A symbol of Columbia

Tonight I attended the presentation by Chris Leinberger on walkable urbanism at the Spear Center in the Howard Hughes Corporation building in downtown Columbia. I hope to have more to say about the presentation later, but right now I wanted to reflect a bit on the room and the building in which it took place. The building was the original headquarters office of the Rouse Company; I gather it used to be named the Rouse Building, but I don’t know if that name is used anymore, at least officially. It’s one of architect Frank Gehry‘s earliest designs; though he’s now famous, Gehry was at the beginning of his career when he designed several structures in Columbia, and the building shows little hint of what later become Gehry’s signature style.

In any case it’s an elegant building, and a welcome exception to the generally undistinguished architecture found in Columbia and Howard County in general. This was actually the first time I had ever set foot in the building, despite having lived in Howard County for over ten years and having blogged about local affairs for the last two or three. As I said, it’s a beautiful building, with its natural wood and white walls. The Spear Center, the large fourth-floor room where the event took place, apparently occupies a special place in the history of Columbia; as a Baltimore Sun story from 2007 notes, it was in times past the scene of weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, Rouse corporate events, and community celebrations of all kinds.

Now it’s over 30 years since the building was constructed, and despite the surface beauty it’s apparently feeling its age. Wordbones (who once worked in the building) mentioned to me that the bankruptcy of GGP meant that maintenance on the building was delayed and deferred, to the point where the roof leaks in places, including in one room where materials relating to Columbia’s history are stored. It’s also apparently too big for the current workforce, and it’s difficult and expensive to heat and cool. (In fact, it was somewhat warm in the Spear Center as the presentation started.)

Meanwhile Frank Gehry’s gone on to greater things, and the former Rouse building seems to me to symbolize Columbia in miniature: A product of another era that’s now drawing to a close (the age of drivable suburbanism, as Leinberger put it), over-sized and energy-inefficient, still attractive but at risk of deterioration and desuetude, putting its hopes in a new owner and the possibility of renewal and re-vision.

Are those hopes misplaced? More on that I hope in a future post, when I discuss what Leinberger said in that room in that building in the heart of Columbia.