And Another One

Johns Hopkins may tear down arts center by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects

Johns Hopkins University's Mattin Center may be torn down for a new campus student center. (Via Google Earth)

Another Tod Williams Billie Tsien project appears to be headed for the wrecking ball.

After years of planning and fundraising, Johns Hopkins University president Ronald J. Daniels announced this month that a new student center will be built for its Homewood campus at the intersection of Charles and 33rd Streets in Baltimore. The property chosen for the new building includes the current site of the Mattin Center, a 2001 arts complex designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. Administrators indicate it will likely be demolished to make way for the student center.

The announcement already has people upset. The Mattin Center would join the former American Folk Art Museum in New York on the list of Williams and Tsien buildings that have been leveled and replaced with even larger projects. Opened in 2001 like the Mattin Center, the Folk Art Museum was razed in 2014 to make way for an expansion of the Museum of Modern Art, currently under construction. The demolition was one of the biggest preservation controversies in the nation that year. Tsien has said she was unable to go by the site while the building was coming down and long afterward.

Photo of green space surrounding Mattin Center

The Mattin Center was built in 2001. (Courtesy Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects)

There has been talk in Baltimore for the past several years that Hopkins was eying the Mattin Center as the site for a new student center, but administrators said they didn’t want to confirm anything until they had raised enough money to move ahead with the project. Hopkins is one of the few major universities in the United States that doesn’t have a full-fledged student center or student union on its main campus, and Daniels has wanted to build one to keep Hopkins competitive with other colleges and universities.

On March 5, Daniels announced that the project is moving ahead with a target completion date of 2024. Without dwelling on demolition, his announcement was the most definitive statement he has made to date about securing funds and replacing the Mattin Center, which was built by a previous administration as a home for the visual and performing arts on campus.

“As the needs of our student body have evolved, so has the desire for a different and dedicated student center taken hold,” he wrote in a message to the Hopkins community. “This will be a new kind of space for us—one that is not academically focused, but entirely social by design…It will be a site to which everyone lays equal claim and from which everyone benefits.”

Exterior of Mattin Center at night

For nearly 20 years, it’s served as the school’s center for visual and performing arts. (Courtesy Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects)

Planning for the student center began in 2013 when Hopkins formed a task force. A year later, it hired Ann Beha Architects of Boston and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol of Seattle to conduct a feasibility study and develop a preliminary design. Hopkins administrators have indicated the student center will cost between $100 million and $150 million. According to university spokesperson Karen Lancaster, an architect has not been selected and a final cost has not been determined, but “we have the funding we need to commit to this project” through a combination of institutional and philanthropic sources, including pledges from anonymous donors.

The Mattin Center is the only project in Baltimore by Williams and Tsien. It cost $17 million and consists of three brick-clad structures that frame an open courtyard and together contain 50,000 square feet of arts-related spaces, including dance and visual arts studios, a digital media center, black box theater, music practice rooms, and café. It occupies a prominent site near the gateway to Hopkins’s Homewood campus, between the main academic buildings and the Charles Village neighborhood to the east.

That site is largely what seems to have doomed the Mattin Center, because campus planners wanted to put the new student center in a “welcoming” location. At the nexus of town and gown, the Mattin Center site met their requirements more than any other property. According to Johns Hopkins’s news site, Hub, the final location was selected “based on the flow of students on and off campus from the Charles Street corridor and on its proximity to the heart of Homewood activity.”

Interior of Mattin Center at night

If demolished, the building would be the firm’s second torn-down building, alongside the American Folk Art Museum (Courtesy Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects)

The Mattin Center’s size was also an issue, Lancaster said in an email. “While the building is less than 20 years old, our space requirements have evolved over time and the building, as designed, is not adequate to fulfill many of these specific needs—such as the larger gathering venues our students seek today.”

In a further sign that Hopkins intends to demolish the Mattin Center, Lancaster noted that one of the next steps will be to figure out where to move the people and activities now based there. If the Mattin Center were to remain, planning for long-term relocation wouldn’t be necessary.

“As part of the design and planning process,” Lancaster said, “we will be determining options for where to locate the groups and programs that are currently housed in the Mattin Center—both in the short-term during construction and permanently once a new center is opened.”

Although the building’s design won a 2002 award from the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, it has drawn criticism locally for “turning its back” on the city.  

“It represents the end of an era when the university faced inward and was moving very gingerly to interact with the community,” said Sandra Sparks, former president of the Charles Village Civic Association, which represents the neighborhood next to the Hopkins campus.

Site Section showing second level floor plan of the Mattin Center

Site plan showing second-level floor plan of the Mattin Center (Courtesy Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects)

Williams and Tsien were selected by Hopkins after participating in a limited competition to design the arts center. The other competitors were Bohlin Cywinski Jackson of Pennsylvania and Heikkinen Komonen Architects of Finland.

When they learned several years ago that Hopkins was considering razing their building, Tsien and Williams issued a lengthy statement defending its design. In it, they said Hopkins administrators at the time had expressed a desire for a secure setting.

“When we won the competition to design the Mattin Center in the late 1990s, the City of Baltimore was a much tougher, more dangerous place,” they wrote. “A student, a musician, had been recently killed in a wooded section of the proposed site. So the university chose our design over the two others in part, because they wanted a protective environment for students to pursue their artistic interests which, at that time, were considered extracurricular.

“The administration was concerned about the physical security of the students. The suggested program was not so large and that allowed us to organize spaces…around a large exterior courtyard at the heart of the site.”

In their statement, the architects acknowledged that the university’s and the city’s needs have changed. They lamented that they weren’t involved in future planning for the site.

“Today there is a desire to create a more direct connection to the city and for more socializing spaces for students,” they said. “The site of the Mattin Center is an important one for the University and campus, and we believe it can accommodate additional density and change. If the administration elects to demolish the Mattin Center, it should not be without very serious debate…because to do so is unimaginative, and unsustainable, and because it does not acknowledge the layers of history that are crucial to an understanding of our culture, our campuses, and our cities.”

AN reached out to the firm last week but wasn’t given further information on Williams and Tsien’s thoughts about the recent announcement. In an email, the firm wrote: “We are aware of Johns Hopkins’s plan to build a new student center at the Mattin Center site, however, we do not know of any additional details regarding its development at this time.”

The student center is one of several major projects that Hopkins has underway in Baltimore and Washington. Last fall it selected the Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore to design the home for a new interdisciplinary center called the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute.

In January, the school announced plans to buy the Newseum in Washington, D. C., and convert it into a new home for its academic programs there. An architect for that project has not been announced. For its medical campus, Hopkins has hired William Rawn Associates of Boston and Hord Coplan Macht of Baltimore to design an addition to its school of nursing.

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