Baltimore's newest work of art is a glass-clad building that rises above Howard Street like the prow of a ship.
As seen from Penn Station, shimmering in the morning sun, it's a mirage, an iceberg, a faceted gem.
Along Mount Royal Avenue, two of its walls lean back as if in repose, while another tilts forward at a precarious angle. Is it nodding in homage to the older building across the street, or challenging it for supremacy?
These are just a few of the possible readings of Brown Center, a $20 million academic building that opens Friday at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Designed by Ziger / Snead and Charles Brickbauer to put MICA on the map as a center for digital art and design, Brown Center is that rare work of architecture that lives up to its billing. It is, quite simply, the first great Baltimore building of the new millennium -- a world-class home for art in the Mount Royal cultural district.
Much of the early attention to the building at 1301 Mount Royal Ave. has been focused on its crystalline forms and glass skin, which changes in color and translucency with the position of the sun. Its form alone, at once recessive and assertive, simple and complex, makes it an antidote to the "safe," neo-traditional structures rising at most colleges.
What students and teachers may find equally striking, once they move in, is the sense of logic and precision that pervades every square inch of this corner of campus. From the moment they arrive, they will know that they've entered a precinct of extreme order, a place where every detail has been studied and restudied. Nothing has been left to chance.
The result may not be everyone's cup of tea -- or idea of beauty. But the message is clear: There is a new order at work here, a new vision, a new way of seeing. There is everyplace else in the world, and then there is Brown Center.
"This structure, standing in counterpoint to the Main Building, is a metaphor for the college's strength in balancing traditional practice in art and design with the demands and opportunities represented by new technologies," says MICA president Fred Lazarus. "It really is a symbol of the 'digital and design' culture coming into its own at this institution, and represents the dynamic tension between tradition and innovation."
On the most basic level, then, Brown Center can be seen as a large, permanent work of public sculpture -- a three-dimensional billboard for the institute and its programs. "It's evidence of the importance of design" in an urban setting, adds Ellen Lupton, coordinator of the master of fine arts program in graphic design.
"We're in a city that's a collage of architectural forms of all kinds, old and new. Here's actual, real, bona fide modernist architecture. It's innovative. It's different. It doesn't look like it has always been there. It's a sign to everyone on campus that design matters."
A contemporary image
Named after benefactors Eddie and Sylvia Brown, the center is the first all-new academic structure to rise on the campus since 1907, when the Main Building opened at 1300 Mount Royal Ave. All other campus buildings, except for student housing completed in 1992, are conversions of structures built for other purposes.
The five-level, 61,410-square-foot Brown Center was constructed to house studios, classrooms and offices for undergraduate majors in experimental animation, interactive media and video, and graduate programs in graphic design, photography and digital arts, as well as a 550-seat auditorium, called the Hall at Brown Center.
The half-acre site is directly opposite the college's Main Building, on the east side of Mount Royal Avenue, and south of the Fox Building, a former shoe factory converted to studios and galleries. For this prime parcel, college leaders wanted a structure that would not only provide much-needed teaching space but establish a contemporary image for the campus and reflect the vitality of its programs. They got all that and more.
But this building is not an abstract sculpture in the same sense as Frank Gehry's curving creations, which seem somewhat arbitrary in nature. There is nothing arbitrary or whimsical about Brown Center. To the contrary, there's a rigor and rationality that grow out of its intended use and site. The result is a highly sculptural building with its own internal logic -- and that's what makes it so intriguing.
On every side, for example, the glass walls are neatly scored with an orthogonal grid that meets the ground at perfect right angles -- even when the walls themselves don't. Day or night, the grid imparts a sense of order to the spaces within. The sense of order and precision extends to the grounds, where a fountain in the entry court features the same parallelogram shape as the side of the building and the roof plane.