Monday, February 1, 2016

How to best orient the Aquarium towards the water?

A masterplan for the National Aquarium is a good idea. The Dolphin show which occupies the whole end of pier 4 is in question and neither the original Aquarium on pier 3 nor the later extension relate well to the water's edge, no matter the iconic view of the triangular shapes seen across the water from Harborplace. Last week Ayers  Saint Gross presented the first concept drawings to UDARP, they are limited to site design and exterior changes and do not address shortcomings of the buildings themselves.
The Aquarium as it is usually depicted

Ayer Saint Gross has established itself as the go-to planning and design firm when it comes to the Baltimore waterfront. The firm has already prepared a Pratt Street Masterplan, the comprehensive remake of Baltimore's crown jewel dubbed Harbor 2.0, it has been the masterplanner for the former Allied Signal site (now called HarborPoint) and designed the West Port Covington Park at the Hanover Bridge..

So it isn't surprising to find the same firm also masterplanning the National Aquarium and the considerable remake planned for this prime attraction at the Inner Harbor. The initial tetrahedron shapes of the original Aquarium designed by Cambridge Seven Architects were such a success that similar shapes were repeated at the expansion on pier over, built for the Dolphin Show.
the Aquarium from the other side. The water is faced by "back of house"
functions, blank walls and a barren promenade
The famous architectural critic Paul Goldberger wrote about the Aquarium in 1981:
The building itself is a heavy and boxy concrete form, rather Brutalist in style but lightened by the glass pyramid on its roof, by a smaller glass pyramid at its entrance, and by colored panels on the side. It is a building of more energy than grace; in another context it would be awkward, even ugly. But here on the Baltimore waterfront it seems to float at the edge of the sea like a great concrete and glass sail.
Alas, in spite of these accolades and 35 years of success, the buildings do not offer the visitors any real connection to the water and, worse, they cut the public off from the water by almost blocking the ends of the two piers with a mere apron of concrete surrounding the blank walled buildings. Technically the aprons are a continuation of the required waterfront promenade, but in reality hardly anybody ventures there because it is not inviting to the public. It isn't even obvious that one is allowed access and once one gets there anyway, the backs of the Aquarium buildings and their "back of house" assortment of clutter is unattractive from close up. ASG is includung some cosmetic changes into their masterplan but their scope doesn't include the buildings themselves.
The masterplan shown to UDARP in plan view

The UDARP review panelists were generally complimentary of ASG's ideas of engaging the public and creating a stronger public domain. However, it isn't obvious that the biggest problem was actually addressed.

The main proposed design concept is an activation of the slip of water between pier 3 and 4 thorough a stepped down bulkhead and floating wetlands allowing an interactive learning landscape.  This rectangular body of water between the Power Plant and the Aquarium reaches the edge of Pratt Street but today one would never guess it because it is so cluttered up with restaurant beer barges for the entertainment and food venues in the Power Plant and three bridges, two diagonal bridges connecting the two parts of the Aquarium campus and a straight bridge making the connection to the Power Plant.
The floating wetlands as seen from Pratt Street although the actual space
is much smaller than it appears to be in this image.

According to Jonathan Ceci, manager of this project at ASG, the barges will have to remain.

The floating wetlands are designed to not only improve water quality on a very small scale, Ceci also dreams of turning the hemmed in body of water into a "refuge and habitat in the case of a low oxygen event" in the main body of the water. An impressive set of consultants ranging from Biohabitat, Studio Gang, McLaren Engineering and even from the Exloratorium on Pier 15 in San Francisco assist ASG in achieving those rather lofty goals.

UDARP panelist Richard Burns questioned if the proposed design is urban enough and authentic enough in light of the areas history as a working harbor. This is a good question. Attempts of trying to bring the landscapes of the Eastern Shore into the Inner Harbor failed already with those marsh grasses in front of the Columbus Center, the supposed "next attraction" which never materialized as a public exhibit for marine biology. While tall fortified bulkheads don't allow to be as intimate with the water as a beach or marsh, they are a very urban expression of a water edge, one that allows ships to dock and one that indicates that tidal water can be a formidable force to account for.
The tip of  Pier 4, it could be a wonderful spot but it is used for a dumpster
and to park the Aquarium vehicle fleet (Photo: ArchPlan)

One has to wonder if reducing the water surface further with a design reminiscent of the swamps of the Blackwater Refuge is the right response to fortify the Inner Harbor against the onslaught of kitsch and low-brow venues, or against the onslaught of increasingly hefty storms, for that matter.

Much less costly and more effective would it be to bring some active watermen and their boats back to the harbor and keep as much water surface uncluttered as possible. Imagine buying oysters, shrimp and fresh fish right off the back of a boat!

Although on the surface that wouldn't necessarily square with the mission of the Aquarium, on second thought one could probably discover an appropriate connection. Watermen and an open fish market (food boats?) would certainly strengthen the main attraction of the Inner Harbor, the presence of tidal water and ships. The three bodies of water between the piers 3 to 6 would be ideal places to celebrate water in an authentic and historically relevant way.
The sad state of the body of water between Pier 3 and 4: Happy hour barges (photo: ArchPlan)

The attention of the Aquarium should focus less on its front (which works and looks well enough) or the slip of water on the side. Improvements need to happen in the back.

That is where the Aquarium and its visitors should meet the water and where tourists walking along the water's edge should meet the Aquarium. Achieving this requires more than landscaping and site improvements. This would need some substantial changes to the buildings themselves. The much less successful building on pier 4 would be an excellent place to start with clean up and an interactive learning experience. Luckily, the masterplanning just started, maybe there is still room for some re-programming.

The body of water between Pier 4 and 5: Here a ship signals the passerby that there is water:
but the backside of the Powerplant is nasty for pedestrians. (photo: ArchPlan)
ASG presentation massing model (ASG)

The rather barren south sides of the Aquarium buildings on Piers 4 and 5
in today's condition (BING)




Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for PDF of presentation and additional image 2/1/16 20:34h

PDF of ASG presentation
BBJ article about UDARP review
SUN article about the ASG plan
NYT Architectural Review of the Aquarium (Goldberger, 1981)