At last, Baltimore treats its visitors right

New visitors' center shows that the city cares about tourists


May 16, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

When Baltimore's leaders set out to redevelop the Inner Harbor in the 1960s, they never dreamed that the city might become a tourist destination.

The waterfront promenade and Rash Field were intended for recreational use by area residents, not out-of-towners. Little thought was given to building hotels, because that would have required a belief that someone might actually want to stay in town overnight.

There's no clearer indication of the city's low aspirations for tourism than the tiny facility that until recently served as Baltimore's visitors' center. While other cities built elaborate showplaces featuring impressive displays and upbeat marketing films, Baltimore directed travelers to a converted construction trailer that didn't even have public restrooms.

With this month's opening of a $4.5 million visitors' center on the west shore of the Inner Harbor, Baltimore is sending the message that visitors aren't an afterthought any more. This is a place where visitors come first -- in every sense.

"Whatever the negativity and culture of failure that there was in the past, there is a new vibe in Baltimore," Mayor Martin O'Malley said on opening night. "The days when we would have been content with a trailer are gone. This is a major league facility for a major league city."

Plans for a full-blown visitors' center grew out of a 1993 design competition held to generate ideas for improving the shoreline -- including accommodations for visitors. A key element of the winning proposal -- submitted by Design Collective of Baltimore and landscape designer Martha Schwartz of Cambridge, Mass. -- was a visitors' center just south of the Light Street pavilion of Harborplace.

The idea was to have a central location where visitors could obtain a wide range of information about the region, on topics from downtown hotels and restaurants to attractions far beyond the harbor. The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association (BACVA) subsequently hired Design Collective to serve as the architect.

The assignment forced the architects to resolve seemingly contradictory design issues. They had to create a building that was distinctive enough to be recognized from a distance but that wouldn't upstage major destinations such as the National Aquarium. It had to be inviting enough to attract passers-by, but not so attractive that people would linger too long. "Our goal was to get people out into the city to spend money, not to spend money here," said project designer Chris Harvey.

Appearance of floating

The solution was an 8,000-square-foot pavilion containing exhibit space, a 50-seat theater featuring a short film called The Baltimore Experience, staff offices and restrooms. The building rises from a granite base that doubles as a seating platform. Its walls are mostly glass to allow sweeping views of the harbor and city. A low-rise structure on the west side houses the offices, theater and restrooms. That part of the building is clad in blue stone and set back from the new brick walkway south of Harborplace, so it doesn't block views of the harbor for people walking eastward along Conway Street.

A wavy metal roof is the building's signature feature. Starting low on the south side of the building and rising up on the north side, it appears to float. Its curving shape could be seen as a nautical reference, but the architects say it grew out of an effort to reflect the change in scale from the high-rise buildings on the north side of Pratt Street to the public park proposed for the area between Harborplace and the Maryland Science Center.

The low side of the roof faces the park. The higher end addresses the skyline. Two diagonal supports on the north side hold up a deep roof overhang and, like the columns of a front porch, frame the surrounding views. They have a shape that suggests masts on a boat -- another subtle nautical reference. The design would have been more pure if the supports weren't there, but the roof overhang also would have been more expensive to build, so the architects kept them. And the effect still is of a building that embraces its visitors. It's light, airy, gesturing, opening up to the city beyond.

The nautical references aren't meant to be taken too literally, Harvey said. "I don't want to say this building is a ship or has a nautical theme. It's inspired by a ship. ... We want people to use their imaginations."

One of the building's most memorable features is its clean, uncluttered geometry. There are no gutters or ducts or pipes to be seen. The mechanical systems are hidden from view. It's very much a sculptural object.

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