Mario L. Schack, noted architect, educator, design critic, dies at 81

Award-winning designer influenced Baltimore's skyline with his work

  • Mario L. Schack
Mario L. Schack
June 23, 2010|By Edward Gunts, The Baltimore Sun

Mario L. Schack, an award-winning architect and educator who influenced Baltimore's skyline with his buildings and his critique of others' designs, died Thursday at Gilchrest Hospice Care of complications from surgery he had in October. The Riderwood-Lake Falls-area resident was 81.

Over a career that spanned more than five decades, Mr. Schack balanced jobs as an architecture professor and department chairman at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and a partner in several Baltimore-based design firms, including RTKL Associates; Marks, Cooke, Schack and Thomas (now Marks, Thomas Architects); and MLS Associates.

Mr. Schack was the principal in charge of design for several major buildings in Maryland and beyond, including the Charles Center South office tower in Charles Center, the former Southwestern High School in Baltimore; the Albin O. Kuhn Library on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County campus in Catonsville; St. Mary's Convent in Annapolis, and the Geological Sciences building at Cornell. In 1980, he was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects. He encouraged local architects to form the Urban Design Committee of the AIA's Baltimore chapter.

Mr. Schack also had a significant impact on the local urban landscape as a design critic. He sat on three civic panels that reviewed building proposals for key sites in Baltimore, from the late 1970s to the present. As a paid member of the Design Advisory Panel from 1978 to 2004, the Architectural Review Board from 1980 to 1997, and the Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel from 2004 to 2010, Mr. Schack was one of a handful of professional critics who influenced the design of just about every major building constructed in the city during that period.

In May 1986, Mr. Schack's daughter Nina was one of four crew members who died after the Pride of Baltimore sank during a squall in the Bermuda Triangle. After her death, Mr. Schack donated his services to design a maritime-themed memorial on Rash Field to honor the lost crew members; the first building on the Living Classroom Foundation's East Baltimore campus off South Caroline Street, the Maritime Institute Building; and a master plan for the campus.

Other architects may have designed a greater number of buildings in Baltimore, but Mr. Schack had more influence than most by virtue of his work on the review panels, local architects say.

"He may not have been the architect, but just about every building in Baltimore is a Mario Schack building because of his comments about them," said Richard Burns, a principal of Design Collective of Baltimore. "He understood what makes good buildings. Through his insightful critiques, the urban landscape in Baltimore is of a higher quality. That's his legacy."

Mr. Schack's suggestions typically made a design better because he combined academic idealism with a real-world view of what it takes to construct buildings while staying within budget and time constraints, said David Benn, a partner of Cho Benn Holback + Associates.

For a public library branch on Orleans Street, Mr. Benn said, Mr. Schack suggested that the architects make the building bigger, so it wouldn't get lost on an intersection surrounded by structures of various scales. Mr. Benn said his design team changed its design to follow Mr. Schack's advice, and the library turned out much better.

"He was very interested in the urban design implications of things," Mr. Benn said. "He always felt one should look at the big picture and make sure the project improves the city."

M. Jay Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., which oversees downtown development in the city, said he thought Mr. Schack was "one of the most constructive critics that we've ever had."

"He combined a sense of the history of architecture with an appreciation for contemporary design ideas," Mr. Brodie said. "He would ask architects, 'What is your intention?' Not just show us a picture and we'll respond. He wanted to know, 'What is the thinking behind your idea?'"

He always pushed students and colleagues to take a project "to the next level" said Yui Hay Lee, who heads a 15-employee design firm in California and considers Mr. Schack a mentor. "He didn't want to go for the usual solution. He wanted you to go one step further."

Mario Lawrence Schack was born in Frankfurt, Germany, on April 3, 1929, to an Italian mother, Erica Sormane Schack, and a German father, Jacob Schack. His father died when Mario was 8 from an allergic reaction to penicillin after a bee sting. After his father died, his mother moved Mario and his older sister, Yvonne, to Milan, Italy, where they lived with his aunt. Several years later, they moved to Brookline, Mass., and became U.S. citizens.

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