In this age of media-cooption of direct experience, how truly can we see a place, without our understanding being overwhelmed by previously-seen portrayals of that place? This obviously comes up with New York, and L.A., and many tourist destinations, but for me it also came up with Baltimore. I had been there several times before, but to be honest, my deepest understanding of Baltimore has come from repeated viewings of Homicide and The Wire. This preconception had its negative effects – I was worried about walking down an alley, expecting that ferocious black-and-white dog from the Homicide credits to hurl itself against the fence at me – but it also had positive effects. It reinforced my interest in the fabric of the city, spending time walking through neighborhoods, rather than just seeking out the architectural highlights. This coincides with Greta’s predispositions too, as she’d much rather people-watch and see day-to-day life than look at major monuments of architectural culture.
We were staying with our former student Neelab, who lives on the north side, a couple of miles from downtown, so our limited explorations fanned out from there. (Plus my Wire-based geographic understanding led me to think that wandering around the North side was preferable to the East or West.) We walked up through the Hampden neighborhood, a straightforward place which seems to be gentrifying at this moment, judging from the presence of a frites shop and other yuppie establishments. Everyone understands the Baltimore rowhouse as the building block of the city, but what most struck me was the variety of designs, sizes, and styles within this simple type. There were the obviously high-quality masonry houses,
We walked to the downtown to get a better sense of the range of neighborhoods, and made it to the Inner Harbor, the redevelopment that put the city on the tourist map, with the groundbreaking aquarium and the Inner Harbor. The Aquarium took up a lot of our time, as Greta’s architecture-quota had maxed out and we needed to see more animals. Designed in the 70s by Cambridge Seven, it was the first to offer extreme spatial variety, huge tanks, and what feels like an immersive experience. The interior spaces and experience are great,
To some extent, aquariums need to be black boxes, to control light and marine growth, but this aquarium connects the inside to the outside as much as possible. Overall, a very good building, though not quite up the Monterey Bay Aquarium, according to our family aquarium expert ( who has written a post about the aquarium qua aquarium and not architecture).
The Inner Harbor was one of the first “festival marketplace” developments by James Rouse, whose company was based in Baltimore.It’s a pretty convincing, nicely-scaled area which obviously opened up the view of the harbor, replacing the waterfront uses that were in decline. It started a trend to bring suburbanites back into the city, by convincing them that it could be safe and fun. We saw it on a November weekday afternoon, not prime tourist season, so it was clear that the spaces were scaled for the tourists who must throng it in the summer. With the exception of a repurposed power plant with giant Hard Rock Cafe guitar on top, it doesn’t try too hard; it all seems to be related to Baltimore somehow, and isn’t just the latest manifestation of a market-tested, globally-repeated, Disneyfied, ersatz urban branding extravaganza. That is probably because it is now so old – a more recent development would look more like Vegas.
The issue of eras of building is important in another way in Baltimore. If you zoom in on the picture above, you’ll notice that there aren’t really many new skyscrapers. Baltimore has its share of crappy skyscrapers from the 60s and 70s, but very few from later decades. I think this is a good thing. Probably since it is a relative economic backwater, and not a global city, Baltimore has been spared the crush of banal behemoths that dominate so many other cities on the ascendant, such as Dallas, New York, Charlotte, etc. These new skyscrapers may not be any worse than the older ones, but they are much bigger (in both height and floorplate) and they completely change the character of the downtown. Cities such as Boston, which have preserved a lot of older buildings, can survive the onslaught with a semblance of balance, but newer cities, such as Seattle, become all too much of one era, and unfortunately not a very good one. We’ve been visiting a lot of second and third-tier cities on this trip, and it strikes me that these cities, which are more embedded in the local rather than global economy, may be much better cities in which to live – reasonable housing costs, a sense of history, a slower pace. The global cities are exciting and hip, but a city which has been spared the tsunami of global capital looking for a place to buy up real estate may provide a more grounded, balanced and satisfying life for a much wider range of residents.