He helped bring humanity back to the city

Benjamin Thompson, the designer of Harborplace, knew the role of buildings


August 25, 2002|By Edward Gunts | By Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

When architect Benjamin Thompson started designing Baltimore's Harborplace pavilions in the late 1970s, he came up with a series of words that described the kind of place he wanted to create.

Given its pivotal location on the Inner Harbor shoreline, Thompson reasoned, Harbor-place had to be "transparent, light, shimmering, ... a place in a park, ... a part of the waterfront, continuous with the city, ... in some ways invisible, a non building, a building of magic."

Thompson's ability to create buildings that fit in with their surroundings, rather than sticking out, had much to do with the success of the waterfront marketplace that became synonymous with Baltimore's vaunted renaissance in the 1980s.

It also reflected an architect who had a set of priorities different from those of his colleagues, starting with a fundamental belief that buildings should be regarded as backdrops for human activity, not held up as objects unto themselves.

In many ways Thompson, who died Aug. 17 at age 84, was the antithesis of the self-centered architect made famous in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. He put other people and places ahead of any temptation to make a grand architectural gesture. He didn't get bogged down with style or fashion.

"The difference was, he saw things holistically," observed Jane McC. Thompson, his wife and business partner. "To him, any building is part of a larger world, a larger environment. If a building stood out and became the most important thing, it would diminish what's going on around it."

Most architects would consider themselves successful if they created buildings that improved life for their users. Ben Thompson designed buildings that improved entire cities. He created exuberant works of architecture that encouraged people to rediscover the joys of urban life at a time when cities were not particularly known for being enjoyable.

'He loved cities'

Working closely with Maryland developer James Rouse, Thompson perfected a new type of building, the "festival marketplace," that was instrumental in luring people back to urban centers abandoned after the riots of the late 1960s. As Rouse's lead architect for this new breed of urban marketplace, he did more than perhaps any other architect in the 20th century to help revive America's cities.

Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston was the beginning of it all, followed by Harborplace in Baltimore, South Street Seaport in New York and Union Station in Washington, among others. Each had a lively mix of shops and restaurants. But unlike suburban malls, there were no department-store anchors, no oceans of parking, few or no chain stores or franchises. They were typically set in the heart of the city, often on a waterfront.

Some were located inside older buildings that were getting a second life. Others were built from the ground up. Either way, they drew thousands of visitors a week, millions a year. For much of the 1980s, they were the buildings that captured the spirit of the age in America -- the places where people went to shop, to eat, to entertain guests, or just to be.

There had been previous attempts to make shopping into a form of entertainment, such as Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, but Faneuil Hall is where the idea "reached its fullest expression," said Martin Millspaugh, former chief executive of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management in Baltimore and currently vice chairman of Enterprise Real Estate Services Inc.

"Now they're all over the world -- Sydney, Belfast, Rotterdam," Millspaugh said. "In many ways, it was the re-creation of the medieval marketplace."

Thompson and Rouse tapped into several trends with their urban markets, including the historic preservation movement, a growing interest in dining out, and an increase in the number of Americans visiting Europe. Thompson brought it all together in settings where visitors could enjoy the color and pageantry of crowds and goods, the sights and sounds and smells of the marketplace.

"He loved cities. ... He loved the messiness of life," said Boston architect Tom Quirk, who worked for Thompson during the height of the festival market boom. "His pitch to us was that architecture should be about creating places that make people the show. He didn't care about architectural monuments. He would tell us to think about the spirit of the place first and everything else would flow from that."

"He was more than an architect," said Dick Rigby, co-founder of the Waterfront Center in Washington. "He was an artist and a poet, and he brought that dimension to architecture."

Kindred spirits

Born and raised in St. Paul, Minn., Thompson got an early introduction to urban life from his parents. They took him on frequent trips to Europe, where he could experience the beauty and vitality of its historic cities.

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