BackStory is an Archinect series that focuses on personal experiences of well-known buildings (or cities!) from those who are closest to them: docents, owners, janitors, occupants, and others. This is the expanded view or the bonus features that we may add to the official documentation of a project. Each entry in this series is a story about the building city told from an intensely personal perspective.
Editor's note: At a time when headlines are dominated by Dubai and disaster, it's refreshing to see one of our own trying to unpack decidedly less glamorous parts of our world. In this love letter / propaganda / manifesto by Archinector Fred Scharmen , the outsider (that's you) is given a glimpse into the fullness of the contemporary American city as exemplified by Baltimore, MD. Fred's peripatetic tour of Baltimore is ultimately a plea for others to care about the places at hand. To be sure, Baltimore has its own specific cocktail of aspirations, afflictions, successes, and opportunities but more than a single mid-Atlantic city what's at stake is a way of thinking about the world.
Starting from the material evidence of the city itself, captured here in Fred's photographs, and blooming into a network of larger concerns, we find in Scharmen's love letter to Baltimore an advertisement not only for his hometown but for the position of architects as a group who are uniquely able to link up- in thoughts and actions- the material to the abstract. This perspective, the architect's perspective, is a way of thinking that retains the importance of the local without giving up the complexities of contemporary life.
Are you a Believer or a Cynic? Baltimore is a city built for a million people, with only 660,000 living in it. We're either 2/3 full or 1/3 empty: so what do you like, Potential or Decay? Depending how you break, potential means either homesteading or gentrification, decay means either romantic desolation or slow motion urban tragedy. Decide quickly, and don't forget the race and class angles, either.
Baltimore is Postindustrial, Multilayered, Patinated. It's made of brick. Cold in the winter, hot in the summer, Baltimore is full of colleges, nonprofits, art schools, universities, bars, but also, according to the 2000 census, over 40,000 vacant housing units. There's a lot of crime and rent is cheap. The contradictions are there in the slogans: 'Bodymore Murdaland' aka 'The City that Reads' (or 'Bleeds'). 'Stop Snitchin' or just 'BELIEVE.'
Brick alley, Baltimore
What's the proper reaction to these conditions? Resignation? Hope? Irony? Is it possible to appreciate the aesthetic consequences of Urban Decay while decrying the socio-economic forces that have produced it? Is it possible to make a living city that retains its Authenticity without producing a Monoculture?
Harbor East, Baltimore
As my first studio critic used to say, whenever we asked him an either/or question: 'Yes and Yes'*.
There's no better map to the human and built geography of the city than The Wire . The alleys are all sunlit plants breaking through cracked asphalt, gantry cranes at the port swing containers off the ships with vast, cool indifference, and the vacant rowhouses are full of ghosts. But watch the interactions behind these romantic images and you'll see that the alleys are shortcuts, the containers move human cargo, and the ghosts in the vacants are real. The Wire is about the Drug War, and all the causes and consequences of same. Ignore the dope on the table, and follow the network. Watch as the same structures emerge in different systems: city government, drug gangs, labor unions, developers: rhymes, isomorphisms, patterns, diagrams. The relationship between Power and Urban Space is visible everywhere in the series. The Wire is a textbook on the Control of territory through the occupation of key nodes: the stairwells in the project towers, the courtyards in the garden apartments, the corners in the streets. Map the network, see the diagram, find the angles.
Polonia Tree in a vacant warehouse, South Baltimore
But diagnosis doesn't always lead to a cure, and cogent analysis doesn't always generate productive design: this project from Wire producer Ed Burns and others is a proposal to wall off entire city blocks for local neighborhood monitoring and policing. Everyone has a Plan. The city is moving and constantly changing. But it is small, it is comprehensible, watch and you can see Master Plans born, implemented, redirected and abandoned. The HUD Hope VI program traded large modernist public housing slabs for small scale, New Urbanist neotraditionalism, implicitly mollifying a generation of architects, planners and politicians who blame Modernism for poverty and drugs. Did the old towers fail? Is the new public space nonfunctional? Yes and Yes. Every near failure, every way that is shut, every path half taken, creates a new given: a new piece of context to deal with and integrate.
Brick wall on Saratoga St., Downtown Baltimore
The overlap of systems, networks and infrastructures creates disjunctions and gaps. It's not deconstruction, it's productive. There are opportunities in the contradictions, connections to be made, and differences to be (imperfectly) smoothed over. While surveying the old Natty Boh brewery an office I worked with found enough extra strength for five more floors of housing. Baltimore was once one of the largest ports of entry for goods, and people, into the United States. There is excess unused capacity everywhere.
US Navy Transport Ship, Port Covington, Baltimore
From this angle, there is work here in the city that could be built nowhere else in North America, with institutional and developer clients that recognize the potential of the local and unique. Charlie Brickbauer and Ziger/Snead have built a new digital media center for Maryland Institute College of Art , a glowing shard that reaches out and mediates between warehouse, overpass, highway and trainyard. The Living Classroom Foundation continues to foster orginal, forward thinking work on the waterfront from Z/S, Alexander Design Studio , and others. Architects at Parameter Inc. are working with Turner Development Group to fill an unused grain silo on the waterfront with housing. (disclaimer: I work for one of these firms, used to work for another, and know a lot of people who work for the third. Did I mention this was a small town?)
MICA's Brown Center, Charlie Brickbauer and Ziger/Snead, photo by flickr user Idle Type
Screw globalisms, go local. Local is global at a different scale. Every emergence is just a million little totalities, every pirate is a miniature emperor, and every drug dealer is a wannabe developer. As Lester Freamon says in The Wire: "We're building something here, detective, we're building it from scratch, and all the pieces matter." I've been back in the city for seven months, and I still find, almost every week, new arts collectives, galleries, magazines, and nonprofits (see, for example: Wham City , Carroll Mansion , Locus , Parks & People ). The US headquarters of George Soros' Open Society Institute is here, and working locally. Groups like Baltimore Green Construction and the Neighborhood Design Center are moving toward a way of working in the city that is small-scale, tactical, and sustainable. Is this in marked contrast to the old Inner Harbor style of massive cash-cow development? Is this a continuation of the Inner Harbor precedent of public/private partnership and visionary change? Yes and Yes.
Yard, South Baltimore
Baltimore embraces Difficulty, Texture, History, and Contradiction. This is a love letter, a Manifesto, but it's also an advertisement. As a friend said the other day: "Baltimore needs architects."
Folk Typography, South Baltimore
Fred Scharmen is a native of Baltimore who now lives and works in the city. To see more images of Baltimore, Fred invites you to view a slideshow on his Flickr page .
*Shoutout to Barney Mansavage!
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License .
/Creative Commons License
Unlicensed Architect, Amateur Urbanist, Uncredited Designer, Sometime Research and Writer