RTKL uses historical context to inform and guide a modern architectural expression.
Housed in a historic, former Carnegie library, in the Mt. Washington neighborhood of Baltimore, the Baltimore Clayworks is a non-profit (501c3) ceramic arts center founded in 1978 by artists who sought to establish a hub for anyone wishing to learn about or experience the fine art of clay. The group’s primary mission is to “develop, sustain and promote an artist-centered community that provides outstanding educational, artistic and collaborative programs in the ceramic arts.” In 2000, a secondary mission was to renovate (and bring up to code) the aging building, while maintaining as much of its original design and materials as possible, and doing so with the Clayworks kilns still firing.
The addition and renovation project was awarded to RTKL Associates Inc.’s Baltimore office. The firm says its goals for the project – which was completed in 2005 – were lengthy but clear:
- Create opportunities for building community by the appropriate and appealing use of space among the artists, students, and the Clayworks board, staff and volunteers
- Use the buildings to advance and to give visibility to the programs that RTKL operates in inner city Baltimore and statewide
- Maximize revenue-generating operations (café, gift shop) for the Clayworks without undermining adequate program and artist workspace
- Create a viable campus to best be used strategically to increase Clayworks’ competitive advantage in a changing environment.
Robert Berry, RTKL’s vice president for its commercial architecture studio in Washington, D.C., and a former Baltimore office leader, spoke with Masonry Design about the project, including a discussion on “marrying” new materials to old, challenges overcome and community involvement.
When renovating a historic building, matching materials (or in some cases replacing an entire façade with era-appropriate materials) is one of the most important details to get right. First, owners require historical accuracy and an attention to detail. Second, the result – particularly when dealing with the façade – is the public’s first impression of the rebuilt structure. For the Baltimore Clayworks, RTKL says because of both budget constraints and the need for a utilitarian building appropriate to match the building’s studio function, the firm knew it would use a brick exterior finish that would reference the original brick in scale without replicating the exact size, while also referencing the age of the existing building and the owner’s desire to create a modern feel. “We selected a wire-cut brick finish that closely matched the existing brick in color, but had a more modern look than the tumbled existing brick, which we felt wasn’t appropriate for a more modern interpretation of a contemporary architectural addition,” Berry said.
“Similarly, due to the nature of dirt buildup associated with clay art, the client expressed an interest in having an interior finish of exposed concrete, both for the new walls and the floors that contribute to easy wash-down of the facilities,” Berry added. Therefore, he said, the interior walls – painted CMU block – were left exposed. (The original interior walls had a plaster finish.) Additionally, the hollow-core concrete plank floors were left exposed, and the transition between existing to new structure was resolved by the design and location of a two-story glass entrance vestibule and elevator lobby.
As with any project, there are challenges to overcome: both typical complications and project-specific difficulties. RTKL and the rest of the renovation team certainly had their share, including the need to upgrade the Clayworks to meet ADA standards.
Of course, budgetary hurdles are to be expected. With this project, the original construction schedule called for a completion date that would allow for building occupancy corresponding to beginning of the Clayworks’ class schedule. During the overall design process, this schedule was revisited a number of times, Berry said, because of funding issues. However, every hurdle eventually was jumped, thanks to a collaborative construction and design team, as well as the benefit of building material donations, and an aggressive and successful fundraising campaign. The budget for the project is classified at the request of the owner.
Berry said that first and foremost, the successful operation of the Baltimore Clayworks relies upon the proper firing and operation of its two gas-fired kilns. The addition and renovation of the facility had to be organized around the need to keep these kilns operational during the entirety of the construction. “Deb Bedwell, director of the Baltimore Clayworks was once quoted during a meeting saying ‘You can do whatever you want here, but you are not allowed to touch those kilns.’ However, a tight site and programmatic requirements of the building necessitated minimal yet complicated alterations to the kiln exhaust systems in order that they met code,” Berry said.
Another major challenge before and during construction was the need to make the building handicap accessible. “The restrictive and challenging nature of the site made solutions for bringing the entire site and building up to accessibility standards a particular challenge,” Berry said. For example, the elevator had to be located to a position that had a minimal impact on the organization of the studio space, but also served four levels in a three-story structure, because the main kiln room is on an occupied floor. Additionally, the fact that the building lies within a 100-year flood plain contributed to this challenge, Berry said, because classroom and studio space could not be added within the flood plain.
Finally, marrying a contemporary addition to a structure with a rich traditional architectural style proved to be a challenge, Berry said. “We wanted an addition that arrived at a contextual sensitivity, but that simultaneously had a contemporary identity appropriate to the contemporary studio and classroom activity occurring within. The addition appropriately responds to the scale and materiality of the existing historic structure without overwhelming the structure.”
Berry says the Mt. Washington neighborhood and surrounding community were heavily involved in the design process. After all, the Clayworks is an important cultural space for many, an artistic haven for others, and a historic building that no one wanted to lose. “We had multiple presentations/conversations with the Mount Washington Improvement Association, the Mt. Washington Design Review Committee, the organization CHAPS [Committee for Historic and Architectural Preservation], and the Mt. Washington Retail Association,” Berry said.
Innate in all of the work Berry and RTKL does is the importance of the client/designer collaborative relationship, which in this case also includes a concerned public. “Inherent in all built projects is the residue of compromise,” Berry says. “…The Baltimore Clayworks project is much smaller than the work RTKL typically undertakes for its commercial clients. However, successful design transcends a project’s given size. This project works because it is an example of a project that doesn’t outright reject the site’s history and traditional context, but uses that context to inform and guide a modern architectural expression – thereby creating a result whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Preserving another part of America’s valuable, small-town history
Preserving another part of America’s valuable, small-town history