This city's newest park, a grassy slope with a scattering of shade trees facing the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, is unremarkable at first glance. This pleases Scott Burton, the artist who designed the park to be "humble and ordinary," and it should suit people who use it, for the place is as commodious as it is plain.
Plainness, especially when so self-consciously sought, does not imply the absence of subtlety or strength. Pearlstone Park, dedicated last Sunday, is a forceful solution to a knotty urban problem. And it is replete with design details that show quite a sophisticated artistic mind at work.
The park transforms what had been a rather dreary island among three of the city's cultural flagships -- the Meyerhoff, the Lyric Opera House and the Maryland Institute, College of Art -- into a strong connecting link. Part of this efficacious result is due to the simple stratagem of closing a street that used to cut through the space and planting it with grass and trees.
More important was the resolution with which Burton seized the opportunity. His effort, like that of Nancy Holt in her "Dark Star" park in Rosslyn, demonstrates the wisdom of allowing artists -- certain artists -- to control the design process from beginning to end rather than be called in late in the game to plop a piece of sculpture in a park or plaza. It is a way, as Burton says, to "make art that is socially relevant," and it produces parks both unusual and beautiful.
Burton's basic plan for Pearlstone Park, funded as it was by the Jack Pearlstone Charitable Trust, was straightforward. Conceiving of the space as a painter might, that is, as a flat surface open to geometric manipulation, he spent many hours observing the ways people crossed the space and provided three diagonal paths precisely where they are needed most. These concrete paths, eight feet wide and as straight as airport runways, form the basic esthetic and functional armature of the new space. They divide it neatly, and to watch people walk them is like observing a lively, unprogrammed dance.
The artist's next step -- his one grand gesture -- was to take advantage of the curve at the northern edge of the site, where the ground drops sharply to the entrance roadway of the Maryland Institute, to make a sweeping esplanade punctuated by a string of free-standing columns topped by lighting fixtures, and by concrete benches of his own design.
Burton, who for years has been designing furniture as "functional art," made sure his column-lampstands, though clearly inspired by classical architecture, were resolutely anticlassical in detail. With their awkward proportions (high, stepped brick bases for the concrete shaft and a brick base on top for the boxy lights) they are, indeed, odd-looking things. The benches are rather bulky objects that turn out to be surprisingly comfortable (though maybe not for a long sit).
Somehow, despite their oddness (or perhaps because of it), these hard-nosed elements look as if they belong in Baltimore, and in any case the logic of their placement atop that curving ravine disarms conventional criticism. The esplanade is a genuinely appealing space, and is sure to become more so after additional shade trees are planted next spring.
Many of the advantages of having an artist design the entire park, instead of simply adding elements to a space designed by someone else, are apparent in the details. Burton took exquisite care with the way the pathways and esplanade intersect, so that, for instance, the edge of a centrally placed bench juts just so over the borderline of the esplanade -- a small thing, to be sure, but one that lights up the eye the moment it is noticed.
Other subtleties, such as the triangular patches of brick where each of the diagonal pathways touch the city sidewalks surrounding the park, are more arcane. Here we see the artist thinking at an extremely abstract level, insisting that the concrete pathways be "experienced as rectangles."
I do not mean to suggest that there is anything at all frivolous in this approach. In fact, it is the heart of the matter. Those triangles made of brick add notes of visual and tactile interest, and they pique the mind. Furthermore, when experienced over time -- which is, after all, the way we experience parks, crossing them daily or returning regularly to favorite spots -- their function as subtle, almost subliminal, welcome mats gradually will become clear to park patrons.
Pearlstone Park is not perfect. One major, though remediable, flaw is the failure to provide a staircase down the hillside facing the Maryland Institute -- a natural shortcut for students. And there are details that miss the mark: the stubby obelisks marking the park's main connection to and from downtown, for instance, are "humble and ordinary" to a fault. They are also ugly. But flaws and all, Pearlstone Park is a substantial addition to the Baltimore cityscape.
The great beauty of it is that, with care, it can only get better. In the spring some 40 large, leafy trees, selected by city landscape architect James Reed Fulton, will be planted, Burton says, in a "more or less random pattern." When these trees grow to full height the park will possess the altogether enticing aspect of a forest glade in the middle of the city.