Hopkins building fails aesthetically

City Diary

May 16, 2001|By RENE MULLER

WHAT IS THIS?" my friend and his wife ask each time they drive past the new Mattin Center at Johns Hopkins University.

Unable to understand how this structure parses out, they wonder what could be done. Rhetorically, they conclude: "Tear it down."

The Mattin Center, intended as a place where undergraduates can pursue their interest in music, theater, film, dance and the plastic arts, was dedicated on April 20.

It is built into a hillside along Charles Street, where 33rd Street ends. This site was formerly covered with tall gray beech and tulip poplar trees. A twin, vulval stairway enclosed a pedimented statue of Johns Hopkins. The steps invited pedestrians to walk up under the trees from the bustle of Charles Street to the quieter world of academe. A sylvan rise ended the westward vista along 33rd Street.

This natural setting was destroyed when the site was cleared for the new building.

The Mattin Center is actually three buildings arranged to create a courtyard, which is mostly hidden from the street. The building facing Charles Street is essentially a red brick wall topped by bluish, sandblasted glass.

Set back from the wall, the ill-fitting glass cap is separated into vertical rectangular sections by shiny, steel mullions. A forbidding, sharp-edged retaining wall, made from the same brick, rises directly from the sidewalk. The wall is broken by concrete steps that lead up to the courtyard. Johns Hopkins seems displaced in his new setting (maybe he misses being encompassed by the vulval stairway).

The problem with the Charles Street facade is that none of it hangs together and none of it pleases.

The red brick, which takes on an ugly cast when viewed from the street, and the smoky blue glass do not mix well. The steel mullions break the glass into a dead rhythm. What this facade shows Charles Street is DOA. The building is inward looking and selfish, giving no hint of what goes on inside.

From the courtyard, a narrowing, concrete stairway seems to lead nowhere; it goes up to the campus, but you would never know it from below. A rectangular archway opens onto the power plant, which is also made of brick and translucent glass. The exterior of the Mattin Center could have drawn its inspiration from this utilitarian structure.

Not to object to what this building shows Charles Street would be to deny that architecture is important. The exterior structure belies the building's vision: to provide a place for undergraduates in a high-pressure academic environment to pursue the fine arts. It is ironic that the Mattin Center appeared at a time when the Hopkins master plan - an ambitious, visionary attempt to put the aesthetic finishing touches on the Homewood campus - is nearing completion.

An even greater irony would be for a student entering this building, intending to meet his or her artistic destiny, not to understand how its exterior fails aesthetically. Education in the fine arts should prevent us from making structures that look like this one.

Today's writer

Rene J. Muller, an alumnus of the Johns Hopkins University, evaluates psychiatric emergency room patients and has written several books about mental illness, including "Beyond Marginality" (Praeger, 1998). He has a strong passion for buildings and aesthetics and lives in Charles Village.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues of concern to Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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