Crime and Punishment Get a Bright New Look in Baltimore

Where’s the judicial hush -- the cherry wood paneling and shiny brass that dignify the scrutiny of subparagraphs, the balancing of crime and punishment?

Here at the John and Frances Angelos Law Center at the University of Baltimore, balconies and ramps wiggle and prance among crisscrossing stairways in an atrium filled with bright light.

With law jobs dwindling, this $120 million building on a highly visible site is a startling addition to Baltimore and the normally insular legal system.

Thank university president Robert Bogomolny, who commissioned Behnisch Architekten of Stuttgart, Germany.

With its basket weave of patterned gray-and-white glass, the new center signals the presence of an easily overlooked urban campus.

From the outside, the building’s interlocking stack of prismatic shapes resembles a Rubik’s Cube, reflecting the mix of classrooms, clinics and faculty offices spread over 12 stories.

The subtle polka dots that cover about half the busily patterned exterior are not decorative but clamps that fasten a crystalline outer, insulating layer of glass to the building. Between the two exterior walls, automatically controlled shades reduce heat gain from the sun.

These are just two elements in an advanced environmental regime that saves water and reduces energy use by more than 40 percent over comparable buildings.

Environmental Mission

“If we are in the business of training students and don’t demonstrate our commitment to take care of the environment, we’re failing at part of our mission,” Bogomolny said.

He raised $21 million of the building’s cost privately, which also covered the green elements when their cost exceeded state construction standards.

Partners Stefan Behnisch and Robert Matthew Noblett, working with the local architect Ayers Saint Gross, designed a building that begs to be explored.

The high lobby whooshes upward into the atrium and overlooks a sunken reception space and outdoor courtyard, where burbling water obscures the din of the Jones Falls Expressway that roars just feet from the building.

Instead of being hidden, faculty suites, classrooms -- even the library -- face the atrium with glass walls, while informal lounges and cafes project into the space.

Seeking Engagement

“Most law schools isolate people,” Bogomolny said. “In closed-off buildings, you see kids playing solitaire or surfing the web. You are not getting the engagement we seek.”

The alluring stairs, ramps and bridges invite clambering from level to level. An “express” stair circles a column as it descends from the largest upper-level classrooms.

Wood ledges just wide enough for a laptop, fold over the metal-railed balconies, allowing a quick perusal of classroom notes amid the action.

Though research centers are often designed to increase connection and collaboration, few law firms and law schools have jumped on the bandwagon.

“No one knows enough to solve today’s problems by themselves,” Bogomolny explained. “In court cases, you need jury experts and expert witnesses to work together as a team. When I worked in the pharmaceutical business I needed statisticians, scientists, experts in manufacturing quality control and academic medicine. A lawyer needs to understand all the pieces and be able to explain them.”

Opening the Door

Historically Baltimore’s law school, part of the University of Maryland system, has made judges and attorneys general out of students of modest means; they may be the first in their families to go to college.

“For many students, we open the door to the world,” said Bogomolny, formerly a vice president and general counsel at G.D. Searle & Co.

In a nation that increasingly cannot afford legal services billed by the minute, he’s determined that the 192,000-square-foot Angelos Center will lead a necessary transformation.

Meeting new people and sharing ideas may not come naturally to students who commute, are part-time, older, poorer and of more diverse backgrounds.

These are the students targeted by merchants of online degrees, but they tend precisely to be the ones who need environments that encourage personal engagement with teachers and each other.

“The national demographic of college students looks more like the students we’ve graduated for decades,” Bogomolny said.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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