What’s a Frank Gehry building doing in Maryland?

posted in Process on July 22 by Anath Ranon, AIA, LEED GA

I was a bit surprised to learn that we have an iconic Frank Gehry work of architecture right here in our region - the former Rouse Company headquarters building in Columbia, Maryland, which was designed in 1972 by Frank Gehry, a then relatively unknown architect from California. Gehry was commissioned by the visionary head of the Rouse Company, Jim Rouse.

Though not much publicized, the 1972 building marks Gehry’s first large commission for a structure that was to become an iconic representation of a community, like better known and more recent work for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The Rouse Company headquarters building also marks a transitional design for Frank Gehry and captures the sculptural quality and interplay of solids and voids that was explored much further in many of his subsequent projects in the 1970s and 80s.

For the past few years, I have been part of a team that has been working to repurpose Gehry’s 150,000 square foot building for new tenants that will be a vital part of the local community, like Rouse was in the early days of Columbia. Credit the community and the developer with managing to snag its new tenants – Whole Foods Market and Haven on the Lake health spa. This month, we are about to see the building reopen with a modest rehabilitation design that retains and respects the character of the original Gehry design.

And I have to credit Gehry for his insightful original design that allowed us to simply build on some key, basic principles – strong indoor-outdoor relationships, light-filled interior spaces, simple language of materials (white stucco, bronze storefronts, natural wood trellises) – to accommodate the new uses.

While we had to shift and enlarge the building entry and expand the front trellis, we were able to retain the signature interior atrium and the general feeling of openness on the inside.

Word has it that Frank Gehry is satisfied with the building’s transformation and is happy that the building will once again be a vital part of the local community.