How Architects Turned This Former Set From “The Wire” Into A Training Ground For Tomorrow’s Designers

By: Scott Henson

Marianne Amos reports for Fastcodesign.

© Karl Connolly Photography via
Photo by © Karl Connolly Photography

On the lower level of the Baltimore Design School, a city public school located in central Baltimore, there is a blown-up photo affixed to a wall. The black-and-white picture shows the interior of a building in disrepair, with pools of water on the floor. It’s a stark reminder of what used to be here: an abandoned factory so decrepit that the HBO series The Wire used the building as a setting symbolic of post-industrial urban decay. But today, with a major architectural intervention–and a grant from Adobe–this building has become a state-of-the-art public school for training future designers.

Image by Ziger Snead via Image by Ziger Snead via
Photos by Ziger Snead.

Baltimore Design School–or BDS–is the first of its kind in the city, a public middle and high school dedicated to students interested in architecture, graphic design, and fashion. The school was founded a few years ago, but its permanent home in a mammoth, 110,000-square-foot former clothing factory only opened this fall after a $26.85 million overhaul.

Built in 1914, the four-story structure was the machine shop for a global supplier of bottle caps before housing a clothing manufacturer. A private developer purchased the building in the 1980s and, as happened with so many industrial buildings in American cities, it was soon abandoned and left to sit empty for decades. The owner seemingly locked the place up with little notice: Coffee cups were left on tables; clothing and sewing supplies were arranged as if a worker had just stepped away for lunch.

Baltimore architect Steve Ziger, whose firm Ziger/Snead provided design services for the project, believes the renovation teaches students a valuable lesson about the power of design to renew a building and, by extension, a community. “This is a building that was definitely a blight on this neighborhood,” says Ziger, who is also a founding board member of the school.

© Karl Connolly Photography via
Photo by © Karl Connolly Photography

Adobe Youth Voices, the software company’s philanthropic arm, donated a lab of computers with the full Adobe Creative Suite and, in January, will train teachers on incorporating student-driven media into their instruction. This is Adobe’s first such partnership with a single school–they usually partner with entire school districts–but the unique nature of BDS and its design-focused curriculum inspired the grant.

“We often find that educators have a lot of challenges around finding the time to emphasize creativity in the classroom,” says Patricia Cogley, senior program manager for Adobe Youth Voices. “The opportunity to work in a school where that’s the underlying philosophy was very exciting for us.” The total package, which also includes support from a partnership with the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art, is valued at more than $80,000.

Students begin their school day in the main hallway with 17-foot-ceilings soaring above their heads. All around them, says Ziger, are lessons in structure, tension, proportion, and compression: Sealed concrete walls, some with old cracks still visible; tall support pillars in the middle of rooms; exposed pipes snaking along the ceilings. Tyler, a ninth-grade architecture major, says that’s what he loves about the building. “All the lighting and space–it’s not like a new building,” he says. “There’s some history to it.”

© Karl Connolly Photography via
Photo by © Karl Connolly Photography

Ziger believes exposing the building’s underpinnings in this way will inspire fledgling designers. “Had we fixed every space and put in ceilings and designed it–it doesn’t leave it open to the students’ imaginations. Being open-ended we thought was more important in this environment.”

This was also more challenging for Ziger and his team. “[This kind of project] takes more time because you have to coordinate everything, because everything’s visible. It’s actually a more deliberate design by being exposed. If it’s concealed, anything goes. That’s another lesson for the students.”

 © Karl Connolly Photography via
Photo by © Karl Connolly Photography

Just as compelling as the restoration of the building is the design of the financing that allowed this project to happen. In a city otherwise struggling to maintain even the basic infrastructure of its public schools, the multimillion dollar renovation was made possible by a unique public/private partnership involving a private developer, the BDS school board, and the Baltimore City Public Schools. It was funded through a combination of bonds, tax credits, and loans guaranteed by the school system. At the end of a 20-year lease term, the school system will take over the facility.

Design is interspersed throughout the curriculum as well as the building. Students take art and design classes every day, and design thinking and creative problem-solving are interwoven into regular classes like math and social studies. Middle-schoolers get a firm grounding in art and design basics before choosing a specialization in architecture, graphic design, or fashion in high school.

On a recent Friday morning, a group of ninth-graders brainstormed with Ziger about design interventions for the student art gallery, a rectangular space on the main level that’s still bare of artwork or decoration. One of them, an architecture major named Victorious, said, “We could actually build things.” Exactly.

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