Flawed formula for Science Center

Stale 'TV screen' design doesn't reflect what the center is trying to do.

Architecture: Review

February 24, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Pity the directors of the Maryland Science Center.

They have such a terrific story to tell, but such an awful place to tell it.

Though it has been remodeled and expanded since it opened in 1976, the science center has never had the striking presence or mesmerizing ambience of its sister institution across the harbor, the National Aquarium in Baltimore. To some degree, it has always suffered by comparison.

Now the science center has one last chance to move up to the next level and command the attention it should have had all along. Directors want to double the amount of exhibit space with an addition that will cost $20 million and occupy the last available large building parcel on the west shore. Featuring the first major exhibit on East Coast dinosaurs, the new wing will cap a $37-million modernization designed to keep the science center from becoming a dinosaur itself.

The architect, Design Collective of Baltimore, has proposed a multiphase expansion -- part renovation, part new construction -- that will essentially reinvent the four-story building at 601 Light St. and correct internal problems that have plagued it for years. The layout is logical, and the exhibits will greatly enhance the visitors' experience.

But the exterior of the proposed addition -- a hypermodern building that looks from certain angles like a pair of computer screens or television sets -- seems a curious expression for an institution that wants to get potential visitors excited about all the changes inside. People may be used to sitting in front of a computer or TV screen, but do our buildings have to look like them as well?

Designed by noted architect Edward Durrell Stone as one of the first buildings on Baltimore's refurbished Inner Harbor, the science center completely missed the mark as a public attraction and has had to play catch-up ever since.

Instead of the soaring glass pyramids and colorful signal flag graphics that beckon visitors to the aquarium, the fortress-like exterior of Stone's building seemed intended to keep people out -- a common trait with buildings designed shortly after the 1960s riots.

Its layout was confusing. Its displays weren't interactive. Its octagonal structural grid made it hard to change exhibits. It wasn't even oriented to the harbor until a window wall and IMAX theater were added in the 1980s.

More than one observer has suggested that the best solution for the science center might be to tear down the entire complex and start over, but that would leave the institution without a home for several years. Instead, directors opted to remodel existing space and add on. They're counting on the new wing to provide the pizazz the center never had before.

The new plan

The architects proposed to expand the science center with a 42,000-square-foot addition that extends northward from the original building. The expansion would make the building L-shaped in plan, with the original structure running parallel to the harbor's south shore and the new wing running parallel to the west shore. At the hinge of the L, the IMAX theater will remain. To connect one leg to the other, architects designed a glass passageway that follows the curve of the IMAX cylinder and becomes both a new main lobby for the center and a potential exhibit space, completing the building's reorientation to the harbor.

The new wing has two major exhibit areas, the Earth Sciences and Dinosaur Hall and a temporary exhibits gallery. The temporary exhibit area would be one level higher than the dinosaur hall, with a loading dock underneath.

Instead of continuing Stone's octagonal volumes, Design Collective introduced a different geometry for the new wing. The architects describe it as a series of "scoops" that extend from the center drum and toward the downtown skyline. Walls are clad in copper and glass on the harbor side and brick on the Light Street side. The roof slopes up to a height of 53 feet for the Dinosaur Hall and 70 feet for the traveling exhibits hall.

In renderings, the two major exhibit areas look like oversized megaphones placed on their sides. At the ends are large window walls that allow people inside to look out and let people outside glimpse exhibits and other activity within.

The layout makes sense for an institution that's eager to build on what it has and doesn't want to shut down for repairs. The L-shaped plan produces a building that brackets the southwest corner of the harbor basin in the same way that the twin Harborplace pavilions frame the northwest corner. From an urban design perspective, there's an appealing symmetry to this new configuration along the west shore.

The exhibit design also builds on successful precedents initiated by the science center itself. Faced with the need to present information in a more timely fashion, the staff has come up with a strategy of combining conventional, fixed exhibits with multimedia "links" that can be updated electronically to provide the latest news about research and discoveries.

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