Visions of new UB law building

Angelos Center could have glass tower, spiraling chambers or a 'neural' system

November 16, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,ed.gunts@baltsun.com

A "nerve center" pulsating with activity. A series of chambers that spiral outward like the shell of a nautilus. A shimmering glass mountain that derives its shape from the waterway below.

Those are a few of the concepts that architects have proposed for the design of a $107 million law school the University of Baltimore intends to build by 2012, with funding assistance from Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos.

University leaders will hold a news conference tomorrow to announce the winner of an international competition held this fall to select an architect for the John and Frances Angelos Law Center. It is planned for the northeast corner of Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue, just south of Pennsylvania Station.

University President Robert Bogomolny has said he wants "an iconic, forward-looking building ... that will come to define the university and midtown Baltimore."

Angelos pledged $5 million toward construction, in honor of his parents. The nonprofit Abell Foundation provided $150,000 to hold the competition, which attracted architects from Canada, Europe and the United States.

On Friday, Bogomolny, law school dean Phillip J. Closius and a five-member jury watched as five finalists unveiled plans they were given two months to prepare. Students and faculty members followed the proceedings on closed-circuit television in an adjoining auditorium.

The site is a triangular parcel bounded by Charles Street, Mount Royal Avenue and the Jones Falls Expressway. The competitors have said they want to work on the project because it's the sort of design challenge they like: a large building with an intriguing mix of spaces, a prominent site and a client that wants world-class architecture.

The first presentation was by the SmithGroup, an American firm with experience designing law schools and eco-friendly architecture. Partner David King compared the project to a human being's neural system. His group proposed a glass-clad building with an 11-story "information wall" and a central atrium crisscrossed by narrow footbridges connecting the three sides. A key feature, the Moot Court Room, would jut out over the sidewalk on the Charles Street side, covering the main entrance below.

Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie, who wrote the book For Everyone a Garden, proposed that the law center be set amidst and covered with gardens, that it be made with buff-colored concrete, with the interior spaces radiating outward from Charles and Mount Royal like the chambers of a nautilus shell.

Safdie also suggested that the building contain a central "law forum," patterned after a multipurpose space at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; that the moot court be underground and flanked by sunken gardens, and faculty offices be in a 21-story tower - the tallest structure proposed by any team.

Stephan Behnisch of Behnisch Architekten of Germany showed a compact building with interlocking elements that corresponded to different interior spaces and fit together like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

Foster + Partners of Great Britain proposed an all-white building that gave the impression of levitating above the ground, with elliptical classrooms projecting out toward the train station.

Dominique Perrault, a French architect, proposed a glass-clad building with flat walls along Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue and a more irregular, "organic" enclosure for the side facing the expressway. He suggested that the glass change in color from green near the ground to a gray-silver hue on top.

Perrault explained that the building's shape was a response to the city street grid on the south and west sides and the jagged topography of the Jones Falls Valley on the north. He said the building also could be seen as a metaphor for the law, which is fixed in one sense and constantly evolving in another.

Perrault's design sparked the most spirited response from the jury. Panelist Robert Campbell said Perrault's building looked as if it had been struck by an earthquake and repaired "in this organic way." Campbell said he wasn't convinced by the top. "Where it meets the sky, it has none of the vibrancy and the joy" of the rest of the building, he said.

Juror James Stewart Polshek said he was "disturbed by the discrepancy between the arbitrary and the rational. It's almost like two different buildings." Polshek also asked the French architect whether the change in glass color was a subtle comment on the legal profession in America.

"The law, in America, is you throw green money out and it turns into gray smoke," Polshek quipped.

Perrault said he tried to give the competition's organizers more than they asked for and the design represents "a building in progress."

"To me, the interest in a competition is to give an answer beyond the question," he said. "If we don't give an answer beyond the question, why should you organize a competition?"

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