Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Year in Review: Baltimore's Architecture

The many cranes and construction sites in many neighborhoods deftly defy the image of a dying city. Investors from near and far still put their money into Baltimore. Some as part of the general urban renaissance that lifts most cities, including Detroit. Some for more location specific reasons such as Baltimore's proximity to DC, its strong universities and colleges, its quirky arts scene or socially conscious foundations, developers and architects.
Cranes over Baltimore: View of Harbor East and HarborPoint from
Key Highway (photo ArchPlan)

With new stuff being built and old stuff being converted and re-used, does Baltimore register on the international architecture vanity scale? Hardly. Few if any buildings find their way onto the cover of architecture magazines or even into the also ran pages.

No piece of architecture has gained the same notoriety and fame as say Ta Nahesi Coate's "Between the World and Me. (ok, fair enough, Ta Nahesi doesn't live in Baltimore anymore) or Tate Kobang's "Bank Rolls", no architecture firm has recently gained the same national status as Baltimore's Under Armour, Order Up or Parking Panda. It was restaurants and excellent cuisine that landed Baltimore on the national #2 spot, not architecture.
The fabric of Baltimore (photo ArchPlan)

But maybe that is the wrong way of looking at architecture anyway. Baltimore architecture is more like comfort food than nouvelle cuisine, more fabric than individual landmarks, a grand tapestry with very few buildings screaming "look at me". Isn't that what makes Baltimore good, or at least its architecture so agreeable?

A city where even the palace of a B&O executive was more like a rowhouse than a mansion? A place where the ensemble of the whole is more important than one individual building? As a whole Baltimore's architectural history lifts the city and is not a burden while the city bravely builds new quarters from whole cloth which we can't foresee now to ever become the topic of rave reviews. Because Baltimore's architectural history is so important for the city's essence, the 2015 demise of the Mechanic Theater has to bemoaned, a structure that, in fact, had made it on the front cover of an architectural magazine. The demolition of the McKeldin fountain, another brutalist structure, is scheduled.

So, in looking for the notable architecture of 2015 we should keep all this in mind. Looking for local relevance, quality and impact on the larger context instead of national glossy notoriety.

What should be registered? The following projects are a rather random selection and by no means a complete list. Comments or suggestions for additional projects are most welcome.


Certainly there are new apartments being built all over the place. The biggest adaptive re-use apartment project is no doubt the conversion of the former Nationsbank building on Light Street with over 440 units.
Converted downtown bank building
(photo: BBJ)
The biggest new construction apartment building may be the Rotunda with 379 apartments (architect: Design Collective). Towson Row began construction of  two apartment towers totaling 350 apartments (masterplanner: Design Collective) but all of these mega projects are architecturally predictable (a good thing when it comes to historic preservation in the case of 10 Light Street but not as convincing on a new project).

The Rotunda apartments tower over
the Hampden rowhouses
(photo: ArchPlan)
An exception of this predicatble sandstone-brick melange of red and beige tones will be the 275 luxury Bozzutto apartments dubbed Anthem house on Fort Avenue in Locust Point. (Architect: KTGY).

Another exception: The Four Seasons condominiums under construction on top of the Four Seasons Hotel in Harbor East which are interesting because they are the first condos going up in a while and they have a full glass skin (Architects: Beatty Harvey Coco), novel for Baltimore residential towers with the one exception of the earlier Zenith building at Camden Yards and Paca Street.

Large residential projects that promise to be architecturally more interesting are promised for 2016: The 16 story slab planned to be erected on the Della Notte site near Harbor East (HCM architects), the 255 unit double tower on the site of the Mechanic Theater (Shalom Baranes Architects), the residential tower on the McCormick site at 414 Light Street (372 apartments, Buenz, Devon Patterson  Architects), the 400 dwelling units at 300 East Pratt (HKS Architects) and the smaller proposed Nelson Kohl apartments on Lanvale Street behind Penn Station. ( LSC Design of York, PA).

Proposed Nelson Kohl apartments on Lanvale Street
The trouble is that those buildings that would break new ground architecturally are also the ones that have not actually broken ground but stayed on paper, some of them in spite of full UDARP approval.

The good news of all this residential construction is that it should help keep Baltimore's population stable if not growing. It is also noteworthy that projects are not all clustered in one spot (Harbor East or the waterfront) but that they spread from there to Remington, Charles Village (157 student apartments on St Paul Street with Design Collective as the architect), Butchers Hill, Sharp Leadenhall (Stadium Square, 293 units) and if La Cite ever gets their act together even to Poppleton.


