How Architect Steve Ziger, of Ziger/Snead Has Influenced Baltimore’s Built Environment, Starting with his Own Home
Steve Ziger sits in the storefront windows of Minato, the Japanese restaurant a stone’s throw from his Ziger/Snead Architects studio, miming something that, to passers-by, looks like the profane hand gesture an irate Neapolitan driver might sign at a Vespa that had just cut him off. The prolific architect isn’t road raging. He’s grinning ear-to-ear describing his favorite detail in a home renovation project: a notch carefully carved into a kitchen cabinet drawer to accommodate a pesky dishwasher handle that stuck out more than anticipated.
“We’re architects! How did we not see this coming!?” he recalls shouting to his partner, Jamie Snead, who counseled calm by cutting a delicate half circle in the drawer. Beautiful. “It’s an acknowledgement of a mistake that’s so elegant. Now it’s my favorite thing in the house. I show it to everybody. It’s a great example of how we work well together.”
The architects have plenty of opportunities to tell this anecdote. This house is a second home they converted into an informal cultural center for their North Baltimore community, anchored by an ever-growing collection of local artists’ works. The collection speaks to the city’s diversity, talent, and the collectors’ ambition to foster a more sustainable and equitable art ecosystem.
A Paul Rucker relief sculpture first greets a visitor entering the house. Then there’s work from Connie Imboden, Timothy App, Mina Cheon, Joyce J. Scott, Alex Castro, Jo Anne Brown, Annet Couwenberg, and more. The collection is a local “who’s who,” refreshingly chock full of women artists. They’ve even hung their Ellen Burchenal, who lives next door, in a place where “she can look through her window and see her piece,” Ziger says. “We’re trying to make our collecting say something about neighborhood and community.”
This house and its art is a telling microcosm of Ziger/Snead’s problem-solving strategies, commitment to Baltimore, and pursuit of projects at the intersection of art, architecture, design, and social practice. It also speaks to the team’s rare penchant for building something beautiful out of practical concerns. They initially wanted to buy the house, next door to their longtime primary residence near Stony Run Park, for its coveted off-street parking. A renovation later that mundane question of car storage evolved into a community asset, hosting everything from readings and artist talks to fundraisers and overnight visitors.
Ziger, an amiable man-about-town, is one of those centers of gravity that holds the city’s nebulous civic and cultural spheres somewhat intact, not one of those people who drop “community” as a buzzword du jour. He’s on a first-name basis with all the waitstaff and a sizable percentage of the customers who walk through Minato’s door.
“She runs this town,” he half-whispers to me after warmly greeting a colleague from the Baltimore Community Foundation, where he is a board member and former member the now-defunct Arts & Culture Committee. He’s also a board member of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, where he’s completed a bevy of stunning buildings. And the Baltimore Design School, which he both co-founded and designed. And the Parks & People Foundation, for whom he’s designed several facilities. And the William G. Baker Fund. He was a trustee of the Baltimore Museum of Art, whose 2014 renovation he oversaw. And President of the Contemporary Museum for five years, for whom he designed one of the institution’s first exhibitions in a derelict bus depot. He’s served on the Maryland Humanities Council, the Maryland Public Art Commission, and too many more architectural and preservation boards, review panels, and associations than to name.
“If you care and get engaged you can make a difference,” he says. “That’s what I love about this city.”
Ziger recalls that he first got involved with local arts and nonprofits because he was new in town. He arrived in Baltimore in 1977, fresh out of the University of Illinois School of Architecture. Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in its Maryland suburbs, he grew up in the surreal architectural shadow of the Mormon Temple. He credits a senior year abroad in Versailles as the most formative experience. He was the first person in his family to leave the country. “It completely changed my life,” he says, adding that upon returning home, he wanted to land someplace new and exciting but close enough to do his laundry at his parents. Baltimore was it.
He secured a job at RTKL, commuting from Montgomery County, and the firm’s annual Christmas party at the Engineer’s Club in Mount Vernon moved him to rent an apartment on Monument Street. He was falling in love with Baltimore.
In 1979 he joined the team at Hord Coplan Macht, today one of Baltimore’s largest firms, but at the time Ziger was its second employee. It’s first employee: Jamie Snead. Ziger was falling in love in Baltimore. In 1984 the couple started their own practice with friend Craig Hoopes, mostly doing home renovations before catching a few big breaks.
One of those was Center Stage’s artist housing, which the young architects carved out of historic rowhouses across the street from the theater on a shoestring budget. The theater company was impressed, and when it began interviewing architects to renovate the theater itself, they asked to be considered.
It wasn’t an easy sell. They’d never designed a theater before, but they turned inexperience to their advantage. “We’re going to figure this out and it’s going to be creative!” Ziger recalls the team telling Center Stage. “I think they liked the approach because at the time they wanted something out of the box and flexible.”
Their adaptable design garnered the attention of both theater and architectural press, and the firm’s business picked up. “Life is weird,” Ziger says. “At every point there are so many options, and it really just comes down to luck and timing.”
Ziger/Snead has probably completed more institutional buildings in Baltimore than any other contemporary office, each tailored to its site so acutely that’s difficult to spot the architects’ hands. They’ve subtly updated the facilities of both Gilman and the Friends School with discrete additions to their masonry campuses. Contrast those sturdy bastions of pastoral academia with the timeless ephemerality of the former Johns Hopkins University School of Professional Studies in Business and Education.
