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Charmed Life


Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 10/24/2001

They're oppressive. They're stark. They squat rudely on our street corners in cold indifference to the insistent urban drama surrounding them. They're Baltimore's misshapen and misplaced buildings. The Pontiac Azteks of the architectural world.

Usually when Charmed Life focuses on our built environment it's to celebrate examples of our city's historic, handsome, and quirky architecture. We've got a lot to be thankful for, building-wise. But we also have the bland concrete box that is west wing of the Walters Art Museum, the bunkerlike Waxter Center at Chase and Cathedral streets, the faceless black monolith of Charles Street's Verizon Telephone Building, and the amorphous cement heap known as the Mechanic Theatre. So runs my short list of bad Baltimore buildings--negative assessments that are purely subjective but, I think you'll agree, hardly way out of line. I know ugly when I see it.

Take the Walters' west wing, built in 1974 in adherence to a school of architecture known as "Brutalism." That name says it all. The movement's fascination for exposed cement and blocky forms results in buildings that are, well, brutal. Multistory parking decks have more charm. I can understand the museum's need to protect its collection of antiquities from sunlight, but did the architects really need to accomplish this by shrouding what widows there were with vast, blank "curtains" of unadorned concrete? (It could be worse: In the 1950s the Walters was considering expanding along Mount Vernon Place, at the expense of a host of regal homes.) As it turns out, the wing's ugliness is more than skin deep. The Walters recently wrapped up a $24 million retrofit of the box's dank, dark, and convoluted interior. The brutal facade has been softened somewhat by a looming glass atrium entrance on Centre Street.

Another example of Brutalist bumbling is the Mechanic Theatre. The 1967 building has all the hallmarks of unbridled Brutalism: the rawly exposed cement, the purposeful championing of function over form, the relentless drabness. It looks like an insecticide factory or an electric-power substation rather than a palace for the performing arts. And the Mechanic isn't just ugly outside; it's bad to the bone. Problematic acoustics and sightlines have sparked numerous interior redesigns over the years.

Then there's the tower of shame--Verizon's horrid black monolith in the heart of the fashionable 300 block of North Charles Street. This menacing monster, positioned so as to adjoin an older telephone building on the 300 block of St. Paul Street, houses mostly telephone switching equipment, so there is little need for windows. But did the brain trust that built this thing back in 1971 think slathering the 11-story behemoth in black granite would make it less conspicuous? The only folks who enjoy this rude rupturing of Charles Street's bustle are the winos who bed down behind its stout columns. (Again, it could be worse: Should the need arise, the building is designed to have an additional 18 stories added to it--a contingency that, mercifully, is yet to be acted upon.)

The 1973 Waxter Center substitutes the brutality of cement and blocky forms for curvilinear walls of red brick. But it's still a butt-ugly fort of a place. It's home to a host of services for the city's senior citizens, a most noble purpose. But why must it resemble something the German army raised to defend the coast of France during World War II? The Waxter uncaringly greets busy Cathedral Street with largely windowless expanses of brick. A block's worth of stately 19th-century houses were pushed down to make way for this urban redoubt, a tragic act that drew criticism even before the first septuagenarian stepped inside. A 1973 Sun article called the Waxter an "alien sculptural mass" with "no relationship to the architectural neighborhood in which it stands" and described the brick walls as "assertive and thunderously out of key." Amen.

This brotherhood of ugly buildings is a product of its time--the late 1960s and early '70s, a time when suburban flight was in high gear and cities were increasingly regarded as dirty and dangerous. (The urban riots that greeted the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. didn't help matters.) Architects simply transcribed societal sentiments into brick and steel.

"Many buildings from this era were designed to defend themselves against the street," says architect Klaus Philipsen, who co-chairs the Urban Design Committee of the Baltimore Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "These buildings suffer greatly because they don't integrate with their streetscapes."

But our municipal malaise has largely lifted these past 20 years. Many urban neighborhoods have rebounded, many old building are being adaptively reused rather than demolished, and many new buildings sport windows, of all things. Sidewalk cafés--rare when I moved her 15 years ago--proliferate. Street life has returned. Cities seem cool again.

But then Philipsen reminds me that, in the wake of Sept. 11, paranoia and fear are again on the rise. Jersey walls and barricades have been thrown up around a number of downtown buildings. And this new atmosphere of heightened security and uncertainty may ripple its way onto the architect's drafting table. "We may be coming full circle again," he cautions.

New blank-walled urban forts in the future? Let's hope not.

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