Modernist gem losing its luster

April 12, 2002|By James D. Dilts

Charles Center has fallen from grace.

Badly patched pavement, empty stores and sleeping homeless people greet the visitor to Charles Plaza (the northernmost of three), although the vista of Richard Upjohn's St. Paul's Church across the street remains grand.

An empty and forlorn courtyard framed by blank walls fronts the entrance to the Two Charles Center south apartment tower. The triangular landscaped garden at the Park Charles is attractive, but the lack of benches discourages staying around to enjoy it.

Plywood covers some of the windows in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's handsome, finely proportioned One Charles Center, the project's single best building and one of the finest in the city. A stingy stairway leads down to the plaza in front of it, but it's hardly worth the trip.

The paving has been torn up for the third time in as many decades, and its replacement seems to be the most deliberative such endeavor since the Cosmati installed the tile pavement in the Roman Curia. The barren Center Plaza below now serves as a staging area for construction worker's trucks.

Thirty years ago, saxophonist Stan Getz played an evening concert from a balcony below One Charles Center. The music was buoyant; so was the mood. It was the time of city fairs and downtown revitalization. Charles Center represented a renewed urban spirit in Baltimore. Now Mr. Getz is gone. So is the balcony. And the mood is more somber.

As Charles Center lost out to the suburbs and the Inner Harbor, the inevitable tinkering with its strictly modernist architecture began.

The balcony was removed; a less than generous stairway replaced it. This was a functional improvement but a sculptural loss to a landmark building. The connection between Center Plaza and the higher Charles Plaza that was supposed to be incorporated in the Park Charles Building never was, resulting in the almost invisible stairway.

In 1985, metal and glass retail pavilions were added around Charles Plaza, shrinking the public areas. These will be smaller still when the proposed $8 million postmodern remake with arcades, towers and domes is grafted onto the two-story commercial wings. Bryce Turner, principal in charge for architects Brown & Craig, calls it an "urban village." "Summer architecture" -- meaning vacation pavilions -- said critic Phoebe Stanton, a member of the city's Design Advisory Panel.

"The style of architecture is quite common," said Charles Lamb, an original member of RTKL Associates, the architectural firm that planned the Charles Center plazas. "It looks like a theme park. What we see in 30 to 35 years of Charles Center is a wholesale neglect of the plazas, a breakdown of review and maintenance."

Changing architectural tastes and demographics have equally affected Charles Center and the plazas. The present owner of the Two Charles Center apartments and Charles Plaza wants to mitigate the present stark modernism, highlight the apartment entrance and create a critical mass of retailing, hence the new design. Whatever its virtues, it does incorporate and reuse the wasted space in front of the south tower and maintain the vista of Upjohn's church.

Brown & Craig are also the architects for the planned $7 million redesign of Center Plaza with water, grass, trees and other amenities, along the lines of New York's Bryant Park. They may even get to create the long missing connection to Charles Plaza.

James D. Dilts is co-author, with John Dorsey, of A Guide to Baltimore Architecture (Tidewater Publishers, 1997).

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