Friday, October 23, 2020

Baltimore's now has its own Architecture & Design Center

To some (good) design is in the eye of the beholder. To others design is like magic that can solve the most intricate problems. To most, design is not a pressing issue, especially not in a city like Baltimore with so many fundamental needs. 

Mies van der Rohe: One Charles Center
is the home of the AIA  Center (Photo Philipsen)

Architects are among the design professionals who suffer from this weak and vague societal stature of design. Reflective of this fuzzy state, architects variably consider themselves artists, designers, peers to engineers or master-builders. 

A former employee of mine was amused when his mother had asked him once again what architects really do. She is not alone in that uncertainty. 

The brand-new Baltimore Center for Architecture and Design will help to showcase what architects and designers do. It will be shedding a bright light on architecture, design and the built environment and all its challenges. It will provide a space for encounter, conversation, exhibits and dialogue. 

The Center will convene timely and vital conversations about the architecture and the built environment in Baltimore, and the role of design in creating equitable, just, healthy, sustainable and resilient communities. It will include flexible program and gallery exhibitions space. Programs will include lectures, tours, workshops, and activities for the design community, students, and the general public (AIA press release).

On the practical side, the space in the plinth under the tower of One Charles Center, Mies van der Rohe's 1962 office contribution to Baltimore, will be the new home of AIA Baltimore and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation. 

Home of several organizations in the area of design,
real estate and preservation (Photo: Philipsen)

As a direct expression of the collaboration that is central to the architect's work, the Center will also provide administrative and program space for several other organizations operating in the field of the built environment:

  • The Baltimore Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (Bmore NOMA), 
  • Baltimore Heritage, Inc.,
  •  the Baltimore Chapter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI Baltimore), 
  • The Maryland Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA Maryland), and
  • The Charles Street Development Corporation. 
This array of organizations will ensure that design and architecture will be seen in the comprehensive, multidisciplinary manner that "design thinking" envisions. 

The current AIA Baltimore Chapter President expresses the Center's aspiration this way:

“The Baltimore Center for Architecture and Design was conceived to scale the influence of architecture and design. The Center will be where neighbors, civic leaders, institutions, and all design professions come together to collaborate, inspire, learn, listen, and most importantly, to act. Here we hope to find common values and work towards shared goals. The Center will celebrate Baltimore’s architectural treasures and will be a platform for discussing the future of design and the profession.” Scott Walters, AIA Baltimore Chapter President, and Principal at Hord Caplan Macht)

This closely mimics the concept that stands behind design and architecture centers and hubs in major cities around the world. 

An earlier effort was trying to create a design center outside the established organizations, when architects, engineers, museum directors and educators

Center logo by Ashton Design 

founded D:Center,  a non-profit that operated for about 8 years with support from AIA before it folded in 2018 into the Neighborhood Design Center NDC, located at the Motor House on North Avenue. 

D:Center co-founder writer and architecture journalist Elisabeth Evitt-Dickinson expressed back in 2013 her take on a design center in Baltimore in words that still resonate today and could as well be applied to the new Center that now actually materialized.

 We are at an interesting juncture for American cities, and Baltimore, in particular, represents a special challenge. We are a shrinking, post-industrial town with entrenched conflicts and disputed territories. We live in a city that is, in places, aesthetically impoverished and inhumane. But we also have an inventive spirit, and, I believe, a renewing sense of self, that can be seen in pockets of creative energy throughout the city.  

How the Center opens up to Center Plaza (Photo: Philipsen)

Baltimore has often been called a city of silos: individuals working within their own sealed space. To address our built environment, we must rise above our fragmented past and knit together our disparate efforts around design and planning. 
A Design Center in Baltimore could galvanize creative energies and foster new conversations. It can be a place for germinating what our city could and should be in the future, making Baltimore a playground of design, a Petri dish for cultivating new ideas about urban living. (Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson)

Back in 2013 an equally adept perception of what a design center can do, came from the then chair of the Architecture Department at Morgan State University, 

The sustainable city is elemental to the health and well-being of her inhabitants.  An urban design center that fosters communication, discourse and education on all aspects of the urban environment will support the dream of a sustainable Baltimore. (Ruth Connell, AIA, MSU).

Recovered lobby marble for table tops (Photo: Philipsen)
Eventually it was the Baltimore Chapter of AIA that realized the concept, not unlike AIA and related sister organizations did it in Philadelphia, Washington DC, New York and Chicago, the last one also located in a Mies building, but on a much grander scale. 

