Baltimore Inversions: Shrinking City Urban Design Studio

The Spring 2013 studio BALTIMORE INVERSIONS questioned the current peculiar condition where urbanity is outmatched by reality. Taking a former petroleum refinery site whose owners themselves wish to invert the site’s history as an oil refinery and its reputation as a source of neighborhood blight, the studio investigated Baltimore’s current condition in order to generate formal, programmatic, and socioeconomic reversals of that condition.

The spirit of BALTIMORE INVERSIONS was to investigate the site’s potential to invert its history, meaning, esthetic, and perception with design that embodies the surprising juxtapositions, unconscious polemics, and casual extraordinariness of the American city. INVERSIONS is motivated by the paradox that urban realities are often more provocative than urban proposals, and that the American city is often characterized by an abandonment and reversal of historic conditions.

Our site, a former oil refinery and tank farm still partially owned by Exxon-Mobil, is in its own process of inversion. Like most EM properties, the site has been cleared of all historic structures and displays little of its former character. When environmental remediation is complete, the site will be a ‘blank slate’ ready for transformation into whatever the owner, the market, or the city deem appropriate. It is this transformation that the studio will theorize.

Is urban design doomed to be either formally exhibitionist and programmatically banal or unintentionally extraordinary, as in the Baltimore examples above? BALTIMORE INVERSIONS is the fourth in a series of shrinking cities studios. Broadly considered, these past studios focused on new forms of neighborhood design (Buffalo); reappraisals of Baltimore’s relationship to its region (AFTERCITY); and new forms and programs for industry (PRIVATOPOLIS).