ARTchitecture 

The revolution has begun

"We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us."

-- Winston Churchill

They are the icons of great cities, and sources of pride for citizens:

The Sydney Opera House. The Empire State Building. Chicago's Magnificent Mile. The Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The Guggenheim in Bilboa.

The jewels of great cities are great buildings, and Atlanta has its gems, from big ones like Philip Johnson's One Atlantic Center and Richard Meier's High Museum, to smaller ones such as Michael Graves' Carlos Museum at Emory, and Turner Village, also at Emory and designed by the local firm Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects.

For the most part, however, Atlanta plays it safe architecturally. In a region where spending resources on great design often is viewed as frivolous, governments and cultural institutions usually concentrate on the bare minimum. Developers and the tenants they serve rarely venture outside an established norm for something that might be controversial and expensive.

Until now.

Last year was a watershed time for the city architecturally. And the most dramatic concepts flowed out of the few blocks between 14th and 17th streets.

Renzo Piano's expansion to the High Museum of Art opened to rave reviews nationally in November. The curved glass sheathing of Pickard Chilton's Symphony Tower at 14th and Peachtree -- commonly called "the cell phone tower" -- changed the shape of the Midtown skyline. And the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra began raising hundreds of millions of dollars for what may turn out to be the South's most flamboyant architectural icon: Santiago Calatrava's symphony hall.

"Atlanta has always had -- well, since I started practicing in the late '80s, early '90s -- a reputation for being very traditional, and it's had that reputation for a long time," says Eric Brock, a design principal at the architecture firm Lord, Aeck & Sargent, which collaborated with Piano on the High expansion. "But there's been a change, and it's gaining momentum. Developers and the average citizen appreciate a more modern contemporary style of architecture, and I think that goes hand in hand with the urban revitalization we've been enjoying. Those forces are allowing a more contemporary architectural progression."

In the process, a style is emerging that's surprisingly appropriate to Midtown's emerging urban landscape. And A-list "starchitects" like Meier, Piano and Calatrava are part of the pull that will establish a higher standard for marquis buildings in the city.

You saw that happen in the late 1980s with One Atlantic Station. Famed modernist-turned-post-modernist New York architect Johnson topped the building at 14th and West Peachtree -- then known as the IBM tower -- with a pyramidal roofline. Other architects promptly changed the designs of neighboring towers even while they were under construction, creating a little flare along an otherwise blocky skyline.

But there's also a push for better architecture welling up from the local market-place. Condo towers are breaking out of the same tired mold. Fake stucco and wood is out. Glass, concrete and steel are in.

Before the end of the decade, Buckhead and downtown are set to sprout more of their own marquis buildings. But ground zero for that "push" is Midtown, south of 14th Street, just as ground zero for the starchitecture "pull" lies north of 14th Street.

What's more, many of those new buildings emphasize the kind of multiple uses and pedestrian friendliness that bring city streets to life. It's a change that Atlantans have been starving for since the city's core was hollowed out by white flight and urban renewal in the 1960s and '70s. It's also a change that offers some hope for an architectural movement that, if not distinctively Atlantan, at least finds a significant home here.

If you think of Atlanta's physical landscape as a patchwork quilt, architects are the people creating the actual patches. But the stitching has often been neglected, leaving gaps in the fabric: empty lots, kudzu fields, dilapidated storefronts.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of Georgia Tech's architecture program, explains that city fabrics are inconsistent because different architects will emphasize different components.

"The question is: Is the architect's role simply to be functional? Or is the role to symbolize cultural stature, and identity?" Dunham-Jones says.

The Atlanta skyline's formative years ranged from the 1960s into the 1980s, when glass and concrete modernist towers were all the rage -- and while downtown was losing businesses and residents.

Modernism's famous credo "form follows function" found its application in parking decks, loading docks, elevated walkways, and buildings that met the sidewalk with intimidating concrete walls. The "function," in other words, was to serve cars and get people out the way.

Some imaginative structures offered a new vision. John Portman's downtown Hyatt Regency pioneered grand hotel atriums topped with mechanical rotating restaurants. But the Hyatt and Portman's Peachtree Center also turned their attention inward and did little for the public space outside.

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