Image credit: The Bjarke Ingels Group.

Johns Hopkins University unveiled preliminary designs this week for a large student center that’s expected to open on its Homewood campus by the fall of 2024.

The building will replace Mattin Center, a three-building arts complex that opened in 2001, and will serve as a new kind of gathering spot for the university, which does not have a traditional student union the way many campuses do.

With glass walls opening onto Charles Street and a form that steps down the hill from the Milton S Eisenhower Library to Charles Street, it’s designed to help strengthen connections between the Homewood campus and the Charles Village neighborhood to the east.

Hopkins announced in The Hub, an online publication, that it has selected a design team headed by the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), an internationally prominent firm with offices in Copenhagen and New York City. This will be the first building in Baltimore for Ingels, whose firm designed a master plan for the Smithsonian Institutions and is designing a stadium for the Washington Football Team.

The selection of a design team is a key step in Hopkins’ efforts to create a central spot that can enhance the quality of life for students and faculty on the Homewood campus. The project has been a high priority for university president Ronald Daniels, who announced in March of 2019 that the university has raised enough funds that it can proceed with design and construction. Alanna Shanahan, vice provost of student affairs, has led the planning effort for Hopkins. The Baltimore Business Journal has put the cost at $250 million.

In disclosing new details about the project, which the university is calling the Hopkins Student Center, Daniels touched on the irony of planning for a student-oriented facility at a time when students aren’t attending classes on campus because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although we are now dispersed around the globe, the desire for a welcoming place that connects our students to one another and all of us more fully to our broader Baltimore community has not abated,” he said in The Hub. “In truth perhaps, we need the promise of such a place now more than ever.”

The location in the 3300 block of North Charles Street has been controversial in some circles because it involves the demolition of three buildings by Williams and Tsien, the firm that designed the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago, and many donors gave money to help build it.

Another campus building that will be demolished to make way for the student center is Whitehead Hall, a brick building just west of Mattin Center. Merrick Barn, a historic structure that houses a 104-seat theater named after actor and professor John Astin, will be preserved. Whitehead Hall is an academic building that was constructed in 1947 and 1948 and was named after John B. Whitehead, the first dean of Hopkins’ engineering school. It was the first building on the Homewood campus to be named after a living person.

According to Hopkins, the center will have about 150,000 square feet of space, making it three times larger than the 50,000-square-foot Mattin Center. According to the Hub, it will include spaces for “relaxation and socialization, co-curricular arts programs, student resources and support services, media and digital media lounges, a performance space with seating for up to 250 people and a variety of dining options.”

The preliminary renderings indicate that BIG’s building will in many ways be the opposite of the Mattin Center, which is raised on a hill above Charles Street, with solid walls along the street making it hard to see what’s inside.

Instead of setting the building slightly above the street, BIG has proposed to cut into the hill and put a main entrance at street level. Instead of turning its back on Charles Street, as some have accused Mattin Center of doing, the proposed student center opens up to the street.

Instead of using brick for the exterior, as Mattin Center does, the new building will be clad mostly in glass. Passersby will be able to look in and see activity inside, while those inside will be able to look out toward the city. Instead of being separated into three structures, the new center will be one large structure that appears to cascade down the hill from the Eisenhower Library to Charles Street, with a series of flat roofs that break down the building’s scale.

According to The Hub, the architect’s concept “likens the Hopkins Student Center to a village,” with a central “living room” surrounded by spaces designed for a variety of different uses. The roofs will have solar panels, and the area around the building will be designed with outdoor spaces that can accommodate events and activities.

Other members of the design team include Shepley Bulfinch, as the architect of record and the Rockwell Group, as the interior designer. According to Hopkins, the team was selected after Hopkins held a design competition that included three other firms.

Hopkins’ timetable calls for demolition of Mattin Center and construction of the new facility to begin next year. Campus planners already have started planning to relocate activities from Mattin Center to other parts of campus so demolition can begin.

Ingels and Hopkins planners are scheduled to meet on Thursday with Baltimore’s Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel, to get its reaction to the preliminary designs.

Sandy Sparks, land use committee chair for the Charles Village Civic Association, said she believes the proposed building fits in well with the campus.

“The new design beautifully addresses the site and topography with access and transparency from all sides and at ground on four levels, visualizing a landmark lantern facing Charles & 33rd Street,” she said in an email. “Charles Village welcomes the inclusion of a wide variety of easily-accessible meeting spaces.  The multiple roofs will be solar-powered, ironically, next to the original JHU power plant.”

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Ed Gunts

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