runs perpendicular to the main street rather than parallel to it. It's at a point where two city grids converge, the downtown grid of Pratt and Light streets and the Inner Harbor East grid that lines up with the Lower Jones Falls. The building's east side will be highly visible to drivers on President Street, which leads to Interstate 83. It will also offer unobstructed views of the harbor and city neighborhoods to the east.

The substation posed another set of design issues. It occupies about 75 percent of the narrow parcel, leaving no room for parking. The office portion begins 60 feet in the air, which means the architects had to find a way to get people to that level.

The substation is also is one of the city's most unusual looking buildings. Anticipating that it might someday be the base for an office tower, BGE wanted RTKL to design facades that conceal its utilitarian nature. The architects responded by cladding the long, windowless building in granite, aluminum, mirrored glass and other materials that break it into a series of bays.

Because it was designed in an anything-goes era when architects were exploring postmodernism -- the often-whimsical practice of drawing from architectural history when creating a new structure -- the substation is essentially a decorated box, and it has a curiously scaleless quality to it. Many people who drive by don't know what's inside, and aren't meant to. Hackerman considers it "unquestionably the most beautiful transformer station in the world."

The original 23-story tower was designed to sit atop this heavily ornamented base and relate to it and the buildings nearby. Renderings from 1990 show that its granite and precast stone skin was to have the same pinkish hue. Window patterns appear similar to those on the neighboring Candler Building. The top stepped back from Pratt Street as the building got taller, creating terraces like those atop the Scarlett Place condominiums. The worst part of this early design is not that that it was derivative but that it was so static, a huge structure plopped on top of this rather delicate jewel box of a base. The Lombard Street side turned its back on the city to the north.

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