Architects and planners ponder a city design center

Public forum scheduled June 26 to gauge interest

June 17, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Paris has one. Copenhagen has one. San Francisco just opened one.

Should Baltimore have a design center? That's the question local architects and planners are asking as they seek ways to improve the quality of architectural design and urban planning in the city.

The Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects will sponsor a free public forum from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. June 26 to give participants a chance to discuss what a design center could do for Baltimore and see how much local interest there is in creating one. The forum will be at the Load of Fun studios, 120 W. North Ave., in the Charles North arts and entertainment district.

Klaus Philipsen, a local architect and co-chairman of the Urban Design Committee of Baltimore's AIA chapter, said the idea of a local design center has been discussed on and off for years. It came up again recently during brainstorming sessions for ways to revitalize the Charles North district.

The idea, he said, is to create a place where people can learn about and discuss design issues in a forum that's not possible at present.

Baltimore has many different organizations whose members care about architecture and urban design issues, including the American Institute of Architects, Neighborhood Design Center, Urban Land Institute, Baltimore Architecture Foundation, Citizens Planning and Housing Association, the local chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Baltimore Heritage, Preservation Maryland and even virtual communities such as the EnvisionBaltimore listserv, he said. Design issues also are explored, he noted, by college students at Morgan State University, the University of Maryland, College Park and Maryland Institute College of Art, among other campuses.

But even with all this activity, there is no central location where people can educate themselves about a pending design issue or planning effort, or see design exhibits the way they can in Chicago or New York.

"What we don't have is a place where ... you know that design is discussed and you can see what is happening in Baltimore," Philipsen said.

The purpose of the meeting next week is to find out who might want to pursue the idea. No specific location has been identified for a Baltimore design center, he said.

"It's a litmus test to see if there is interest and, if so, what should be in it" and where it might be, he said of the meeting. "Everything is on the table right now."

Some design centers are primarily commercial settings where designers and clients select furniture, fixtures and textiles, but that isn't primarily what is envisioned, said Craig Purcell, another local architect who has been involved in the preliminary discussions. He said he envisions a design center as "a place for exploration and communication and exchange of ideas."

He said it would be an urban laboratory where students from different colleges might share facilities, and where people could learn about the latest redevelopment plans for the State Office Center or the East Baltimore renewal area or Charles North.

Depending on who runs it, he said, elements likely would include an extensive design library, galleries, academic studios and meeting rooms. Once it becomes established, he said, it could anchor a larger design district that could include commercial space for designers and showrooms for companies serving the building industry.

Part of the discussion, Purcell said, also will involve identifying who might take the lead in funding and operating a local design center. It could be professionals, educators, community groups or some combination of the three.

In recent years, several groups have worked to raise funds and create a design and history center inside the former Peale Museum on Holliday Street, a city-owned building a block from City Hall, but they have not obtained a lease from the city.

Ann Stacy, who recently became executive director of the nonprofit Baltimore Architecture Foundation, said she would still like to see the Peale Museum become the home for the architecture foundation and others. But she said she plans to attend the June 26 meeting to see what people have in mind.

Purcell said he believes a design center ultimately would be a place where the next generation of Baltimore architects and planners could come together and help map the city's future. Ideally, he said, "this is about taking Baltimore forward and raising the caliber of design."


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