Metro West is changing with the neighborhood

Architecture: Review

September 02, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Architects often take pride in designing buildings that reflect their "context" -- the scale and appearance of surrounding structures and public spaces.

But when the architectural context changes, should the buildings that are left behind change, too?

That's the issue faced by architects renovating one of Baltimore's largest structures -- the Metro West federal office center at Mulberry and Greene streets.

Given the choice of preserving the building's original appearance or changing it substantially as part of a multimillion-dollar repair contract, RTKL Associates opted to give it a new look that's designed to help it fit in better with its changing surroundings.

The result is an office complex that will be just as much of a behemoth as before, but potentially less forbidding. It's a prime example of the impact today's urban-oriented designers can have on recasting (some would say mitigating) works of modern architecture that were not well integrated with their environs. With additional changes beneath the surface, Metro West could be even more of an asset to the city.

Opened in 1980 as part of the U.S. Social Security Administration, Metro West cost $92 million to build and ranks as one of Baltimore's largest office complexes, with 1.3 million square feet of space spread over four city blocks. Bounded by Greene, Franklin and Saratoga streets and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, it originally housed nearly 5,000 employees and still holds close to 3,500.

For such a large structure, Metro West never seemed overwhelming, because it covered so much land. It's actually two sections straddling Mulberry Street and connected by a bridge-like section above the road. Its tallest portion rises 14 stories -- half the height of office towers in Baltimore's central business district.

But Metro West also was never particularly inviting or friendly to passers-by. Designed by Leo A. Daly and Associates of Omaha and the Ehrenkrantz Group of New York, it's an example of late 1970s modernism in which architects were not afraid to create large, abstract shapes that bore little relationship to the more highly articulated buildings constructed before World War II.

The postmodern approach of drawing from classical architecture and giving a building a base, middle and top, or details such as a cornice, had not yet taken hold in Baltimore. As a result, the walls of Metro West were devoid of ornamentation. Its coloration was uniformly dark. Entrances were hard to find. In many ways, the building was a fortress. At best, it was a benign presence on the cityscape.

No visitors allowed

The stripped-down appearance made some sense, given the bleak nature of the area and the way the building was used. Metro West was built on the western fringe of the downtown business district, with Interstate 70 and acres of public housing nearby. There wasn't much of a neighborhood to plug into.

Also, although it was built as part of a federal initiative to put office workers in cities, Metro West houses Social Security Administration employees who collect data and answer questions by phone. Unlike the Fallon or Garmatz buildings downtown, it isn't a place for the general public to drop in. People can't even go there to get a Social Security card. It's no wonder the architects designed it to be seen by people driving by at 50 mph.

Inside, the building contains vast work and storage spaces, with some floors measuring 500 feet long by 200 feet wide. The arrangement of forms -- horizontal offices connected to vertical towers containing stairs and mechanical equipment -- differs from nearby buildings and reinforces the impression that it was a work of sculpture set apart from its surroundings.

But after less than 20 years, the exterior walls were not holding up well. Moisture was getting behind the prefab brick panels and damaging them. Three years ago, the General Services Administration hired RTKL Associates to recommend ways to repair the exterior while leaving interiors intact. RTKL's effort was headed by principal in charge David Thompson and project architect Douglas McCoach, with Tim Hutcheson as project manager and staff architects Adam Luginbill and Sharon Horvath rounding out the team.

The architects could have replaced the 1980 surfaces with materials that simply replicated their appearance. One engineering consultant suggested just that. But the architects decided that as long as they were reskinning the building anyway, they should at least explore giving it an exterior more in keeping with the area today.

"The environment has changed," Thompson said. "We wanted to upgrade [Metro West's] appearance and sense of scale -- to brighten it up. This is downtown, not Woodlawn."

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