A cube of glass and water

Review: Promising addition to aquarium should prove inviting for the public to look and come inside.

August 12, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Asked to design an expansion of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, architects Peter Chermayeff and Bobby Poole could have played it safe and designed more of the same sort of building that's already on Pier 3.

That's what they originally proposed -- to continue the lines and materials of the waterfront masterpiece that opened 20 years ago, with its colorful signal flag graphics, heavy concrete base and glass pyramids on the roof.

But they recently came up with an alternative design that in many ways would be the exact opposite of the original building -- a glass cube that allows visitors to look in and see a 50-foot waterfall and related habitats they can explore inside.

While the old building is relatively dark and introverted, the addition appears bright and extroverted. While the old one relied on striking architecture to catch the eye, this one features striking exhibitry. Some exhibits, in fact, will spill right onto the plaza.

It's a more daring approach. And from the standpoint of preserving the original building's appearance while adding a new dimension to attract visitors, it has great promise. The glass front provides a bold new face for the aquarium and makes a wonderful gesture of openness to the city. It also mirrors the way the aquarium has blossomed from a civic institution of limited means to one with great impact and a widespread community outreach.

Planned for construction by 2005 just north of the aquarium's original building on Pier 3 (501 E. Pratt St.), the $48 million expansion is the first phase of an $88.6 million master plan that will bring changes to Piers 3 and 4. Its construction was prompted by the aquarium's desire to make a series of visitor-oriented improvements, including a new entrance, restaurant and gift shop. It also will contain one blockbuster exhibit -- the re-creation of a river canyon in the Australian Outback, complete with waterfall.

The architects for the addition, Chermayeff, Sollogub and Poole Inc. of Boston, determined that these elements could all be accommodated in a building that conforms to the geometry of the existing aquarium. They suggested putting the major exhibit beneath a third glass pyramid.

But continuing the original architectural vocabulary turned out to be an expensive proposition, and early plans far exceeded the budget. That's when Poole came up with the idea of the glass cube instead.

"We thought, if we don't try to replicate it, the other way is to treat it as an extrovert, in comparison with the introverted building it is now," he explained.

Twenty years ago, "we had to design a building that was an experience on a pier," he added. "We were creating an architectural expression when there was no institution. Now that it's a very, very rich institution, with a lot of breadth and depth, we think it's appropriate to express the institution more than the architecture."

The preliminary design calls for the addition to be 110 feet square in plan, with its sides set at a 45-degree angle to the pier. One corner juts out toward Pratt Street -- a dynamic gesture that loosely echoes the aquarium's rounded nose on the south end of Pier 3. The top has been sliced off at an angle that's slightly less steep than the glass pyramids, creating a roof that from certain angles appears diamond-shaped. The two walls facing Pratt Street are made of glass, providing a welcoming new front door for the building. The two walls on the south side of the cube are mostly opaque -- forming a backdrop for the main exhibit, blocking southern sunlight and concealing mechanical equipment and curatorial areas.

The glass cube is one of several ways the aquarium is reaching out more to the public. The architects also redesigned the plaza so the visitor experience starts outside on Pier 3, with a "carpet" of free, Maryland-related exhibits leading to the new entrance. Its new restaurant also will spill out onto the pier.

The plus side

The revised plan eliminated unnecessary circulation space and lowered costs proportionately. But what started as a cost-cutting move has a number of design advantages as well.

First, it helps lift the curtain a bit on the organization. The original building has always been distinctive, but its mostly windowless concrete base has never given passers-by much of a clue what's going on inside. Visually, it's a fortress. The glass walls invite people to come closer -- and reward them with a tantalizing view of activity inside. Symbolically, they connote openness and transparency.

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