MICA building is unusual, unpredictable, exciting

architecture review

August 24, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,ed.gunts@baltsun.com

The drum-shaped building near the intersection of North and Mount Royal avenues has a large opening on its west side that allows people on the sidewalk to look up and see a landscaped courtyard deep inside, two levels above the street.

It has a horizontal opening on the south side that looks like a giant mail slot.

The glass panes around the exterior aren't always in the same plane from floor to floor and change in color as one moves around the building.

Did the contractor run out of the same color glass and decide to improvise partway through construction? Was this some eco-friendly experiment in saving energy by leaving walls partially open to improve air flow? Did the owner attempt to cut corners by, well, cutting corners?

Welcome to the Gateway, a new building for the Maryland Institute College of Art that was designed to keep people guessing.

The $32 million structure, which opens later this month at 1601 W. Mount Royal Ave., represents the college's latest expansion into new territory, beyond its traditional campus, in the heart of Baltimore's Mount Royal cultural district.

The architect, RTKL Associates, underscored the idea of expanding with a design that enters new architectural territory as well.

The 10-story building provides housing for 217 upperclass students in 63 apartments, as well as 42 studio spaces, a career development center and arts-related spaces for the community, including a "black box" theater, gallery and cafe.

The goal, designers say, was to create a building whose exterior expresses what's going on inside. But it does so slowly, at its own pace, as one moves through the building. It gives the impression of a structure that's in a formative state, rather than 100 percent complete.

"It constantly leaves you with a bit of a question, which was pretty intentional on our part," said architect Douglas McCoach, who was a principal at RTKL during the design phase and is returning to RTKL after serving 19 months as Baltimore's planning director. "It reveals itself, but not entirely and not all at once. You're rewarded the more you move around it. You constantly see and learn new things about it."

Because the building is visible from Interstate 83 as well as North and Mount Royal avenues, there was an opportunity to use it to show a day in the life of a student-artist to thousands of people driving by, said project architect Shawn Reichart.

In that sense, it's a metaphor for student-artists who are at the beginning of their careers.

"It's a reflection of the people who are going to be in it," said Reichart, who worked with project manager Mark Kendall and project designers David Dymond and Matt Hall. "They're going to be doing a lot of unpredictable things. Everyone's trying to break new ground."

The Gateway was built in response to increasing enrollment at MICA, which will have more than 1,800 students this fall, and a desire by more of them for housing operated by the college. It took the place of an old auto parts warehouse. MICA made it a mixed-use project by incorporating nonresidential spaces such as the studios and theater.

Given the building's visibility from several key roads, college leaders asked the architects to design a "foreground building" that would mark a gateway to campus for people approaching from the north. RTKL held an in-house design competition involving seven of its offices worldwide. The winning concept came from two young designers in its London office, Grant Armstrong and Christy Wright.

They suggested that the building have a D- or drum-shaped form, in response to the irregular street grid and property lines at that intersection. The upper floors contain the housing, behind multicolored windows, and studios, behind translucent glass, on the side facing I-83.

The base contains the theater, galleries and cafe, which will spill out to a landscaped area designed by Higgins-Lazarus Landscape Architecture to accommodate outdoor events. Between the tower and the base is the courtyard, high above the sidewalk - a semi-private plaza that is outdoors but enclosed by the perforated drum.

This courtyard is just one of many unusual spaces in a building that defies convention. The student apartments have a loftlike feel, with concrete walls and floors, eco-friendly furnishings designed by MICA graduate Aynur Gunes of Artelier Design, and unobstructed city views in all directions.

Some of the student lounges already have nicknames that hint at the many ways they'll be used, including the "Video Game Leadership Room," facing North Avenue, and the "Boom Boom Dance Room," where construction workers on their lunch breaks were known to carry on for drivers passing by.

The Gateway's rounded massing and articulated wall surfaces make it considerably different from MICA's last new building, the angular, glass-clad Brown Center at 1301 Mount Royal Ave.

But it was what college president Fred Lazarus wanted to accommodate students while signaling MICA's presence on North Avenue.

According to Michael Molla, vice president of operations, the last thing the college wanted was an institutional-looking building with small windows, low ceilings and double-loaded corridors. With the Gateway, MICA made a statement and gained a building that looks like what it is - a beehive of activity for an area that sorely needed it.

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