Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Are Baltimore's architects under siege?

In some previous articles about the proliferate activities of the Plank brothers Kevin and Scott, I have compared  them to the Medici in Florence. A bit closer to home, I could have said Carnegie and Pittsburgh, But the Plank - Baltimore story is just beginning and there is no telling yet, if such labels are not way premature. Especially unclear, if the successful Under Armour enterprise will eventually transform this city culturally as much as the Medici transformed Florence or Carnegie did Pittsburgh. Will the mundane enterprise (sports apparel) translate into art and culture like the Medici's trade or Carnegie's steel enterprise did?

Will they nurture local talent? The selection of architects for the major projects that the Plank brothers are currently pursuing is a great indicator for what to expect. Torn between holding themselves in high esteem and wishing Baltimore would become a more design oriented place, the local architectural community is a bit apprehensive. Will all the good work go to stars from the outside? There is a growing list to worry about, from Roger Marvel (NYC) who designed the Hopkins Henderson middle and highschool in East Baltimore to Morgan's brand new business school designed by Kohn Pederson and Fox (NYC).
Scott Plank's Sagamore Development project Recreation Pier
(photo: ArchPlan In.c)

That is what the SUN suggests in their article  today by using the term "starchitect". The fear seems justified: Although the local firm Ayers Saint Gross (ASG) gets to design the Sagamore distillery that includes a tasting space and exhibit, the Fells Point. The larger Recreation Pier hotel project is designed by Beatty Harvey Coco Architects of New York (they also designed the Four Seasons condo addition in Harbor East). Master-planners for the large property holdings that Under Armour has amassed since acquiring Pat Turner's Westport development area overlooking the Middle Branch is done by Elkus Manfredi of Boston.

Roger Marvel EBDI school
(photo: ArchPlan)
That firm is also already active in Baltimore as the designer for the Exelon headquaters on HarborPoint and as masterplanner for EBDI, and the COPT site at Canton Crossing and as architect for several life-science buildings near Hopkins. Under Armour's latest choice: Bohlin, Cywinski, Jackson  Architects of Philadelphia, the ones who designed the Apple Store on 5th Avenue. and whose founding principal, Peter Bohlin, was awarded the AIA Gold Medal, the highest honor an individual American architect can receive. The task: Design a corporate campus. The standard: Apple, Google and Facebook.

That the big players in town (Beatty Development, Under Armour, Johns Hopkins, and recently COPT) are looking for talent with name recognition to bring them glory and polish their brand, is actually a fairly new trend. I recall how Bob Embry of the Abell Foundation was so desperate to add design quality to Baltimore's new buildings that he funded a design competition for the University of Baltimore and their new law school.

New Morgan Business School, designed by KPF
(photo: ArchPlan)
The result was that all the world famous architects responded with excellent designs and teamed up with local firms. UB now has a remarkable flagship building that many in Baltimore don't like because it has no brick.
A new glitzy skyline often designed by outside architects
(photo: ArchPlan In.c)

All that may not be fair to local talent, which in many cases, certainly can hold the candle to the outsiders, but those firms themselves have taken on much work outside of Baltimore following the biblical saying that the prophet is usually not acceptable in his hometown. Meanwhile, the frequent selection of star architects raises the bar and brings new expectations to Baltimore. No longer can they dismiss Baltimore as a place to simply place copies of their big city designs, as Mies van der Rohe did with his Seagram copy that became One Charles Center, even though I suspected a bit of that about Solomon Cordwell Buenz's design of 414 Light Street.

All in all Under Armour's building bonanza and their aspiration towards high end design should be good for Baltimore and its architects.  Especially, if Scott and Kevin Plank would occasionally consider a "blind" design competition in which entries are judged without knowing the names of the authors and, more importantly, all the glitz does not substitute for some real work in the neighborhoods. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

SUN article about Under Armour "starchitects"

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