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New Building Aims to Draw Students to U. of Baltimore Law School

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The U. of Baltimore expects its new Angelos Law Center to help attract both students and faculty members. (Chronicle photographs by Lawrence Biemiller)

Until a few years ago, I’d have been hard-pressed to point out even a single building belonging to the University of Baltimore, despite having grown up in the city and visited every few months since I moved away. While the Johns Hopkins University, the Maryland Institute College of Art, Notre Dame of Maryland University, and the Peabody Institute were all local landmarks, the University of Baltimore’s buildings were so nondescript that the institution might as well have been in a witness-protection program.

The U. of Baltimore student center opened in 2006.

The U. of Baltimore student center opened in 2006.

In 2006, however, the university opened a downtown student center that called attention to itself with a lot of angled glass and curving metal. Designed by the Baltimore firm Murphy & Dittenhafer, it remains a pleasure to drive past and walk into. Apparently it also whetted the university’s appetite for standout design, because in 2008 administrators organized an international competition to choose architects for a new law-school building. Behnisch Architekten, a German firm, teamed up with Baltimore’s Ayers Saint Gross to win the contest, which attracted a total of 20 entries.

Now, at last, the law-school building is opening—despite the intervening recession, the recent drop in the number of students interested in law school, and an almost impossibly cramped site hemmed in by city streets, a highway, and railroad tracks. The new building is, I’m happy to report, as memorable as any in the city—and that includes Fort McHenry and Robert Mills’s Washington Monument.

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Looking up through the atrium, you see that the floors above are not symmetrical.

To start with, the exterior is delightful. It’s a series of interlocking blocks ornamented with different checkerboard patterns of glass. The blocks disguise the considerable mass of the 192,000-square-foot, 12-story structure, and the glass reflects daylight throughout the neighborhood instead of darkening the streets the building overlooks.

But it’s the Escheresque interior that is the real prize. A bright—and brightly colored—atrium winds up through the middle, with bridges and staircases zigzagging and spiraling through the space in patterns as quirky as the law itself. On the atrium’s west side are classrooms and faculty offices, while on the east are the 32,000-square-foot, 40,000-volume library, on Floors 7 through 12, and below it offices for the school’s eight legal clinics. Floors 6 and 7 are meant to be hubs of activity, with 6 housing student organizations and a cafe with an outdoor terrace, and 7 holding the dean’s office and the entrance to the library. Tucked below grade on the east side—under a garden, actually—is a big moot-court room and auditorium. On the building’s north side is a pleasant sunken courtyard with tables and chairs and with fountains pouring out of cracks in the far wall.

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In addition to bridges and stairways, the atrium offers counters on which students can use their laptops.

A spiral staircase connects upper floors on the west side of the building.

A spiral staircase connects upper floors on the west side of the building.

Everywhere daylight abounds, but LED light fixtures designed by the architects dangle to illuminate the atrium after nightfall—in fact, the building is entirely lit with LED fixtures. Among other energy-saving and environmentally friendly features are automatic exterior blinds that will control heat gain on warm days and a system for collecting rainwater and using it to flush toilets. At $119-million, the building cost about $5-million more than a conventional structure of similar size, says the university’s president, Robert L. Bogomolny. But the university will save about $400,000 a year in energy costs, he says.

A sunken plaza gives no hint of the expressway beyond its wall.

A sunken plaza gives no hint of the expressway beyond its wall.

“The building is ideally designed for the kind of education we want to provide to students,” adds Ronald Weich, the law-school dean, who says the building will be a tool for recruiting both students and faculty members. “It’s centered on experience”—students work with clients in the clinics, in addition to practicing in moot-court sessions—but the building is also “very colorful, fun, and interactive.” And as cramped as the 30,000-square-foot site is, it’s also convenient to light- and commuter-rail lines and the Jones Falls Expressway.

And unlike many notable new buildings on university campuses, this one will be open to the public, the dean says. It’s definitely worth a look.

A 12th-floor terrace offers spectacular views of the city.

A 12th-floor terrace offers spectacular views of the city.

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