Courting Architects

World-renowned designers vie to create the $107 million UB law school

August 12, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

The British company that designed what it calls the "largest single building on the planet," the Beijing Capital International Airport, now wants to create a new building for midtown Baltimore.

So does the French architect of the world's largest library.

And the American-based designer of two of the world's tallest buildings.

They are among more than a dozen teams that have expressed interest in designing the $107 million John and Frances Angelos Law Center that the University of Baltimore plans to build at the northeast corner of Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue.

University officials have said they want a "signature" building to house the law center, for which Orioles majority owner and UB School of Law alumnus Peter G. Angelos has pledged $5 million, the largest private gift in the university's history.

The Abell Foundation offered to provide $150,000 so the university can launch an international design competition to select an architect.

In response, more than a dozen teams have shown interest in participating, including some of the world's leading practitioners.

These aren't designers known for producing safe, traditional buildings. They are the stars of their profession, who work with bold forms, elegant materials and cutting-edge technology to create glassy, light-filled structures that grace the covers of architectural magazines and set examples for others around the world.

Representatives for the teams say they responded to the university's offering because the law center represents the sort of design challenge they like to tackle. They note that it is a sizable building with an intriguing mix of spaces, that it will occupy a highly visible site marking a gateway to the city, that it has a fairly substantial budget (more than $400 per square foot), and that it has a client that wants world-class architecture.

"The facility's purpose, scope and location call for the creation of an iconic, forward-looking building, one that will come to define the University and mid-town Baltimore," university President Robert Bogomolny wrote in a message to prospective designers.

"Free of any limiting or defining architectural context, and on a location that will be viewed from all sides, the building's impact cannot be maximized by traditional approaches."

Among the luminaries who met the university's July 31 deadline for submissions are Foster + Partners of Britain, founded by British architect Norman Foster, designer of the Beijing airport; Dominique Perrault Architecture of France, designer of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the world's largest library; Behnisch Architekten of Germany; David Chipperfield Architects of Great Britain; Diamond + Schmitt Architects of Canada; RMJM Hillier of Scotland; and RTKL Associates, founded in Maryland but now based in the Netherlands.

U.S. firms that expressed interest include Pelli Clarke Pelli of New Haven, Conn., headed by Cesar Pelli, designer of the Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, two of the world's tallest buildings; Moshe Safdie and Associates, headed by Israeli-born Safdie; FXFOWLE of New York; Cooper Robertson & Partners of New York; and the SmithGroup of Washington.

In some cases, out-of-state firms were encouraged to pursue the project by a local architect who wanted to team with them. In other cases, out-of-town firms went after it on their own.

Some said the design competition was a sign that the university wants a first-rate design. Others said they would have pursued the project whether there was a design competition or not.

"The design competition allows us to show our expertise and experience ... without having done 10 other law schools," said Heidi Blau, a partner of FXFOWLE. "It's an interesting procurement strategy for a state institution."

"The competition wasn't the draw for us," said Robert Graham, principal of Diamond + Schmitt of Toronto. "It was the scale of the project and the fact that it's for an institution of higher education. That's what appealed to us."

David Benn, a partner of Cho Benn Holback in Baltimore, said his firm brought in Foster + Partners. Benn said he was excited to hear that the University of Baltimore wants a world-class design and sought the best architects he could find to participate. He said he has long admired Foster's work and turned to a friend from college to make a connection.

"They have offices around the world and all these incredible projects," Benn said. "We just thought, 'Why don't we go for it?' We might not even make the short list, but we hope we do."

University officials began reviewing the submissions this month and plan to whittle the list down to a group of semifinalists, who will be invited to Baltimore to make oral presentations.

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