Alex Castro pauses for a moment, gazing down at 21 large round cement platforms that drop gradually in terraces to the harbor. They’ve been at the center of his panoramic and potent mind for months now, but he almost seems to be looking at them for the first time
He crosses one of the newly resurfaced, raised pads, explaining that they once held huge storage tanks full of Proctor and Gamble’s popular soaps, stairways curling around their metal hulls. Then he hops down to another level of this “industrial ruin” and carefully examines the precisely aligned grooves and cross-hatched scratches that he’s carefully put in the new surface of one of the larger 18-foot wide discs. Comfortable leather shoes, light blue shirt open at the collar and tweed jacket. His head is down and his hands are thrust deep into the pockets of his well-worn khaki pants except when they shoot quickly backward through his hair. He reminds you of that charming, empathetic professor you wanted to share a beeer with.
\This place he’s doting on is Liberty Garden, a bit less than an acre of a unique park-like sculpture alongside the new Tide Point office park in Locust Point built by his friend and prominent developer Bill Streuver of Struever Brothers, Eccles and Rouse. The pads, which are raised a foot or so from the surface, have been carefully etched and scored and stained and mingle with huge cement balls, and 10-feet high cement cones on a floor of black gravel.
At the shore, a water taxi stand with 10-foot “light cone” will mark the spot where immigrants once came ashore in the mid-1800s before being shepherded off to a busy processing center. He stops near the water and looks back up the hill “I’m really enjoying this,” he says. “This is getting me back to something I lost along the way.”
In his remarkable search, if Alex Castro has found something else important, it will be very interesting to watch where it takes him. And where it takes us. He is by any measure a renaissance man.
He is a fine artist who has works in the collections of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington (where one installation he displayed there was mentioned prominently by a famous critic in a review of the noted museum’s 100-year highlights) the Brooklyn Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art. — He does world-class publication design, having produced books for the biggest shows by leading museums, including the Smithsonian, the Walters Art Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Corcoran, the Chicago Institute of Art, the Folger Shakespeare Library and BMA. Five leading publishers of coffee table books in New York once each put Castro on their short list of top designers.
— He gets rave reviews for his design of museum spaces for top instutions nationwide. — He is a building designer whose work is among the most memorable in Baltimore – the Visionary Art Museum (where he collaborated with Architect Becky Swanston) and Baltimore’s beloved art cinema, the Charles Theatre. Other stirring projects are in the works. “When this question comes up about what I really am, I usually change the subject. But if I have to define it, I consider myself an artist first, and that’s the way I approach anything I do” Whatever he does, the acclaim from clients is persistent and often almost as difficult to fully believe as the resume. “He is more brilliant spatially, intellectually and conceptually than anyone I’ve ever met,” says Jane Livingston, a former curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington who displayed his art and gave him some of his first major book design projects 20 years ago, “He wants people for whom he works to take ownership in the product, but he is the master. He becomes a teacher and you never know you are getting an education.,” says Vera Hyatt, project director for the Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations who has worked with Castro for 12 years on projects throughout the world. “He seduces with his genius rather than beat you over the head with it. It’s always collaborative, but also uncompromising,” says Cara McCarty, curator at the St. Louis Museum of Art, who has worked with Castro on a number of exhibition and book design projects.. “And the work is always right.” If his name isn’t a household word, some say its because Castro doesn’t promote himself. “”The only negative thing you can say about this guy is that he is too self-deprecating., That has held him back from getting the incredible attention and fame that he deserves,” says Jane Livingston. Others suggest he is not better known because he spreads himself so thin. It might be that he is succeeds with a subtle but intoxicating pluck and spirit and word-of- mouth from exuberant clients, which doesn’t require intense self promotion. “No matter what, he is a very important guy,” says Buzz Cusak, co-owner of the Charles Theatre. “I don’t think Baltimore understands what they have here or what he can do.” Alejandro Fransico Castro was born in Washington, D.C., in 1943. One grandfather was the ambassador from El Salvador and the other a Irish American congressman from Michigan. His father was a world-renowned colo-rectal surgeon, practicing at the Mayo Clinic and heading a prominent national society in his field. “Heavy hitters, and it was a lot to live up to,” he says. Early on young Alex showed this interest in a broad spectrum – sports teams, the astronomy club – founder of the drama club and literary magazine at his private school. He studied English Literature and Spanish at Yale, got his masters in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969 and upon graduating supported a young family by creating his own art and teaching. With his second wife and collaborator, Caroline, he founded what would become Castro Arts in 1978, designing books and producing short films. Livingston, for whom he had done a critically- acclaimed installation that covered the floor of the famous museum’s rotunda with a metal jig-saw puzzle-like pieces, suggested the two try their hand a museum catalogs. “I thought he could pretty much do anything he wanted to,” she says, Over the next decade, Castro designed big beautiful books for the Corcoran, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection, the Walters and the Los Angeles County, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Baltimore Museums of Art and for publishers like Abbeville and Rizzoli International. (I DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT PUBLISHERS, BUT YOU MENTIONED THOSE TWO.)That work led to the development of some 50 major museum exhibition spaces throughout the world. The popular design of the American Visionary Art Museum in the early 1990s gave him his entrée into architecture. It’s another example of someone – in this case AVAM director and founder Rebecca Hoffberger – sensing Castro was up to the task. “He’d never designed even a doghouse when he did this building, but I knew he would do it beautifully,” she says. There is no question in my mind that he’s a genius.” Castro was ready for the challenge. “Architecture was a way for me to meet the world with ideas, Castro says, explaining why he he shies away from the formal “architect” He isn’t