Open Invitaion

The Maryland Science Center looked more like a penitentiary than a museum, until this Building Team reoriented it toward Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
August 11, 2010

If you were among the 11 million tourists to visit Baltimore this past year, chances are you took in at least one of the Charm City's Inner Harbor attractions — the National Aquarium, the reincarnated Power Plant restaurant and entertainment complex, or the mixed-use Harborplace festival marketplace. But until last May, you and most other visitors (not to mention most locals, other than school children dragooned by their teachers) would have been hard-pressed to go out of your way to take in the Maryland Science Center.

Conceived in the aftermath of the riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, the original fortress-like building, designed by Edward Durell Stone and completed in 1976, looked more like Alcatraz than a monument to the wonders of science. "When it was first built, you'd swear it was a correctional facility," says the center's CFO/COO, Dick Hesse.

The building was not only uninviting, it was outdated. With 25,000 sf of inflexible exhibit space, ceiling heights that topped out at 12 feet, and a dozen 16×16-foot vertical elevator and mechanical service shafts running throughout the building, it was difficult for the center to present large, interactive exhibits. As a result, says Hesse, "We weren't achieving the visitorship that we thought we could."

Even the building's orientation and location worked against it. The original science center building faced away from the Inner Harbor in favor of the nearby Key Highway. When the Inner Harbor started to take off in the 1980s with the Rouse Co.'s Harborplace development, the science center remained visually and physically disconnected from the harbor's renaissance.

A half-hearted attempt to add an IMAX theater and install a new north entrance, which contained a glass façade facing the Inner Harbor, still wasn't enough to make the center an enticing attraction, says Hesse. The IMAX's windowless exterior did nothing to improve the "friendliness" of the urban presence, says Luis Bernardo, AIA, principal with local architectural firm Design Collective Inc.

Faced with this surfeit of problems, the center's board of directors conducted a design competition, which included four firms, and in 1999 selected Design Collective to expand the building's footprint and create what Hesse calls an "inviting building" to anchor the Inner Harbor's south shore. The $35 million, 43,000-sf expansion and 36,000-sf renovation were unveiled last May. Says Hesse, "The end product is precisely what we were looking for."

Adding fun and flare

Marked by extensive use of glazing intended to open up the center to the Inner Harbor and city, the expansion more than doubles the size of the original building. A three-story, skylit atrium lobby wraps around the IMAX theater rotunda. A new 10,000-sf Dinosaur Hall with a 40-foot-high "urban window" faces the Inner Harbor, accompanied by an 8,000-sf flexible traveling exhibit space, which also features a 40-foot-high glazed wall that looks out toward the city's financial district.

"We needed to open up the building and give people a reason to come in," says Design Collective's Bernardo. The neighboring National Aquarium, with its nautical abstractions and glass pyramids, served as inspiration. "From day one, the science center said, 'That's our competition,'" he says. "It's clear that the aquarium is entertainment, a fun museum venue."

Baltimore-based general contractor Whiting-Turner was brought in early in the game to provide cost estimates and "bring us back down to earth," says Hesse. During the planning phase, members of the board and Design Collective (which was designing its first museum) toured the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Minnesota Children's Museum, the California ScienCenter, and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry to scope out ideas.

"Before we talked about architecture, we talked about circulation," says Bernardo. Because the layout of the existing building was considered to be disorienting, cognitive mapping and circulation design drove the organization of the expanded spaces. A straightforward plan was devised to have the new spaces radiate out from the center point of the IMAX rotunda, with a new north entrance aligning with the center's outdoor promenade stairs.

With the IMAX rotunda as its backdrop, the new rounded glass lobby atrium dramatically increases the Wow! factor over that of the existing 1980s-era north entrance, which amounted to little more than a small vestibule with a ticket counter at the entrance. A zone system layout in the new 7,000-sf lobby enhances the usability of space by giving nonpaying visitors access to the center's renovated restaurant and gift shop. This lobby is now the main entryway for visitors, while the south entrance accommodates school groups.

