Hopkins unveils preliminary plans for Agora Institute

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A rendering of the proposed design for Johns Hopkins University’s Agora Institute.

Johns Hopkins students will be able to have coffee in “The Factory” and listen to open-air concerts beneath the “Conversation Cube” when they visit the next major building on the Homewood campus.

Those are nicknames for parts of the planned Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute, an interdisciplinary center targeted for completion in 2022.

Five months after naming a director for the one-of-a-kind institute, Hopkins officials yesterday offered a sneak preview of plans for the building that will house it, a six-story structure whose lead designer is 81-year-old Italian architect Renzo Piano.

Piano “feels like the building should be a portrait of the institute,” said Elizabeth Smyth, adviser to Hopkins president Ron Daniels. “This is about transparency. This is about dialogue. This is about seeing in and seeing out. This is our Agora, our modern campus for the Agora Institute.”

The institute was announced in 2017 after the Stavros Niarchos Foundation committed $150 million to launch an effort with Hopkins to build and staff an academic forum dedicated to “strengthening democracy by improving civic engagement and civil discourse worldwide.” One of its goals is to reinvent the ancient Greek agora, or public gathering place.

Hopkins then brought in The Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the architect behind high-profile projects such as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Shard skyscraper in London. With Richard Rogers, Piano was also co-designer of The Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Yesterday’s preview, for residents of the Remington and Wyman Park communities and others, is a sign that Hopkins is moving quickly to build the institute’s permanent home.

Next week, Hopkins planners will travel to Italy to meet with the famous architect at his Genoa headquarters and look at scale models he has built there.

Next month, they’re tentatively scheduled to present preliminary plans to Baltimore’s Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel, part of the process of getting a construction permit from the city.

Smyth told community representatives that Hopkins is nearing the end of the schematic design phase for the project, meaning it’s “25 percent of where we need to be to finish the design.”

Smyth cautioned that plans are still evolving, but said “it’s enough to show you the flavor of the building and why we’re so excited about it.”

The building is planned for a parcel on Wyman Park Drive near San Martin Drive and next to the former Baltimore Marine Hospital that Hopkins now owns.

According to Smyth and Lee Coyle, Hopkins’ director of planning and architecture, the Agora Institute will have two main sections: an area to the north for public meetings, conferences and events, dubbed the “Conversation Cube,” and an academic structure to the south with classrooms, labs and faculty offices, dubbed “The Factory.” The two main sections will be separated by a circulation space.

The building will be clad largely in glass as a sign of transparency, Coyle said. “The transparency is a reflection of the activities of the building. Renzo Piano… wants this building to be as transparent as possible.”

It will also be designed to earn a high rating for energy efficiency and sustainability, the campus architect said. “We think it’s an opportunity for Johns Hopkins University to make a statement about commitment to sustainability as a true world issue.”

“The Factory” will have six levels and a café at the base, with tables and chairs on a terrace overlooking a garden, while he “Conversation Cube” will be one flexible space, two stories high, and will appear to float above the ground. Beneath the Cube will be a 25-foot-high area that will remain open to the elements and available for a wide range of gatherings, from convocations to concerts by Peabody Institute students.

The intent is to create a place that is welcoming and inviting, Smyth said.

“It doesn’t feel imposing. It makes you feel like you are part of the conversation and part of what’s going on.”

Coyle said Piano, who helped select the site during a visit to campus last year, didn’t want to echo or mimic Hopkins’ traditional Georgian-style architecture, present on most of the Homewood campus.

“The bricks and shutters didn’t go too far with him. He didn’t want to work in that medium.”

Hahrie Han, a political scientist from the University of California, Santa Barbara, was named the first director of the Agora Institute in April and began work July 1. Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore is the architect of record for the project and Olin of Philadelphia is the landscape architect. A general contractor has not been announced, and a construction budget has not been disclosed.

Baltimore’s City Council last year passed legislation that changed zoning for the site so the institute could be constructed on Wyman Park Drive. The land was previously targeted for a seven-story medical office building and large parking garage, among other structures.

Residents were positive about the preliminary design, but raised a few questions about Hopkins’ plans for the property. Mike O’Leary, a member of the Wyman Park Community Association, said he was impressed with Hopkins’ progress but his neighbors had concerns the school may build a massive garage near their row houses and asked if Hopkins would sign an agreement promising not to do so.

Coyle said that it’s “above my pay grade” to say what Hopkins will sign, but added that the administration is unlikely to erect a large garage on the property because parking needs for the Agora Institute can be accommodated elsewhere on campus, including the underground South Garage near Mason Hall.

Coyle acknowledged Hopkins likely will want to construct more buildings on the property at some point and said the university will share its plans with the community when it does.

Jed Weeks, representing the Greater Remington Improvement Association, said he would like to see Hopkins provide better landscaping in the area around the Agora Institute, so it doesn’t overlook a surface parking lot.

In addition to the Agora Institute, Hopkins is planning to upgrade the old Marine Hospital for use as academic space and faculty offices for Hopkins and build a $100 million student center near Charles Street, most likely in place of the Mattin Center. Coyle said an architect has not been selected for that project.

Assuming permits can be obtained in time, Hopkins hopes to start construction on the Agora Institute next summer, Smyth said.

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.
Ed Gunts


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