Old Bay, New Bay

Johns Hopkins unveils design details for its Renzo Piano-designed Agora Institute

Renzo Piano and Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels examine a model of the new building for the SNF Agora Institute in the Renzo Piano Building Workshop office in Genoa, Italy. (Stefano Goldberg)

Last September, Johns Hopkins University announced that they had hired Pritzer Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano to design a home for The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at the university’s Homewood Campus in Baltimore. Yesterday, the first glimpse of these plans were unveiled to city officials and according to The Baltimore Sun, elicited mixed reviews. 

The project was established in 2017 through a $150 million dollar gift from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, an interdisciplinary academic forum “committed to strengthening global democracy through powerful civic engagement and informed inclusive dialogue.” Piano stated in a press release that “The building is designed to reflect these priorities, in design, materials, and accessibility.” Accordingly, the design currently features two “floating” glass hemispheres that are said to embody the institute’s commitment to transparency and open dialogue. While intellectually stimulating, the city’s Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel voiced concern that the large glass cubes might have the opposite effect on those outside of the campus community. 

Model on a cardboard background of the new Agora Institute, with two square volumes

The design features two glass cube structures that are said to embody the institute’s commitment to openness and transparency. (Courtesy Johns Hopkins)

However, the University is hopeful about its new addition to Wyman Park Drive. “This new building promises to be a gathering place for scholars and citizens to model the robust exchanges of ideas that are essential for healthy democracies,” said Johns Hopkins University president Ronald J. Daniels. It is expected to house faculty offices, labs, and graduate student spaces as well as coworking areas. Reflecting on the spirit and purpose of the Greek Athenian Agora (Piano took a similar Grecian approach with Columbia’s Forum), the building will also feature community space for conferences, art exhibitions, and a rooftop terrace. 

Partner Mark Carroll is leading the project on behalf of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, who have partnered with the Baltimore-based firm Ayers Saint Gross. The architects will attempt to meet, at minimum, LEED Silver Certification for their sustainability target. Lee Coyle, Hopkins’ director of planning and architecture told Baltimore Fishbowl, “we think it’s an opportunity for Johns Hopkins University to make a statement about commitment to sustainability as a true world issue.”

A long section diagram depicting an educational facility

This section shows the building’s relationship to the landscape of the Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus as well as the variety of spaces for collaboration, conferences, and exhibitions within the new building. (Courtesy Johns Hopkins)

Construction is expected to begin in Fall 2020 and conclude by Summer 2022. In addition to the Agora Institute, Hopkins is also planning on giving new life to the nearby old Baltimore Marine Hospital. An architect has yet to be selected for that undertaking. 

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