Degenerate City: Dark City, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Be Ambivalent About Harbor Point

Even the ugliest tower contributes to a beautiful skyline at night. I remind myself of that at the rare, dread-inducing sight of a construction crane in this city. The architects of the 21st century have not been kind to Baltimore.

It's now hard to find a postcard-worthy daytime vista across the Patapsco. The waterfront is clogged with awkward attempts to shoehorn McMansions onto piers or sprawling, out-of-scale horizontal developments designed to evoke the gated communities of somewhere "safer." Parking garages often dwarf the destinations they serve. Nearly every new midrise is a thickset stub of cheap, mismatched cladding that blocks view corridors without contributing to the skyline. Federal Hill is obscured by the improbably tacky faux-mansard roof of the Ritz Carlton (how Parisian!). The cityscape, much like the harbor itself, reeks of civic neglect and private-sector abuse in the name of economic "progress." From the water, the southern half of the city has become a visual trash heap of dowdy earthtones that somehow manage to clash. We're now only photogenic in the dark with a very soft focus.

What does that say about contemporary Baltimore? Postcards from other waterfront cities reveal something about their ethoses. Boston's harbor-front wall of stern-looking postmodern office blocks is telling (it's boring). Vancouver's slim towers on street-framing retail podiums can be attributed to planners' thoughtful preservation of sightlines and consideration of pedestrian life. One glance at Dubai and we're aware the Sheik is out of his fucking mind and everyone is too afraid to tell him. Our own Inner Harbor once spoke to a desire to frame an image of order over a city deemed untamable. Sydney Harbour is almost always photographed in uncompromising mid-day sun, as if it had nothing to hide. It's all crisp, cheery modernism, green space, and iconic design.

But we're not getting our opera house anytime soon—or ever, probably. The last piece of prime waterfront, the focal point of future postcards, is now Beatty Development's Harbor Point, a peninsula for corporations and the rich subsidized by a poor city to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. So far, it looks like they aren't being as magnanimous to the public realm as our public sector has been to them. The first building, the Exelon Tower, welcomed its eponymous tenant this month. Is it even finished? It's hard to tell.

The design, from Beatty Harvey Coco architects, looks extremely rushed. It would take a skilled CAD technician roughly an hour to translate this structure back into whatever rendering software whence it was still-birthed. The main "tower" is bland enough to be inoffensive, invisible really—it recalls those anonymous office blocks by the side of I-83 in the aesthetic wasteland of Timonium—were it not for how underwhelming it looks in such a prominent site. The building seems embarrassed by the fact that it's not about three times its height. The otherwise-featureless exterior is clad with thin metal beams (the oldest trick in the skyscraper book to emphasize verticality) but they stop a few floors short of the roofline to accommodate Exelon's oversize signage, shattering the optical illusion. The effect is like a broad-shouldered drag queen trying to wear stripes to hide her waistline and instead looking even boxier.

Which begs the question: Why not simply build a giant cube? Or any other more interesting sculptural shape, for that matter? The broad floor plates were required to accommodate a single trading floor, which could've been accomplished with a more creative massing. I'm thinking of OMA's cantilevered Shenzhen Stock Exchange, a strategy which could have preserved some water views from the street. What we're left with is a building that looks self-conscious that it's not a skyscraper and presents pedestrians with a clumsily-attached brick-clad aboveground parking structure from most viewpoints on land. The cheap-looking masonry is clearly a concession to "contextuality" on the elevations that front the mess of gaudy faux-historic condos around it. But I'm curious as to why an architect would opt to sacrifice contextuality with one's own building in favor of a half-assed gesture toward the theme-parkitechture across the street. Plant the ivy now.

But for all the building's shortcomings, it is somewhat redeemed by the fact that it looks exactly like what one would expect the headquarters of an evil energy corporation built atop a toxic waste dump full of carcinogenic chromium dust to look like. For Beatty—especially in the context of Harbor East—that's an accomplishment. The firm designed most of the "neighborhood" as a Vegas-strip-hotel version of an imaginary Upper West Side from some non-specific "good old days." This tower is at least somewhat honest.

The early postmodernists believed architectural details made the city easier to navigate; think doric columns = civic building, pitched roof = house, steeple = church. To an extent, that might be true for children and the illiterate. But now we have condos and gyms designed to look like warehouses with vaguely art deco ornamentation? And parking garages with fake Irish pubs and fake windows and cornices? Ye Olde Colonial Highrise with a Brooks Brothers? If anything, the anti-modern sentiment has made the city more confusing. A few blocks down Aliceanna Street, there's literally a corner of the H&S factory camouflaged as a rowhouse across the street from a block of new-ish rowhouses designed to look like a factory. We're so deep in an architectural culture of disguise and simulacra it will soon be impossible to even locate what the hell original "context" even means.

It sometimes feels like we live in the film "Dark City," where history and architecture and signs are shuffled around while we sleep for some sinister experiment. There's not even a vaguely equivalent Baltimore "vernacular" that corresponds to most of the buildings in Harbor East. The Eden Apartments, a 2007 block-long eyesore from D.C.-based WDG Architects, looks downright fascist. Developers seeking handouts have been trying to sell taxpayers a romanticized vision of the past for Baltimore to "make a comeback" to, or some other nostalgic bullshit. But the only imaginary history The Eden Apartments would fit into is one in which Mussolini sailed past Fort McHenry, landed in Fells Point, and enslaved the populace to build military barracks (with aboveground parking, of course).

So it's somewhat refreshing that the new Exelon building just looks like something evil out of sometime within the past 60 years. There was a really, really terrible made-for-TV movie that came out about the Enron scandal a few months after it was news. It was filmed in an office building somewhere that looked exactly like this. If the great fossil fuel empires ever crumble, at least this building could live on as a movie set (there's gotta be some tax breaks left for the film industry too, right?). I could see a RoboCop villain living here. And maybe that's the real, telling postcard image of the Baltimore waterfront: corrupt, dysfunctional, and molded by corporate interests. And at night, especially with this light show going on, even the schlockiest parts of our skyline start to look like a cyberpunk dystopia.

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