Urban visions are RTKL's stock in trade

Architectural firm that began in Annapolis basement designs waterfronts and cultural centers worldwide


August 29, 2004|By Bill Atkinson | Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

David C. Hudson can't swim, vault or sprint like an Olympian, but he has already made his mark on the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

His specialty? Urban visions.

Hudson, 56, runs RTKL Associates Inc., a Baltimore-based international architecture and design firm that won the equivalent of a gold medal in 2001 when Chinese officials selected it to draw up a master plan for the Beijing International Sports and Exhibition Center, a virtual city within a city intended to house the 2008 Games.

"Winning the competition ... raised our profile in Beijing as well as China," Hudson said.

From Baltimore to Beijing, RTKL has been leaving footprints around the globe for nearly two decades.

The company, started in an Annapolis basement nearly 60 years ago, has designed skyscrapers in Indonesia and Poland, posh hotels in the Grand Caymans and the Netherlands, and entire sections of cities in Germany and Puerto Rico.

RTKL has grown into one of the world's largest architectural and design firms with 705 employees in 10 offices in cities such as Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Madrid, London and Shanghai. Its specialties range from urban planning to designing skyscrapers, shopping malls and hospitals, and now, Olympic venues.

"They have really grown into an international powerhouse," said John D. Anderson, senior vice president of Denver-based AndersonMasonDale Architects and a former president of the American Institute of Architects. "They are absolutely top drawer."

Says Hudson: "We want to establish ourselves as the premier design firm in the world."

The firm may well be on its way, having been involved in some high-profile jobs. It planned and designed Reston Town Center in Virginia, a pioneering development that transported an urban setting to the suburbs. It designed the Salamanca Rail Station in Salamanca, Spain, and was hired as the architects, engineers and landscapers for the Singapore Embassy in Washington.

Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, RTKL was selected to help redesign the damaged portion of the Pentagon. It also designed the new U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, which is three stories deep, at the foot of the Capitol.

In Baltimore, RTKL's work dots the city from the 30-story One South St. building that was Alex. Brown Inc.'s headquarters, to Charles Center South and the Hyatt Regency Hotel at the Inner Harbor. It also designed the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

"Certainly they are one of the foremost architectural firms in this country and around the world," said Martin Millspaugh, former chief executive of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Inc., the forerunner of Baltimore Development Corp. "They did a lot of buildings in the Inner Harbor, they did the plazas in Charles Center. Their stamp is all over downtown in many projects."

Some of the firm's most impressive recent work is being done 7,000 miles away in China. In addition to the Olympic center, the firm designed the Shanghai Museum of Science and Technology, which was the site of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation World Summit in 2001; the Chinese Museum of Film in Beijing; entire blocks of Shanghai; and a waterfront tourist resort in Shenzhen.

"In China there are quite a lot of American architect offices, but I think this [RTKL] is the best-quality architecture," said Zheng Shiling, professor and director of the Institute of Architecture and Urban Space at Tongji University and president of the Architectural Society of Shanghai. "They are very rational, not so commercialized. They respect the Chinese culture and they know Shanghai very well."

Hudson expects his firm, which has 15 employees in its Shanghai office, to have three offices in China within two years and 100 to 200 employees. The potential is "huge," he said.

"The opportunity is such that we want to be there in a big way," said Paul F. Jacob III, RTKL's chairman. "You just can't fight the demographics. If the 19th century was Europe and the 20th century was America, I think the next century is China."

Jacob expects RTKL's China office to be the biggest in the company. Already, China represents the third-largest source of revenue overseas behind the United Kingdom and Japan. Last year, revenue from China totaled about $3.6 million, or 12 percent of the company's international work, which came to $30 million.

When Archibald Rogers opened the company's doors in his grandmother's basement in Annapolis in 1946, it was unthinkable that RTKL would one day become an international architectural power.

But the firm grew quickly. Soon after opening, Rogers expanded, adding Francis Taliaferro, a World War II Marine captain who responded to an ad for a draftsman.

The two men remodeled houses and small buildings and, in 1949, hired Charles Lamb, a talented designer then still in college. One of Lamb's first jobs was to design the Teepee Lodge for the Girl Scouts of Anne Arundel County. The lodge won an award from the American Institute of Architects.

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