The mother of all new office projects would be State Center, but the project remains in limbo. Instead, the Exelon Building at Harbor Point is under construction. Depending on the angle from which one sees it, it looks quite squat in spite of its height. That building will hardly be a new Baltimore landmark, in spite of its careful and extensive UDARP review or its substantial size. The most notable fact here again is less the architecture and more that it is being built at all, even though Exelon is not headquartered here and even though the former Allied Signal site is an extremely difficult and expensive brown-field to build because of the cap that had to be placed atop the chromium contamination.
the Exelon complex as seen from Caroline Street
(Photo: ArchPlan November 2015)

Like other academic institutions the University of Maryland continues to build at a rapid clip but its architecture continues to be less than remarkable, background architecture at best. That this could be different has been proven with Hopkins' new children hospital and its new emergency area on Orleans and Wolfe Streets completed a couple of years back.

Office construction has long languished in Baltimore with Harbor East as the only exception. In 2016 there could be competition: an approved new masterplan for Canton Crossing  includes rights for massive office development. Whether any of those new buildings will be able to give the development a better landmark than that awful First Mariner Tower will remain to be seen.


The biggest attempt of architecture with a capital A probably comes from KPF Architects and their Morgan School of Business. Big, impressive and bold but ultimately failing as a big gesture it still will readjust the scale for Baltimore campus buildings but not in the paradigm shifting way as, say, the MICA Brown Center or the UB Law School did before. For that the KPF project, which began very promisingly when it was just a steel skeleton, has too many issues with proportion, materials and colors, especially on its main exposure side. A similar large campus building at Coppin University, the new Science Building is also unconvincing in its jumble of architectural languages. Both, ultimately may be most remarkable for the questionable attempt of the Maryland University System to build its way out of the still pending lawsuit alleging continued discrimination against the historically black colleges (HCBU).
The KPF School of Business at Morgan University
(Photo: ArchPlan)

The truly interesting architecture may not be large and all that visible. It is hidden in smaller projects, often as part  of interior design. The new Poets restaurant of the Hotel Indigo on Franklin Street, for example (Architect: Randy Sovich), the elaborate new school libraries funded through an initiative of the Weinberg Foundation (Architect: John Srygley, Anna Castro), or Gensler's incubator FastForward East offices on Wolfe Street. Jubilee's renovated Center Theater Architect: Ziger Snead) comes to mind, the new coffee shop Ceremony and the new small market named after Mount Vernon, both located in the 520 Park Avenue complex. 2016 will reveal more such hidden architecture when Open Works opens on Greenmount Avenue and Center Stage will receive a major renovation (both projects Cho, Benn, Holback).

 We are coming back to architecture as a service that is not aiming for magazine covers but for solutions which allow human decency in difficult circumstances. In that sense the best news may be that residential construction has inched into areas that were previously utterly disinvested, such as Greenmount West and Barclay, represented by projects there are less notable for their architecture but their sheer presence at all.
The Mary Harvin Transformation Building in East
Baltimore. Burnt down and rebuilt in 2015

The most remarkable projects for investment in areas with no "market" and for resilience and progress in spite of a very difficult year for Baltimore are two residential structures designed by Marks Thomas Architects and developed by the Woda Group: The Fulton-Gethsemane Village on 2614 Pennsylvania Avenue, just a stone-throw away from the CVS that burnt down during the uprising and the Mary Harvin Center Senior Apartments on 1600 N. Chester Street that themselves burnt down on the night of rioting in one gigantic spectacular fire. It has been already rebuilt beyond the state it was in when it was reduced to ashes and will open in the spring of 2016. The projects have 61 apartments each.

These projects continue what began with Wodas earlier Gateway project on North Avenue, with the the French Company's Lillian Jones Apartments on Greenmount Avenue (both designed by CBH) and Charlie Duff's City Arts building on Oliver Street (HCM): Well designed catalytic projects that are affordable, blend into the community and don't look like projects. These endeavors may be the best proof we have that not only Baltimore's architecture is thriving but its neighborhoods are on a path towards mending.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
The Fulton Gethsemane project on Penn Ave
(photo: ArchPlan)

Baltimore SUN overview of construction by Jacques Kelly Dec 25,15
The Baltimore Chop, an overview of Baltimore Construction spring 2015

The new Science Center at Coppin (Photo: Sun)

Morgan State University: Business Center (Photo: ArchPlan)
the new mixed use building on 33th and St Paul Street (Rendering Design Collective)

The Anthem luxury apartments in Locust Point (Rendering KTGY)

Library at the Moravia Park ES (Photo: John Srygley Architects)
FastForward East incubator at Hopkins (Photo BBJ)
Mount Vernon Marketplace (Photo: ArchPlan. Inc.)

Center redevelopment North Avenue-Station North (Photo: SUN)
Cafe Ceremony Park Avenue

1 comment:

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