In work of designer Alex Castro, history plays a starring role

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

Creating something new without losing a sense of the past is a recurring theme in the work of Alex Castro, the designer tapped to create the Baltimore Immigration Memorial and Liberty Garden. His own past made him a logical choice.

With architect Rebecca Swanston, Castro led the team that used the curve of an old trolley barn at the foot of Federal Hill as inspiration for the swirling home of the American Visionary Art Museum.

He devised a plan for combining the Charles Theatre and the Famous Ballroom on Charles Street to create an anchor for the Station North arts district, without wiping out the character of the original theater.

graphic artist David Ashton, he dreamed up the winking neon "Mr. Boh" sign that shines nightly over Brewer's Hill -- so in keeping with its former brewery setting that many people think it has been there for years.

In each case, Castro and his collaborators found a way to draw on the history of a place to create a work of art or architecture that's rooted in the past.

"I don't know how to create anything from scratch," he quips.

A youthful 63, with a lean build and calm demeanor, Castro brings a global sensibility to the task of designing Baltimore's newest waterfront attraction. Alejandro Francisco Castro was born in Washington, the son of a noted surgeon. One grandfather was an ambassador to the United States from El Salvador. The other was an Irish-American congressman from Michigan. The combination

of Latin and Irish roots gave him not only striking features, but also a keen interest in the world outside his back door.

'I like variety'

"You have to know the world a little," he says, "in order to bring something back to it."

After receiving undergraduate degrees from Yale University in English literature and Spanish literature, Castro went on to get a master of architecture degree at the University of Pennsylvania, where the faculty included such luminaries as Louis Kahn, Romaldo Giurgola, Ian McHarg and Edmund Bacon.

After college, Castro supported himself by working as an art professor at George Mason University, and as an artist and graphic designer.

He first came to Baltimore in 1979 to work with deputy director Brenda Richardson at the Balti

more Museum of Art, designing catalogs. He never really left, forming Castro / Arts, a studio focusing on architectural design, exhibitions, books and film.

Throughout his career, Castro has been a peripatetic designer, comfortable working with many different scales, locales and materials. His resume reads like the work of three people. "I like variety," he says. "I don't like doing the same thing twice."

He has designed exhibits for the Los Angeles County Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Atlanta's High Museum and the Smithsonian Institution, among others. His own works are in public collections at the National Gallery of Art, Brooklyn Museum and Newberry Library in Chicago.

From 1996 to 1997, Castro was the art director for nest, the late, lamented interior design publication founded by Baltimore native Joe Holtzman. He is currently art director for Urbanite magazine in Baltimore.

Though never licensed to practice architecture, Castro gets projects built by collaborating with others who are. Under that arrangement, he has worked in a half-dozen countries, including Ghana, Barbados, Jordan and Kuwait.

Whatever he's working on, Castro approaches the assignment from an artist's perspective. "If I can be of value as an artist, that's

great," he says. "If I can be of value as an architect, that's great. But the art drives the architecture, rather than the architecture driving the art."

That approach is what attracted one of his first building clients, AVAM founder Rebecca Hoffberger. When she asked him to propose a design for the museum, she was delighted that he wanted to preserve the curving Trolley Works building when others recommended tearing it down.

"He saw the beauty of it," she said.

'The guy is brilliant'

Castro's sensitivity to history also impressed local developer Bill Struever, the head of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse.

The two met because they had children at the same day care center and lived in the same building, Tindeco Wharf in Canton. Both were newly divorced and glad their children had a playmate in the same building.

Over the years, Struever has consulted with Castro on a variety of projects, for Baltimore and beyond. One might go so far as to say Castro has become Struever's muse -- or at least one of them.

"The guy is brilliant," Struever said. "He's an incredibly thoughtful man. He cares intensely about our place in history -- our past and what's happening today -- and puts them together" in his work.

Three and a half years ago, Castro moved his office to Tide Point, the office park that Struever Bros. created in and around the old Procter & Gamble plant on Locust Point. His office is under a train trestle and faces the Domino Sugars plant, practically at sea level.

Castro says he intends to stay in Baltimore -- although he would like to see the city take more risks in terms of urban design. "I wish it would open its eyes a little more."

Castro said he is happy with the way the Hull Street area is evolving, five years after Struever first asked him to work on it. Any good work of urban design, he reasons, has to be able to adapt to new ideas and opportunities.

"It's about the dance," he said. "To dance, you have to shift and move. You have to take chances. That's what keeps you alive."

edward.gunts@baltsun.com

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