If you're an architect living in Atlanta, chances are you've thought about the city's frustrating sprawl and how it affects social connections. "The fact is, the city is atomized," says artist and Georgia Tech architecture professor Mark Cottle. "There is a lot of interesting stuff going on that people don't hear about."
Cottle is struggling to speak above the din on a busy Sunday afternoon at Octane Coffee, where a team of bicycle racers in skintight spandex supplement their natural high with a caffeinated one. There are laptops glowing on virtually every table and the espresso machine is working overtime. The crowd is a good explanation for why this Westside java hut has also become the nexus for a popular Atlanta salon hosted by Cottle, his Georgia Tech teaching comrade Sabir Khan and 27-year-old industrial designer Alfredo Aponte. "He's our token hipster," Cottle jokes.
The two Batmans/one-Robin troika are the brainy hipsters behind the local version of Pecha Kucha, a kind of fast-paced, multidisciplinary 21st-century salon they hope will in some small way provide an antidote to the sprawling mess of Atlanta.
Like karaoke for the Wired crowd, Pecha Kucha features an evening of speakers who deliver a brief talk on a subject that fascinates them.
Cottle aptly describes Pecha Kucha as "a digital show-and-tell," in which participants from a variety of disciplines – retail, community activism, the arts, academia – deliver a six-minute, 40-second PowerPoint presentation illustrated with copious images.
The format – 20 images discussed for 20 seconds each – is crucial. "It means no one can really drone on," Cottle says, so the event speeds merrily along. The result is something between an educational lecture, performance piece and "what I did on my summer vacation" slide show.
The name Pecha Kucha is an onomatopoeic Japanese phrase for the sound of talking. Pecha Kucha was created in 2003 by two Tokyo-based architects, Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein, as a forum for architects and designers to hype their projects for an audience of their peers.
But Pecha Kucha has since mutated and spread like a superbug, currently going down on a regular basis in cities from Austin, Texas, to Bangkok, where each location puts its own unique spin on the concept. In Atlanta, Pecha Kucha has been unfolding roughly once a month since November at Octane Coffee.
The last Atlanta Pecha Kucha event, Feb. 10 at Octane, featured nine presenters, including an architect talking about his West End studio space, a Kirkwood hairdresser, a High Museum curator and Shaun's bartender Lara Creasy offering a fantastically abbreviated seminar on cocktail design.
As Creasy listed the ingredients in a Gin Blossom, the crowd offered a communal, "Mmmmmm."
Depending on the presenter up to bat, the tone can range from silly to thought-provoking, and the topics can be socially conscious or purely entertaining.
To the organizers, it's all about the mix.
"It could be all architects, which we would not want," Cottle says.
"When you are creating a salon, you want to kind of shape it and make it be the city it is," Khan admits about the way the local Pecha Kucha reflects the diversity of Atlanta.
Unlike the original Tokyo Pecha Kucha, with its emphasis on industry folk, "It has to be democratic," Cottle says. "It has to go across the disciplines. Creative people get inspiration from people outside their own little realm."
If the audience at the February event is any indication, they appear to have succeeded in appealing to a diverse crowd that's difficult to characterize as anything beyond "engaged" and "curious." There were standing-room-only gray-haired lefties, students, community activists, architects, emerging and midcareer artists, and assorted urban curiosity seekers.
And its appeal is spreading. Some Georgia Tech professors are already beginning to require students to deliver their lectures in the six-minute, 40-second Pecha Kucha format.
As the event progresses, it also will become more civic-minded – a forum where topical issues will be addressed. Architect Merrill Elam will speak at the March event about the controversial suggestion that the Buckhead Library – which she built with her partner Mack Scogin in 1989 – be razed to make way for a new development. Though the notion of leveling the Buckhead Library recently was rejected by the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System, the building's fate still hinges on a vote by the Fulton County Board of Commissioners. At the same salon, Beltline originator Ryan Gravel will offer a thumbnail account of that project's various fits and starts.
If Atlanta will never have a physical center, at least the Pecha Kucha organizers hope it can have an intellectual cohesion. Cottle says he gets a common sentiment from attendees: "I never knew there were all these interesting people here."
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