formally registered as an architect and would rather “remain in the world of ideas about architecture.” “I don’t pretend to be a full architect. I’m interested in the place you begin. There are other folks who can do the construction documents much better than I can.” When you speak with those other architects, they praise Castro’s design, but there is a hint that they don’t entirely accept him. Many simply just don’t know his name. But plenty of people, including critics, love his work. “Baltimore has much to gain from Alex Castro,” says Struever, “and he will eventually do something that will knock our collective socks off.” Castro, with Buzz Cusak, is walking through the Charles Theatre, recalling the various stumbling blocks in the expansion and restoration. He wanted to maintain the “spirit” of the old structure, where the world’s most famous jazz bands once played. However, he also wanted to create something new and he needed to wring a lot of functional space out of a limited one. He hoped to make the audience to feel as though it was part of the process – backstage at the theatre – so he allowed the workings of the place to be visible, most notably with 2nd floor catwalks for use by projectionists weaving through the lobby and above and amidst the theaters “Anyone who gets into truly creative work with another individual gets into a dialogue with their inner spirit. You have to know that, read it and understand it or else you’re just creating a programmed solution that you then give somebody. “For me the hardest part of doing the Charles was knowing that people held it in their hearts. If it didn’t still have that heart – or if that feeling wasn’t enhanced – it was going to be total failure. Buzz wanted to do that so much – and if it turned out okay it’s because of his spirit.” Cusak gazes around happily and gushes about the place. “I love to be in this building. I just love to come in here,” he says. “It’s remarkable what he did with it. It meets all our needs in a truly beautiful space.” Castro grasps the railing for a portion of the catwalk that stretches above the concession and looks down at the public’s room – the lobby. His jaw is clenched and his eyes are shifting around as he studies the exposed brick, deco-style fixtures and unique cafe where people waiting for a movie can congregate. “I think this all works pretty well,” he finally says. Clients say that Castro has a remarkable talent for finding a unique solution that not only deals with limits but incorporates them — at the Charles the space produced the untraditional long open lobby and use of stadium seating; at AVAM, a unique existing round building, eliminated in all other design proposals, was incorporated in Castro’s and led to the important spiral the building now suggests, At Tide Point the huge pads are transformed. Tight budgets spur creativity and limiting space is exploited. “The eventual delight in the form often comes from the generating forces of the problems you meet. Problems are springboards to good design,” Castro says JOHN — I KEPT A BIT OF THE FOLLOWING ABOUT HIS PERSONALITY. When you hear the accolades you can’t help but wonder if it isn’t just the engaging personality or the handsome, empathetic face that wins people over. One female curator said Castro can be overpowering. Important professional women who have worked with him call him “riveting” and “devastatingly handsome.” “He is a real charmer. A total charmer,” says Cara McCarty “He makes everybody involved feel good.” “He’s almost boyish in his earnestness,” says Leslie Greene Bowman, director of the Winterthur Museum In Wilmington Del., who repeatedly hired Castro for displays when she was a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the late 1990s. “He says something like ‘you know, I really wanted to do this’ and you just sort of melt. And then it’s right.” And that is the key. The people who at first may appear to simply be swayed by this charm also point to results. They say they got work they love that perfectly met their needs – but work that very clearly is Alex Castro’s. Cara McCarty says Castro wins people over because he becomes “totally involved.” “He thinks and breathes it. It becomes his project too and you sense that,” she says. “He’ll call you up and since the last time you’ve talked he’s had several brilliant new ideas. How can you not like someone who seems to be so passionate about your work.” The creativity is sometimes a careful stew, simmering for a while with lots of ingredients poured in by Castro, who friends say never heard an idea he didn’t like or at least wouldn’t consider. But often it’s pure front-burner inspiration. Castro was once struggling with the cover for a catalogue featuring important photographers. A photo one of his children had taken accidentally of a sibling lay in the corner of his desk. “I looked down and there was the fuzzy photo of my daughter. No question There was the cover. It worked, and no photographer would be offended because a rival got the front of the book.” The Corcoran and the photographers loved it. Cara McCarty was supervising a photography session for a catalog for an important show about masks, using a model in a Caribbean costume. “No matter what we did, something was wrong with the photos. We faxed them to Alex and he called in a few minutes saying that they were too static. He said ‘Look why don’t you just turn on some music and let him dance.’ It worked perfectly. This guy leaping into the air is the best image in the catalog.” Struever sees it all the time. He points to Castro’s idea to paint horizontal and vertical stripes on the water towers near Struever’s development at Tindeco Wharf, an interesting, engaging solution to enliven this older piece of architecture. “I like it when the solution is something simple,” Castro says. “Those towers are enough — an economy of moves.” Castro is at Beacon Garden again. He is talking about how it melds sculpture and architecture and how he likes this direction for his work.. He is involved in projects to ad a $3.2 million unique new inn to the Black Olive restaurant, revitalize the National Bohemian Brewery building in XXXX and he has ideas about developing a small kiosk at the inner harbor with an illuminated floor, which would continuously show new images from the Hubble Space Telescope He also talks a lot about designing private space for individuals. “They would be somewhere between a habitable sculpture and an architectural space that promotes thought and reflection. I think of these places as situations.” “I have what is perhaps an outdated notion that that space around one very much affects the thinking space within. We are overcome with stimuli and it seems to me that we very much need a way to at least get some respite from a very stressful, bombarding world,” he says Alex Castro seems determined to provide us with space that inspires us and makes us feel at home, the places where we want to be. Then the question becomes – will he find his. end Jim Paterson 301-774-8329 1 6 date:12/3/01 Jim Paterson 301-774-8329 for: Baltimore Magazine fax: 301-570-3221 subject: new art space email: firstname.lastname@example.org length: 2400 file name:art spaces paterson 6/01 1