MICA's holding a design contest -- sort of

ARCHITECTURE

RTKL is drawing up residence-hall design

September 20, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

After the kudos they've gotten for their newest building on campus, the glass-clad Brown Center, leaders of the Maryland Institute College of Art have set out to make sure their next building is equally well-received.

And they're doing so in characteristically MICA fashion -- by taking an unconventional approach. The college this summer launched a competition to come up with a conceptual design for a $20 million, 200-student residence hall on the northern edge of Baltimore's Mount Royal cultural district. The twist is that only one design firm is participating -- Baltimore-based RTKL Associates.

Instead of inviting different firms to submit designs for its residence hall, MICA chose to work exclusively with RTKL, the state's largest design firm. RTKL, in turn, has asked young architects from eight of its offices to come up with proposals.

The architects are from RTKL offices in Baltimore, Washington, Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, London and Madrid. They have until Oct. 20 to submit designs to a review panel made of representatives from the college, RTKL and community, and for display on campus.

There is no guarantee that any of the entries will be built, but the college has indicated it will consider each as the basis for its project, planned for a half-acre parcel at the southeast corner of North and Mount Royal avenues.

"We feel that we set a high standard for ourselves with the Brown Center, and we'd like what we do next to be just as significant and distinguished in its own way," said college president Fred Lazarus IV. "It's a very visible site. It could be an important landmark for the city."

Lazarus said the residence-hall competition has a precedent of sorts in a previous collaboration between MICA and RTKL. In 1989 and 1990, RTKL's Baltimore office held an in-house competition to design a temporary sculpture studio for visiting Japanese artists and received 15 entries. The winning design, by Keith Mehner, was not only built but won a national award from the American Institute of Architects.

Lazarus said he hopes the current competition will generate the same degree of excitement and creativity.

"This project gives our students and faculty the opportunity to observe the design process firsthand, and a chance to open up the possibility of designing a major building to a talented young architect who has yet to establish a signature style and approach," Lazarus said.

"We are thrilled to have the opportunity to work with MICA," said RTKL vice president Ray Peloquin. He called the competition an expression of "our shared mission to celebrate the design process and mentor young designers."

The construction site is currently occupied by the Ditch, Bowers & Taylor Building, former home of an auto-parts supplier, which the college acquired this year and presumably would raze.

The replacement building is expected to rise about seven stories. Besides apartment-style residences, the building might include such amenities as meeting and conference facilities, a black-box theater, a coffeehouse and a career-development center.

One potential downside to the competition as structured by MICA is that it will probably not reflect as diverse a range of design viewpoints as if MICA opened it to anyone. Even though the participants are based in different cities, a competition involving different branches of one firm is not the same as a competition involving multiple firms reflecting different design philosophies.

In addition, RTKL's out-of-town designers may not be as familiar with the site conditions and characteristics as locally based designers. On the other hand, their remote locations could free the out-of-towners to think broadly about the design challenge, and not worry about minute details that would only occur to someone who has stood on North Avenue.

One benefit to the competition is that the design commission appears certain to go to a locally based firm -- a goal of the college president. It's a firm with which the administration is clearly comfortable. And limiting the number of entries helps keep the competition from becoming unwieldy.

Some local architects might be disappointed that they don't have a chance to participate, because their firm wasn't invited. But at least one, Steve Ziger of Ziger/Snead, has no problem with the arrangement.

Ziger notes that MICA has every right to hire the designer it wants for its residence hall, and that it didn't have to hold a competition at all.

"This way, they get the creativity of different people from within the firm," he said. "I think it's a good way to do it."

2004 Design Awards

MICA's Brown Center is one of 13 buildings that will be honored in the 2004 Design Awards program sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

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