Baltimore's 3,600 square foot space has a quite mundane past as a Burger King, an Office Depot store, followed by standing vacant for 15 years. 

The Baltimore Chapter of AIA came to the rescue with a 25 year lease from One Charles Center owner Peter Angelos. 

The move required the chapter to create a one million dollar fund, most of it for construction and new equipment. This is a heavy lift for a professional organization largely funded by membership fees. some 30 years back the local chapter had been in pretty dire financial straits, before longtime Executive Director Karen Lewand brought the organization not only into safer financial waters but out of a status that some critics described as an "elite old boys club". By buying its own chapter house on West Chase Street, and immersing itself more in all kinds of pressing urban affairs, AIA has grown stronger and well respected as a problem solver in the built environment. The late Ms. Lewand's legacy is honored by naming the new conference room after her. 

In spite of much more financial stability, the Center fund is still short by about 25% after AIA seeded it with $500,000 from reserves and the sale of the old chapter house, a $75,000 Capital Projects grant from the Maryland Heritage Authority, and $5000 from a Storefront Improvement Grant from the Baltimore Development Corporation. AIA received various member donations; the drive is ongoing and donations can be made here.  

The old chapter house had once saved AIA by creating a viable asset, but it was cramped, not easily made ADA compliant and not suitable to accommodate exhibits, larger gatherings or any of the interdisciplinary aspirations for collaboration. The new space is large, bright and accessible, sharing space is easy. The Urban Land Institute is now at home in the same space; ULI is a powerful organization representing the full spectrum of participants in land development and real estate. This collaboration and shared space should be especially fruitful to both sides by creating synergy instead of competition.

Lacy steel curtains in the color of the curtain wall (Photo: AIA)

The design of the new space comes from Quinn Evans Architects which has its Baltimore offices in the Mies van der Rohe tower. The firm won a design competition in August 2019 that AIA had held to find the most creative approach with a design that is "reaching out and drawing in". At the time Executive Director Kathleen Lane hoped to complete the Center for less money and in less time. Both didn't quite work out, in part attributable to one of the craziest years we have seen in a while, affecting schedule and cost  

Quinn Evans Principal Mark Nook says that for this project they used the simplicity of  Miesian modernism as their guide, emphasizing openness, lightness and flexibility. The most impressive element of the bright and friendly, largely open space are movable maple wood walls, modeled after library stacks, that can be cranked across the room on tracks. The other flexibility element are steel "lace" curtains that mimic the color of the building curtain wall and provide visual division, while still allowing the view across the space. The relation to the Mies building is also maintained through marble table tops that sat in storage from work on the elevator core of the tower. It is clad in the same marble. 

Large doors opening to Center Plaza will allow receptions to spill outside in the park-like setting and emphasize the them of "reaching out and drawing in". With additional funds the headhouse leading to the parking garage under the plaza, will be clad in a large electronic signboard allowing to project design images across the entire plaza. Project architect and associate Allison McElheny emphasizes that firms young designers played a large role in picking critical elements for the design of the center through several in-house design charrettes.  All graphics related to the center are designed clean and modern as well by Ashton Design

Reaching out and drawing in: Ashton window graphics
(Photo: Philipsen)

The former retail space never looked better and finally offers an appropriate base to the modernist icon that is representative of what Mies stood for. 

To celebrate this new design hub and the Chapter's upcoming 150th anniversary next year, AIA  has planned an innovative line-up of public programs that will be hosted in the new space, including the Say It Loud exhibition (referring to James Brown's song "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud") that will feature projects by Black and minority design professionals and amplifies the presence of Black architects within the profession. Black architects still represent only 1.8% of all licensed architects in the United States. The exhibition will be online and in the gallery and will recognize the important contributions of  designers of color in Baltimore and Maryland. 

A virtual opening ceremony will be held on Friday, October 30, 2020 at 2pm. (Invite).

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The author was a founding member of d:center and is a member of AIA.

One of the two moveable divider elements on tracks 
(Photo: AIA/Lane)

Birch wood, screens and pin boards: ready for exhibits (Photo: Philipsen)

Working side by side: AIA, BAF, ULI, ASLA and others
(Photo: Philipsen)

hanging out around the water cooler (Photo: Philipsen)

The base of One Charles Center houses the new AIA Center: It has a green roof
(Photo: AIA)

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