The history for me goes back to coming to this campus in 2002. It was a place where great things were happening, but the quality of our physical campus did not match the quality of the education we were providing. As is often the case with older, state-supported urban universities, our infrastructure was aging and many of our core facilities were not originally designed for academic use. I began to think about how we could construct new buildings or redo existing facilities in a way that reflected the quality of our students, faculty and staff.
It really started as a value statement about the relationship of the people who are going to use the building and the quality of the facilities themselves. This value did not always inform the University’s previous growth, given the ever-present challenges that public institutions face in terms of funding. You tend to make do with what you can get, even if that means settling for the lowest common denominator. To reverse that tide, I had to think about what we could do in terms of a project that would reflect the University’s aspirations going forward while, at the same time, get the necessary funding. Our dreams had to be rooted in reality.
So, two things came together. First, we had an oddly-shaped surface parking lot in poor condition. As bad as it was, it did have one thing going for it: location. The city’s main street passes in front of it; the city’s major expressway runs past it; and it is directly across from Union Station, the train station that connects the city to the Washington/New York corridor. If we could develop a project on that site, we could have what I would call a “statement building” – one that people would recognize and, as a result, see that something important and forward-looking was happening at the University. And if we made a statement, it would be heard, as literally thousands of people pass by the location every day.
And because I felt it was so important for this statement to be about the future, I wanted the design to reflect change and not history. You know, you talk with architects and they talk about context, and for me that may mean doing what they have done in the past, or what somebody else has done in the past. Because we were trying to recast the public image of the University, I didn’t want a contextual building. We needed a building that broke set, that changed the way you think about it and, by extension, changed the way you think about us.
That was how we came to the project. We chose a new law facility for the site for a number of reasons. One, the School of Law is one of the most prominent parts of the University. In addition, the School was in a facility that was built years ago and it had outgrown the size of the building. Finally, because of external forces, I felt we could get the necessary funding for a law facility more readily than for some other project: our need was apparent, and the School’s reputation throughout the state was strong.
Once the funding was secured – which we did by combining state and private support – I returned to the commitment about value and quality. It was very important to me that the building speak to the people inside it and to the people outside it in a way that was appropriate, which meant in a way that no University building had previously. So the next task was to figure out how you go about selecting an architect with the foresight to take these loose thoughts and develop them into something tangible, all within the confines of the state system.
Early in my presidency, I had a conversation with the head of a local major foundation about the state of architecture in our city. We talked about the challenges our state universities face in constructing innovative, high-quality buildings. At the time, which was well before we had this project in mind, he said that he would give a grant to support any university that was willing to hold an architectural design competition. With the law project funding in hand, I recalled that conversation. By the way, I know nothing about competitions and nothing about architects. If it hadn’t been for that discussion, I don’t know whether a design competition would have ever occurred.
I assembled a group and went to the foundation to determine if the offer still stood. As it turns out, they were serious and the competition was funded. There had been only one other architectural competition for a state university building, so there was little precedent. With some external help, we designed a competition with the objective of attracting international interest. To assist in the review process and final choice, I assembled a review committee of experts. And I had the arrogance to tell them that I didn’t want the committee to make a decision. I welcomed the committee’s recommendations, but I wanted to make the final decision. It shows how foolish you can be, but that’s the way I felt about it and how important I believed the choice was for the University.
Initially twenty firms expressed interest, and nineteen ultimately forwarded submissions. From those, we selected five finalists. The foundation wanted to have three finalists, but I wanted five because there was enough interesting and different material in the proposals. We also needed to balance the state evaluation process, which is based on certain criteria, with our own goal of excellence and innovation. I’m pleased to say we were able to manage that. Going into the final presentations, there were two or three things that were important to me. First, the architect’s creative talent had to be demonstrated. The second was: would this be an architect I could work with? I didn’t want to hire a star firm and then have the star disappear and never talk to me again. That’s why, right before I made the selection public, I asked Stefan, “Who’s going to do this work? Are you going to show up?” And the answer was yes, and obviously that has happened. That was important (to me) because I wanted to have a sense of, not ownership of a project because I don’t own it, but of participation in the project. That was important for me personally and – I would like to think – for the University. All of those considerations went into the final selection process.
Many of the projects presented missed what we were talking about. They missed the sense of this being a living building that people would work in. But your presentation, Stefan, didn’t miss that at all. The experts on the committee talked about how wonderful your buildings are inside and how well they work as living space. That was important to all of us, and interestingly enough the final decision was unanimous. Everybody recommended your firm: all the outside people recommended it; everybody who was working for me recommended it; and that’s where I was at, so it was easy at that point. Except for the fact that once you make the decision, then you say, “Oh my God, what have I done? Is this going to work?” So I was worried about that.
Then we began talking with you about the things that were important to us. Now, I had been a law school professor for seven years and a law dean for ten years. I knew that within all law schools there tends to be separation. Faculty tend to live in their space, with students usually in the bottom floor somewhere and the administration kind of in the center. There is a – it’s not a Balkanization exactly – but there is a separation. I don’t believe that is educationally optimal or appropriate. By the way, I think this is true for all professional schools: you need to have connection between the students, the staff and the faculty. So it was clear in our discussions that we didn’t want isolation in the way the space was blocked. As the building began to be designed, and the segments of activity began to be designed, the law school committee we worked with initially recommended that all the faculty be on the top floor, because those are the best views and the faculty could be off by themselves. I thought that concept actually violated the principals under which we were operating, which was interaction and the fact that everybody would have to come together. That was important to me. I also needed a design that people would understand was special. I don’t know exactly what that means, because I don’t have the breadth of architectural knowledge, but I knew it had to be a building that nobody could miss. Of course, I also hoped it would be a building that people would like. Finally, it needed to be a building that our campus community felt good about and proud of – all of that was in the back of my mind throughout the design discussions.
Finally, I wanted to make a statement to Baltimore that it is possible to build exceptional public buildings in our city. This project could perhaps be a step towards creating aspirations more generally about the way the community sees physical space. Because I happen to be very space-sensitive, it’s important to me that we don’t view our buildings as simply garages to hold things. My surroundings affect the way I feel: my energy, the way my day goes, even how optimistic I feel. I wanted a building that would have that kind of energy. By the way, I think we’ve got all of that. The building has met the promises and the overall intentions. We’re not in it yet, so we won’t really know until we’re using it. The design is absolutely remarkable, and, as I’ve said to you, Stefan, I have never seen a building like this before. So, I am learning how to live in and understand this truly singular and unique building. Inside with all the crosswalks, with the energy and the movement of light, the building is going to create community. I have no doubt about that. Nobody who goes into that building – whether they like it or not, because it is edgy – is going to think that we didn’t care about strengthening community or that we didn’t create a building that mattered.