From the sensuous to the studious

After a fling with modern design, Hopkins returns to a familiar look for its new biomedical engineering building.

Architecture: Review

November 04, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Architecture at the Johns Hopkins University is like Baltimore's weather: If you don't like what you see, wait a while and it will change.

Last spring, Hopkins dignitaries gathered on the Homewood campus for the opening of Mattin Center, an arts complex in the vanguard of architectural design.

This fall, they celebrated the completion of Clark Hall, a teaching and research building that looks as if it could have been built in the 1800s.

Both are attractive structures, with their own strengths. But students may be forgiven for looking at two buildings so close to each other on the same campus and wondering, "What century are we in?"

While Mattin is all about sensuous materials and the relationship between buildings and nature, Clark Hall takes an approach that is at once more conservative and more ambitious.

It was designed to be a cutting-edge facility for students of biomedical engineering, the largest undergraduate major at Hopkins. But it was also intended to blend into a campus known largely for its Georgian-style buildings, starting with Homewood House. Its architects dressed the building with an exterior that fits the Georgian campus, but designed interiors to incorporate the latest technological advances.

The result is a finely detailed, scholarly building that signals Hopkins' respect for tradition as well as innovation. Its Georgian cloak may perplex some observers who have been to Mattin Center and thought Hopkins was becoming more adventurous in its architecture. But it also indicates what an effort the architects of Clark Hall made to create a building that works well for its occupants and the campus at large.

"The position we're taking is that it's more important to say something about the tradition of the campus as a whole than to say something about ego," said Graham Wyatt, a partner of Robert A.M. Stern Architects of New York, one of two firms that designed Clark Hall.

"We're more interested in genius loci -- the spirit of place -- than with the Zeitgeist -- the spirit of the age," Wyatt said. "The nice thing about Hopkins is that it has a very strong tradition of design -- classic, simple, symmetrical buildings with multicolored slate roofs and Flemish bond brick with grapevine joints. It's one of America's great campuses."

Quadrangle developing

Named after trustee emeritus A. James Clark, Clark Hall is the first new building at Homewood devoted solely to teaching and research since 1990, when the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy opened.

Constructed at a cost of $13 million to house Hopkins' Whitaker Biomedical Engineering Institute, it's the cornerstone for a new quadrangle planned for the south side of campus. With 56,800 square feet of space, it contains research laboratories for faculty, laboratories for visiting scientists from industry, undergraduate teaching labs and interactive multimedia computer classrooms.

Most research within Hopkins' biomedical engineering program had been based at the School of Medicine in East Baltimore. The completion of Clark Hall allows the program to develop a strong presence at Homewood as well and to establish more collaborations with researchers there.

The building itself was a collaboration between HLM Design of Bethesda, the architect of record, and Stern, the design architect and a consultant to HLM. Stern's office was responsible for the exterior design and the central stair hall. HLM designed the laboratories and offices and prepared the construction drawings.

Working with Ayers Saint Gross, the Baltimore-based firm that prepared a master plan for the Homewood campus, Stern sited the building to form the start of the new quadrangle. The space known as Garland Field eventually will be enclosed by a half-dozen buildings. As the first, Clark Hall had to define a western edge for this quadrangle while lining up with other buildings on campus. It also had to give the biomedical engineering institute a distinctive identity at Homewood.

The exterior design represents the continuation of a tradition that existed at Johns Hopkins from the start of the campus until the 1960s, when major buildings had a Georgian flavor. After that, architecture went in other directions, and designers produced modern structures such as the Glass Pavilion and Garland Hall. The design of Clark Hall marks a return to the campus' Georgian roots.

Because Clark Hall is unusually long -- 233 feet in all -- the architects designed the roofline to make it look like two pavilions joined by a common entrance, even though it's all one structure. The connector contains the main lobby and a grand stairway. Wyatt clearly drew inspiration from Georgian masters such as Christopher Wren and Edwin Lutyens, while creating forms appropriate for Hopkins.

"We don't want it to look jokey," he said early in the process. "We want it to be serious."

State-of-the-art interior

Much of the inventiveness comes in the way the lab- oratories and teaching spaces have been inserted within the traditional outer shell.

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