A Brutal Truth: The Threatened Legacy of Baltimore's Brutalist and Urban Renewal Architecture

Danz, Anna, Architectural History - School of Architecture, University of Virginia
Crane, Sheila, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia
Wilson, Richard, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia

Completed by architect John M, Johansen in 1967, the Morris A. Mechanic Theater embodies Baltimore’s urban renewal spirit and deserves recognition for its role in directing architectural excellence and a revitalized urban identity throughout the city during in the 20th century. Despite this influence, Baltimore City has approved plans to demolish the structure, as well as the McKeldin Square Fountain, a monument that drew its form from Johansen’s design. Establishing the context for the Mechanic’s design, both as it relates to the broader program of urban renewal and to architectural movements, this paper seeks to educate the public on the significance of its design and its impact on the community. Moving beyond empty aesthetic critiques, A Brutal Truth demonstrates how Baltimore’s ignorance has negatively impacted its architectural narrative.

Providing a foundation for this paper, the first chapter, “A New Heart for Baltimore” looks at the progression of a modern Baltimorean identity through 20th century urban renewal efforts to reveal how this vision established both the desire for The Mechanic’s unique design. The second chapter, “Baltimore’s Concrete Jewel,” meanwhile, provides an in depth formal and theoretical analysis of The Mechanic from urban renewal to urban ruin. Examining Johansen’s intentions and influences along with architectural criticisms of the time period, covers the complexity of form and function and proves the limitations a stylistic term has on the Mechanic and later the McKeldin Fountain. Finally, the third chapter, “Renewing Renewal” ties this context into the continued renewal efforts of modern day Baltimore, chronicling the growing tension and disconnect between the Mechanic’s past reputation and the present. Presenting this information will call out the city’s ignorance and inspire Baltimore to reconsider the worth of its urban renewal architecture and serve as a catalyst for the appreciation and preservation of recent past architecture throughout the city. Ultimately, Baltimore has the power to reclaim these monuments and inspire other cities to do the same before we lose gems like the Mechanic Theater forever.

MARH (Master of Architectural History)
20th century, historic preservation, Baltimore, Brutalism, John Johansen, Maryland, urban renewal
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