Making Space for Steel – The Architecture of Sparrows Point

By Fred Scharmen

At Sparrows Point, on the outer harbor, just southeast of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, there is a building complex that’s almost as large as downtown Baltimore. It is roughly square, and measures about a half mile on each side. The complex is a series of long rectangular sheds, extending to different lengths. These long sheds were designed to accommodate the continuous production of linear stock – wire, sheet metal, pipes, I-beams, railroad tracks – in any length needed. The building complex exists as a unique kind of system, the built space is extruded like stretched Play-Doh, just like the soft steel that was shaped here by generations of workers. These same lengths of steel then formed the structure for the space itself, as it was built over time.

The oldest sheds here date back almost to the founding of the Sparrows Point Steel Mill in 1887. Some of the largest portions were built at the height of the site’s productivity, around 1950, when it was the largest steel mill in the world. The most recent pieces of the building complex were built as late as 1999, when the $300 million dollar New Cold Mill went online. According to The Baltimore Sun, the modern equipment in the New Cold Mill was the first to be broken down and sold in December of 2012, after the plant was purchased by Hilco Industrial, a company specializing in the scrapping and liquidation of large scale industrial facilities.

All Photographs, Fred ScharmenAll Photographs by Fred Scharmen, 2013

The process of deconstruction at the plant is ongoing, and the mill shed complex at Sparrows Point sits mostly empty. Whether the blame goes to technological obsolescence, global market forces or local mismanagement, no one is making steel in Baltimore anymore. But the complex is worth saving, if not for its history, size, and unique spatial conditions, then for its connection to both the outmoded industrial processes of the past, and to newer methods of production whose potential is just beginning to be realized.

This may be the best building in Baltimore that you’ll likely never get to see. On a recent winter afternoon I had the opportunity to visit this complex, during the first phase of the auctions which might eventually result in the sale of everything onsite. With the space stripped down and empty, except for a line of front-end loaders up for sale, the interior of one of the buildings stretched and converged to a visible vanishing point, like an illustration in a book on one-point perspective for those just learning the principles of architectural drawing.

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In his 1988 book Making Steel, former Baltimore Sun reporter Mark Reutter looked at the architecture of Sparrows Point in a systematic way that ties form directly to function:

“The governing metaphor of the whole enterprise was that of a speeding train. Within the precise scheduling of raw materials and coordination between mills one could detect the structural continuities between the ‘American Practice’ of making steel, and the method of American railroads to signal, switch, and expedite freight and passenger movements … Interestingly, what made this sophisticated design practical was steel. In erecting the mills at Sparrows Point, [mill co-founder Frederick Wood] and his colleagues adapted a special type of building pioneered by the railroads: the train shed.”

Reutter closes the loop between the production of steel rails for the growing train network in the US, and the industrially produced long shed spaces that housed the train stations in America and Europe in the 19th Century. The same spatial type that allowed for the smooth flow of people and goods around and into the high tech transportation infrastructure of steam trains would also facilitate the flow of material and industrial processes that built the railroads themselves. A big, long, open, steel-framed room was best, both for making rails, and for housing the trains that rode them.”

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This is a different way of thinking about architecture than most of us are used to – this is not so much about architecture as an object with spaces inside, but more as a system of relationships. Architects and theorists like Keller Easterling, Cedric Price, Sou Fujimoto, and Reyner Banham have argued for decades that architects should consider form and geometry in conjunction with time and process.

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From this perspective, focusing on the active parts, we might say that in the 19th and early 20th century, the mill complex buildings at Sparrows Point were huge 3D printers. The structures themselves were made of steel produced at the plant, and the land the plant is built on was partly created from slag and other waste from the process, used as fill. Sparrows Point is a fabrication machine that built itself, continuously larger and larger, to keep up with demand over the course of a century, until the current state of collapse hit.

Maybe more compelling than any of its spatial or formal qualities, it is the organizational structure of the Sparrows Point mill complex that makes it worth preserving. Like a very large, self-replicating 3D printer, it made steel to make space to make steel in. Sparrows Point represents a unique moment in the history of American industrial architecture, and one from which we might learn some new ways of understanding our current changing relationship with space and technology.

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Fred Scharmen teaches in the School of Architecture and Planning at Morgan State University. Fred is a co-founder of D center Baltimore, where he helps to organize Baltimore Design Conversations. Art Criticism in What Weekly is made possible by the generous support of the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Awards, www.BakerArtistAwards.org. Marcus Civin edits these new art criticism articles for What Weekly. For more information, please contact marcus@whatweekly.com.

About The Author

Fred Scharmen is an architect and writer with The Working Group on Adaptive Systems.