That 2001 project saw the transformation of an opaque 1960s commercial space at the corner of Charles and Fayette to a glowing jewel box at the city’s heart (sadly, the idiosyncratic cantilevered span to Charles Center came down in the process). But the corner’s new glass and white metal facade establishes a visual bridge to the Mies Van der Rohe tower across the street, arguably the city’s most iconic midcentury structure to survive the Baby Boomers’ penchant for modernist demolition. The relatively tiny, nearly 20-year-old project doesn’t feel dated and still holds its own as a counterpoint to a skyscraper by one of the International Style’s masters, mere meters away.
That commitment to, as Ziger puts it, not to “do a parody of the historic, but rather learn from it,” runs through their 21st century work, which has left an omnipresent impact on the city: MICA’s Brown Center in 2003 (which I’m tempted to call the firm’s magnum opus, though he’s quick to point out that it was a collaborative endeavor driven by Charles Brickbauer), the Maryland Historical Society’s gallery and entry (I pass this building nearly daily, and in the age of clumsy prefabricated cladding systems, it stands out for its satisfyingly uniform façade), the Living Classrooms Foundation Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Museum, and plans for a luxury high-rise at Cathedral and Eager Streets (one of the few times I don’t find myself on Ziger’s side of a preservation argument, though plenty of others do).
MICA Brown Center
Walk a few blocks in any direction in Station North and the neighborhood feels like a greatest-hits compilation of Ziger/Snead’s recent work. The firm took a brilliant, light-handed approach to their award-winning Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway theater renovation, which saw a long-dormant, 1915 theater brought back to life as a permanent home for the Maryland Film Festival. They replaced only what had to be replaced, leaving much of the grand structure in a state of living ruin. Walls and ceilings might have chipped plaster or missing detailing. Many of the surfaces have a charming patina. It feels far truer than those nitpicky renovations where a structure is restored to its “former glory,” so long the dominant Baltimore aspiration. The Parkway tells a far more complete story of the city, in a far more dignified vocabulary.
Their 2014 renovation of MICA’s Fred Lazarus Center Annex could’ve been just another tasteful warehouse rehab, but they cleverly inserted a minimal glass-and-metal bridge over the narrow alley separating the two former warehouses, which house graduate programs and studios. It’s a lovely surprise when turning the corner from Falls Road, one Ziger describes as an engineering feat that wasn’t easy. The Centre, also completed in 2014, restored the Art Deco facade of an abandoned theater that was originally built as a car dealership nearly a century ago. Sadly, there wasn’t much left of the historic interior to work with, but today it houses the JHU-MICA Film Centre.
The most truly transformative project Ziger has brought to Station North is the Baltimore Design School, which opened in 2013. The architect not only oversaw the renovation of the former Lebow Clothing Factory, but was one of the magnet school’s founding board members. For those of us who broke into what was colloquially known as the “Coat Factory,” it’s wild to imagine that today’s teens are learning everything from fashion to urban design in its once profoundly creepy, cavernous floors.
Like the Parkway, what was an intensive renovation comes across as light and effortless to those who didn’t know the building in its pigeon poop and abandoned industrial machinery days. There are generous expanses of raw concrete, enormous windows, and plenty of open social spaces. The project synthesizes many of Ziger/Snead’s strongest trademarks: a limited material palette used with a keen economy, sustainable features, a graphic sensibility, and a sense of monumentality that flirts between an impression of lightness and solidity. It’s a contemporary renovation of a postindustrial space that feels somehow gothic.
Of all the qualities that define this project and Ziger’s practice as a whole, it’s the palpable faith in the civic that’s most notable. “Our practice has a set of values around what architecture can do,” Ziger says. “It’s about refinement, but also giving back to community and defining public space, figuring out ways of engagement. Most of our projects are historic renovations. Most are nonprofits—cultural institutions—which speaks to our value system as well. I’m interested in using the skills of an architect to help heal communities.”
I get the impression that Ziger is so deeply invested in education, particularly architectural education, because he realizes how crucial it is to the city’s future. He remembers the 1970s Baltimore he arrived in as a “ghost town.” He recalls a “very conservative client base who didn’t think the city deserved the best,” he says. “They thought, ‘We’ll never be New York so let’s not rock the boat and it’ll do,’ as opposed to Chicago, whose inferiority complex drives the city to want to do better than New York. But I’m optimistic about Baltimore. The clients we work with are more and more aspirational and willing to take risks.”
Perhaps the cultural shifts Ziger/Snead has nurtured—from encouraging local collecting to calmly explaining the importance of “the contemporary” to wary institutions—is a legacy that’s more important than the fingerprint he’s left on the built environment. The Baltimore the future architects at the Design School stand to inherit will be a far more tasteful, open, and dynamic one, thanks in no small part to Ziger’s efforts. He cares deeply about seeing the city grow and thrive, with more architecture programs at universities and more thinking about the public realm.
And while he and Snead have been busy working on projects such as the forthcoming National Cryptology Museum, they’ve been cultivating and challenging a new generation of architects in their office, building a team of new partners including Doug Bothner and Katelin Etoh. “But I still think I have a few buildings left in me,” Ziger says. “Renzo Piano says architects hit their stride when they were 70, so we’ll see.”
MICA Lazarus Center
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the BmoreArt Journal of Art + Ideas: Issue 06 Home in November, 2018.
Photos by Joseph Hyde, Carl Connelly, and Alain Jaramillo