The designers also wanted to emphasize column-free space, but tying back into the IMAX rotunda to support the 52-foot-high roof of the atrium expansion proved impossible, as the theater was not designed to be tied back into. So the structural engineer, locally based Morabito Consultants, developed a series of sliding connections linking the theater wall and the roof of the expansion to withstand lateral wind and seismic forces, says project engineer Brian Tarantino, P.E.

The lobby's terrazzo floor is designed to replicate the constellations found in the northern hemisphere. Mother-of-pearl was mixed into the terrazzo to emulate the midnight sky and the Milky Way.

The true star of the atrium, however, is its elegant, cantilevered grand stair, which connects the center's three levels. "That stair caused heartache for a lot of people," says project architect Sam Rajamanickam, AIA. "But we wanted to keep the lobby column free."

The stair was nicknamed the "diving board" by the structural team because it's like walking out into space when you step out onto it from the second floor, says Tarantino. The eight-foot-wide stair follows the curve of the IMAX rotunda.

Dinosaur hall grabs attention

While the lobby greatly improves on the center's interior appeal and user friendliness, it is the large, glazed walls of the two new exhibit halls that capture the attention of pedestrians on the Inner Harbor and commuters driving by the center. And what better way to attract attention than with dinosaurs? asks the center's Hesse. In fact, a permanent exhibit involving earth sciences and dinosaurs was on the table from the start.

Working in collaboration with Morabito Consultants and the glazing supplier, Design Collective developed the "Dino Hall" with an upward-sloping roof that widens as it extends out 100 feet to the 40×90-foot glazed "urban window" wall. This arrangement allows easy viewing into the hall from outside, especially at night. Featuring interactive displays and a "dino dig pit" for children, the hall accommodates life-size dinosaur replicas up to 30 feet in height and 40 feet in length. From the outside, "when the hall is backlit at night, the T-rex really grabs your attention," says Hesse.

Morabito used wide-flange trusses in a box configuration spanning the 100-foot length of the hall to allow for a column-free space. The trusses support the roof and allow the glazed wall to wrap around the sides of the hall. To support the glazed wall and provide an unobstructed views through the window, vertical Vierendeel trusses, chosen for their lacy look and slender appearance, where hung from the roof every 15 feet and fitted with sliding connections at the base of the wall. When the truss systems threatened to blow the budget, Bernardo says museum board members dug into their own pockets to pay the $80,000 difference. "A conventional horizontal column and truss system would have been less expensive, but it would have broken my heart," says Bernardo, given that the whole idea was to allow people to see into the exhibits.

Bernardo says the trend in science centers is toward the use of more and more glass in public areas, but not in exhibit areas, for fear of damaging the collections on display. The orientation of the Dino and traveling exhibit halls to the north allows mostly indirect light into the hall. For added protection, laminated, low-e glazing was used. In the Dino Hall, an east-facing bay window, which angles out from the building, contains fritted glass to reduce the impact of direct sunlight.

While many museums are looking to traveling exhibits for added revenue, Hesse says the Maryland Science Center "already offered a lot of value for the money without the traveling exhibit hall," including exhibits focused on health, the human body, and space, plus the IMAX and a planetarium. The traveling exhibition hall "allows us the luxury and the space to look at a Titanic artifact exhibit" if it fits the center's mission, Hesse says. When not in use, the space, along with the lobby atrium and a new rooftop terrace, can be used to host special events.

Early indications are that the center's new, eye-catching design is drawing the attention of tourists visiting the Inner Harbor. Patronage is up 23% over a year ago (when the project was still under construction) and 10% over 2002, and the museum's household memberships are up 40% in the last nine months. "We've always attracted school kids," says Hesse. "But now we have more sophisticated exhibits that appeal to mom and dad, too."

         
 

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