Tuesday, January 5, 2016

What makes Baltimore special - its Architecture! The Case for Preservation

What makes Baltimore special is its architecture for one thing.  Its old buildings, reflecting several centuries provide a rich layering of urban fabric that many other North American cities can only dream of. In fact Baltimore has more buildings identified as historic than any other US city! In today's global marketplace, local authenticity is much more than a feeling of pride or a psychological element of belonging, authenticity is an economic development tool. It is a key differentiator for the sought after educated upwardly mobile people who can select just about any city as their home.
Authentically Baltimore: Hampden rowhouses (photo: ArchPlan)

That is why it is tragic what Ed Gunts had to report in an article in the  Baltimore Brew: The notoriety we achieved in 2015 for being demolition happy in at least two cases where history should have told us: No! Gunts, the former SUN architectural critic and experienced observer of Baltimore's architecture scene writes:
Baltimore has landed on several “Top 10” lists at the start of 2016 for being the site of two demolitions: one a piece of civil rights history in Marble Hill in West Baltimore and the other a Brutalist style theater located downtown in Charles Center.
I don't "like" some of the old buildings, just as the next guy. But we should all understand, that historic preservation in art, culture and architecture is not a beauty contest judged with the current set of popular taste. Historic preservation is a more comprehensive cultural task that is only slowly understood, especially in a relatively young country like the US. It includes beauty, social meaning, context and also parts of history we may not like to remember.

Historic preservation should not be limited to objects that meet the popular taste test of the flavor du jour. We all know how taste changes and things that were not fashionable for a while become all the rage again. More substantively, urban culture needs to reflect all the layers of our history and what were notable achievements at a time should not be thrown carelessly into the dust bin unless we don't mind becoming a mono-dimensional city. Brutalism is one such layer. Too recent to be already cherished, too close for comfort to a time that we see now as anti-urban, brutalism is associated with a time when buildings started to look like bunkers. In the US a time we associate this with the period after the 68 riots. But brutalism's true root is earlier and somewhere else: with Corbusier, for example and his fascination with the plasticity of concrete that he and many of his contemporaries liked to show in its raw version, exposing the patterns of the materials that shaped it. Wood boards imprinting the grain on concrete walls like fossils do in rock. (béton brut for raw concrete).
Baltimore's Charles Center, once modern now qualifies for
historic preservation: Mies van der Rohe building
(photo: ArchPlan)

So Baltimore lost the Mechanic Theatre and so far there is nothing but a hole in its place. As Gunts and CityLab remind us, at one point there had been a design that included and integrated the Mechanic and made it a functional piece of new uses. That design was more complicated than what is proposed now. That earlier design was easily brushed aside because Baltimore's historic commission and planners were naively thinking legal protections were not needed in light of an agreeable design that had been presented.

The late architect Mike Murphy had never believed that legal protection was not needed and had berated anybody who said otherwise. He was right. He did not live to see the Mechanic fall to the wrecking ball. It must be our lesson not to fall for such fallacy again.

The McKeldin Fountain is Baltimore's next chapter in the story of what makes us special. The same arguments repeat and it looks as if this city hasn't learned the lesson.
Mechanic Theater before demolition

The other lesson is that historic value can also reside with what happened in a building more than with its architecture. That was the case with the former Read Drugstore on Lexington and Howard which was preserved. But it was also the case with a rowhouse on 1234 Druid Hill Avenue that went down before anybody could tell. On Druid Hill Avenue the lesson is about social meaning, but it is also about urban fabric. While few buildings on this central artery are outstanding landmarks in themselves,

1232 and 1234 Druid Hill Ave (Google Streetview)
Druid Hill Avenue is still largely intact, albeit disinvested. Here demolition of buildings that are part of a continuous street-wall should never happen anyway if we want to keep the street authentically Baltimore. Here, too, 2016 could mean additional demolition.

As a 2014 study of the National Trust for Historic Preservation showed, cities across the country show their highest values in their most functional neighborhoods which are without exception those that have been preserved.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

#SOSbrutalism (Baltimore buildings are yet to be entered)

Article on my blog Community Architect: Preservation as Change Agent

The corner where 1234 Druid Hills Freedom House once stood.
(photo: Baltimore Brew, Mark Reuter)

Threatened with demolition in spring of 2016: McKeldin Fountain
(photo: ArchPlan Inc.)

1 comment:

  1. Hello Klaus, I think you have made some good points in relation to architecture in Baltimore and knowledge of history. In my mind structures serve the occupants which in turn create the history you spoke of.
    Cities serve the interests of society to protect individuals and ultimately the collective society.
    In the case of the Mechanic, having worked in that venue, I can say that it served the community poorly and while the demolition may have been premature the actual demise of the theatre occurred long prior to the actual removal of the physical structure.

    I enjoy architecture which serves to embellish our lives and believe that the destruction of properties which have social significance reflects the social ills of our society. How we treat city life and how we treat each other in the normal course of our daily life.