Friday, January 26, 2018

McKeldin Square: Ideas for what could be next

There may have been only a few people who really loved the béton brut concrete fountain at McKeldin Square, but there was no doubt that its complex sculpture of walls, penetrating bridges and pathways was the defining element of the triangle which is, not quite accurately, known as a square. Love for the new McKeldin Plaza in its current state may be even scarcer. Aside from the Downtown Partnership and an adjacent property developer who instigated the expensive demolition, I haven't found anybody yet who finds the current provisional space an improvement.
Virtual model of McKeldin fountain (Nonument01)

That is not surprising, since the new status quo presents in many ways the worst of all worlds: The fountain demolished, no idea what should replace it, let alone money that is available for a substitute. Meanwhile the traffic is still flowing unabated on all sides of the triangle, more noticable than before because no further is it visually or acoustically shielded by anything, since the new space is flat and bare.

This is a repeat of  a Baltimore saga that has played out dozens of times: Demo first, design and fund later. Sometimes never. Just think of the News American site on Pratt Street or the Morris Mechanic theater site that sits as a field of rubble. Somehow we keep getting bamboozled and sweetalked by those who want to get rid of something for a future that is completely uncertain. To be fair: The Downtown Partnership had commissioned a design, however neither the official Design Review Panel (UDARP) nor anybody else was overly impressed. Thus the design was ditched even before demolition began when there was still time to reconsider.
barrier free flatness: McKeldin Square today

The Urban Design Committee of the local chapter of  AIA (which I used to chair) wants to make 2018 the year of McKeldin Square as its adopted design focus. Instead of aiming for a grand scheme coming out of a design competition or a super big idea, the group wants use a more modest and careful approach, including analysis and deduction of current people behavior in the space.
Deducing principles for future design from current activities and testing out design approaches via temporary pop-up installations are techniques that have become known as tactical urbanism and have been made popular by the Danish architect Jan Gehl. He filmed how cool Danes chilled in the pedestrian zones of his hometown Copenhagen and has taking this approach to problem solving and design of public spaces around the globe.

Recently the Baltimore Neighborhood Design center received a grant to use Gehl's techniques at the Y-Not lot in Station North.
In the summer of 2017, with support from Gehl Institute’s Open Call: Proposals for Public Life initiative, NDC undertook a study of the Ynot Lot: a privately-owned vacant lot in Baltimore’s Station North Arts District. The research served a dual function. First, we wanted to asses the impact of programming on social mixing in Baltimore’s public spaces, and second, we were interested in learning how to use Gehl Institute’s research tools for studying public spaces. Gehl Institute’s larger questions—”How can designers, planners, and community activists tell better stories about their work in public space? What research methods help us understand the state of public life in our cities?”—were deeply relevant to the work of NDC. (Gehl website)
Y-Not lot in Station North: Gehl research with NDC
With the Gehl training at Station North under their belt, NDC is willing to collaborate with the young architects of AIA to apply the same techniques to McKeldin Sqaure. The space has a reputation as a meeting space for protest, free speech and demonstrations. Just last week, the Women's March ended there, the Occupy movement had its tents there and when the fountain still stood, it had been an object during Baltimore's first Light City event that literally highlighted that Black Lives Matter. 

Another initiative with a focus on McKeldin Square comes from artist James Mayhew and is called "Nonument01": In it Mayhew has collected imagery from the time when the fountain was working and active that can be watched in 3-D, reinstating a virtual reality of the now demised fountain. That project is still in progress but some beta testing showed promising results.
McKeldin demolition: Lots of money for destruction

Unlike Harborplace which is controlled by the pavilion owners and managers (now Ashkenazi), McKeldin Square is a true public space, even though it is maintained and programmed by the non-profit Waterfront Partnership  while the Downtown Partnership initiated the Harbor 2.0 design and masterplan efforts.

The Urban Design Committee of AIA got already hold of a camera that can film what is playing out at McKeldin Square with time lapse features. An ambitious goal would be to convince traffic folks to allow a temporary closure of the lanes separating Harborplace from McKeldin Square, one of the original suggestions of the Harbor 2.0 masterplan which led up to the demolition of the fountain. Such a pop-up closure would not be unlike what then New York traffic commissioner Sadik Khan did when she tested the closure of Times Square which was recently made final.

McKedlin Fountain: Once a walkable object
Pop-up traffic modifications could test in real time what happens and replace lengthy and costly traffic modeling efforts. Equally, Gehl's observation techniques of what real people do in actual life avoids costly designs that look cool on paper but neglect actual human behavior. 

It will remain to be seen whether BOPA and Baltimore's new Transportation Director can muster the courage to do a closure of the traffic lanes as part of Light City Baltimore, at least for a few hours. What better way to demonstrate that Baltimore can be exceptional in a positive way?

Giving people more space to roam in Baltimore's premier tourist space and making Baltimore's best known free speech plaza safer and more accessible would be an excellent way of proving that in Baltimore people count more than cars.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

NDC video presented at the Placemaking Week in Amsterdam, Oct 2017
2015 Baltimore Brew special report about McKeldin Fountain

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