Wednesday, January 4, 2017

"The Baltimore Bench"

In 2002 Baltimore's Mayor entered the second year of his term and gave Baltimore a "Believe Campaign" and hundreds of benches emblazoned with the slogan "Baltimore, the Greatest City in America". The benches all across Baltimore persist in various states of decay to this day. The Mayor became Governor,  his appointed successor lost the election  and in 2016, the man himself  launched a spectacularly unsuccessful run for President of the United States.

In 2002 Kevin Plank was 29 and his company only six years old. Four more years and there would be UA footwear. Ten years later the company has a $5 billion net revenue. In 2016 Kevin Plank became Baltimore's "Man of the Year". He has presided over 20 years of annual growth rates in excess of 20%. Befitting of a time where Baltimore can expect little from the State and now from Washington either, Plank is shaping Baltimore from within.

In 2016 he gave Baltimore a new production facility in City Garage, the largest community benefits agreement in Baltimore's history, a new water taxi, an almost completed whiskey distillery, an almost complete hotel in Fells Point, a playground in Sandtown, a new rec center in East Baltimore and: A new bench.

Under Armour's Sagamore Development and the City's professional promoters, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts (BOPA),  teamed up and issued a competition challenge for an "ideal bench that would be useful, beautiful, and specific to Baltimore so that it can be installed throughout the entire landscape and streetscape of Port Covington".

Kevin Plank is also no stranger to slogans. They decorate any available wall where he has the word.

The final winner of the bench competition was announced in December during a UDARP review of Sagamore's park plans. The winning design is strong and simple and so far, slogan free.
Poor design with a sagging slogan: Baltimore bench, old model

Dean Brown’s “Cleat Bench” has been selected as the winning design proposal for the “Next Great Baltimore Bench.” Brown is a 25-year-old South Baltimore resident, and a designer at Design Collective, a Baltimore architecture firm whose former principal Richard Burns now sits on the UDARP panel.

“As a proud resident of South Baltimore, I’m thrilled that my design was chosen for the Next Great Baltimore Bench,” said Dean Brown. “When I first heard about the competition, I felt compelled to create a bench that would truly represent our city’s bright future. I am excited to see Sagamore Development’s plans for Port Covington come to life, and feel grateful and privileged to play a part in that process.”

Sagamore Development and BOPA had encouraged artists, artisans, makers and designers from all backgrounds to submit proposals for the “Next Great Baltimore Bench.” It was hoped proposed benches would have a positive Baltimore narrative and strong local connection and that bench proposals be useful, beautiful, and specific to Baltimore so that the winning bench could be installed throughout Port Covington, Plank's 260-acre master planned, mixed-use development on the former industrial railyard.

Brown’s Cleat Bench offers the warm  wood in the shape of a boat cleat, presumably relating the benches to the shoreline allowing the waterfront character of the site to be emphasized with a normally trivial accessory. The prototype has no backrest and therefore only limited utility as a real bench.
Weller and Brown at City Garage with the Baltimore Cleat Bench

“As we move forward with this one-of-a-kind opportunity to transform Port Covington into a thriving, active and inclusive neighborhood, we’re looking every day to foster relationships with local artists, designers and craftsmen who capture the spirit of this great city,” said Marc Weller, president of Sagamore Development. This promotional language is thick with frosting but the attempt of giving a bench an artistic twist is laudable.

Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts was no less thick in his praise:“The Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts was thrilled to work with Sagamore Development on this competition. Partnering to provide Baltimore artists with opportunities for unique commissions with high profile outcomes is part of BOPA’s commitment to the cultural community.  Dean’s design creatively references the important role the waterfront has played in Baltimore’s history and its future which is relevant and appropriate,” he said at the unveiling.

The competition drew 18 entries, which were shortlisted to three finalists who were asked to create prototypes with funding provided. Brown teamed with Baltimore-area fabricators including OE Custom and Ludwig Design to build a prototype of his Cleat Bench for the jury’s consideration.

The nine-member jury panel included Caroline Paff of Sagamore Development, Betsy Boykin of Core Studio Design, Ryan Patterson of BOPA, Ronnie Younts of Younts Design Inc. Marcus Stephens of Plank Industries and Patrick Sutton of Patrick Sutton Interior Design (He has worked on Planks home design in Baltimore County), Kuo Pao Lian of PI.KL Studios, Elford Jackson of RK&K Engineers LLP and, Diana Kolnik, a resident in the nearby Westport neighborhood. The inclusion of a resident and an engineer was a nice touch, even though in such a large jury they didn't pull much weight.
the Cleat Bench bench prototype
Ludwig Design, founded by Matt Ludwig in Druid Hill, fabricates and installs custom architectural metalwork, furniture and concrete. OE Custom, founded in 2004 in Baltimore County, specializes in custom renovations, upgrades, accents, make-overs and complete design and build fabrication using solid wood products.

OE Custom procures lumber through the urban forest in and around the Baltimore region, working with local tree companies, governments and land owners to put trees that would normally be placed in a waste stream to good use.

The proposed Port Covington bench replaces a modest bench with a  ridiculously immodest slogan with an ambitious design without slogan. Maybe the new bench can speak for itself. But UA may yet adorn it with "I will" or "Protect this House". Who knows.

The competition brief warned: "There is no commitment on behalf of Sagamore or BOPA to produce or develop any proposal or design received. In the event that any of the proposals are selected to be built, the author(s) of the selected proposal will be included in all aspects of the design development process, and properly credited."

Certain park elements will be part of the early phases of the Port Covington realization. Given the enthusiastic praise, it shouldn't be too long before those benches can be seen at the water's edge. It remains to be seen if the bench also makes it into the Baltimore neighborhoods.With or without a slogan. Can it have a back-rest, though?
Baltimore and the world: Inner Harbor bench at the Carousel

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Competition Brief, February 2016


  1. The real question: is this a Baltimore bench or a Port Covington Bench? The cleat feels out of context anywhere outside of an adjacency to the water. Honestly, putting one of these cleats in East or West Baltimore seems like it would just be a daily reminder of the amount of investment not going into those areas (ie port covington). Feels like I answered my own question.

  2. Wouldn't putting benches in those neighborhoods be the beginning of an investment in those areas, as well as an improvement over the existing benches?