Are ships cramping aquarium's style?

Visions

February 12, 2006|By EDWARD GUNTS | EDWARD GUNTS,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The National Aquarium in Baltimore made a splash, literally, with the recent opening of its $74.6 million expansion, "Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes."

The addition features a simulated river canyon with a 35-foot waterfall, put under glass for people to see even if they don't pay admission.

But the aquarium would gain even more visibility if the pier from which it rises, Pier 3, didn't have to double as a berth for two vessels docked on its western edge, the lightship Chesapeake and the submarine USS Torsk.

That's the argument put forward by architects Peter Chermayeff and Bobby Poole, who designed both the latest aquarium addition and the 1981 building to which it is attached.

They say the vessels block views to and from the aquarium and should be relocated. They note that the addition includes a waterfront park with free educational exhibits on the pier and paving all around the edge to encourage people to take in harbor views.

"What bothers me about the vessels is that they become a disturbing visual presence, rather than a complementary one," Chermayeff said. "They block views of the lower levels of the aquarium, and they block views outward for people on the pier. They make the pier too crowded and compete for limited views and space."

To help make his point, Chermayeff has commissioned before-and-after images that show what the aquarium pier looks like now, with the vessels in place, and what it would look like if they were gone. The top image is a photograph taken in late 2005 by Alain Jaramillo, standing on Constellation Pier looking east. The second is the same image, adjusted digitally to remove the vessels. It was created by Amr Raafat, an associate of Chermayeff's, at his request and provided to The Sun.

The vessels are public attractions, operated as a program of the nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation, and they clearly benefit from the prime location and visibility. According to Andrew Frank, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the foundation has a lease agreement with the city that allows it to keep the vessels and ticket booth on Pier 3 until December 2008. This maritime museum is visited by about 100,000 people a year, Frank said.

Chermayeff said he has nothing against the vessels and understands their value as maritime attractions. But from an urban design standpoint, he said, they are in the wrong place because they block views and make the western edge of Pier 3 a "canyon," framed by the aquarium on one side and the vessels on the other. He calls it "an unintended, uninviting urban space."

From the start, Chermayeff said, "what we were planning was an open view of the aquarium from across the harbor and open views of the water for pedestrians walking around the pier."

The architect said he realizes that harbors have boats in them - of all sizes. But given the sizable recent investment by the aquarium and the original design objectives for Baltimore's waterfront, he said, he hopes city officials will consider relocating the submarine and lightship.

"Big boats that come and go are fine," he said. "Little ones are fine. But big ones that are semi-permanent and block views and form a canyon along the water's edge, that's wrong."

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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