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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Ellen Dunham-Jones and Stuart Horodner talk architecture and design

Gary Hustwit's 2011 documentary Urbanized will screen on Monday, May 13, at Georgia Tech's Reinsch-Pierce Family Auditorium at 6:30 pm in partnership between the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center and the Georgia Tech School of Architecture.

The film screens as part of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center's current exhibition Jon Pack & Gary Hustwit: The Olympic City.

We caught up with Ellen Dunham-Jones, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Georgia Tech and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center's Artistic Director Stuart Horodner to discuss some of the issues in the film, and how they apply to Atlanta.

We begin with Dunham-Jones, who is featured in the film.


Discuss the process of participating in the film. How did Gary Hustwit reach out to you? How long was the interview, etc?


I'm not sure how they found me - but I suspect in their research on urbanism they found my TedX talk. Gary and a cameraman came to Atlanta and filmed me at Georgia Tech for a little over an hour. They told me to expect only about 1-3 minutes to make it into the film so at the end of the interview I had NO idea what parts they would select.

Ellen Dunham-Jones
  • Gary Hustwit, Urbanized
  • Ellen Dunham-Jones


You get one of the best quotes in the film - paraphrasing Supreme Court Chief Justice Potter Stewart's famous line about pornography to define "sprawl." Given that there's only so much a film can convey in its timeframe, were there any points where you feel the film missed the mark, or failed to make your case?

It was clear from Gary's questions that he wanted me to talk about sprawl. I was happy to do so, but kept trying to squeak in discussion of solutions to sprawl and my research on retrofitting suburbia. I love the film but wish there had also been inclusion of the ways we are reinhabiting, redeveloping and regreening underperforming suburban properties.

I know it when I see it
  • Gary Hustwit, Urbanized
  • I know it when I see it


Urbanized positions developer Grady Gammage Jr. is the counter-point to your commentary on sprawl. When he suggests that the "NPR" definition of suburban life is framed as "bad sprawl," he is making a case that this is somehow a case of "liberal bias." Likewise, the Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses segment echos the conflict in right wing darling Ayn Rand's Fountainhead. Is this something that can really be reduced into red and blue, right and left, liberal and conservative? Are there dangers/benefits to assigning political postions to these argmuments?

If you look at maps of voting records there's certainly a trend to see cities vote blue and suburbs vote red. This parallels the left wing emphasis on living collectively, focused around shared public spaces and amenities vs. the right wing emphasis on individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in detached homes on their own plot of land.

However, this oversimplification ignores the much more complex political realities and contradictory tensions. For instance - communities of mostly single-family houses often ban multi-family or higher-density housing even though that is clearly what the market is now calling for. Such bans are usually associated with conservatives but might just as easily be seen as examples of liberal interference in the market and government limitation of private property rights.

The environmental consequences of sprawl set up similar blurring of political lines. I prefer to think that discussions of urbanism and sprawl recognize the multiplicity of viewpoints and try to be politically agnostic.

Mayor Kasim Reed and other officials unveiled the $12 million trail in 2012
  • JOEFF DAVIS
  • Mayor Kasim Reed and other officials unveiled the $12 million trail in 2012


As the region continues to evolve and expand, what do you think are the best opportunities for successful development? Are there cases of Atlanta's suburbs taking part in what you describe as retrofitting? What role must people play in the planning process to ensure successful results?

Atlanta has some great examples of retrofitting. The Beltline and the redevelopment of Woodstock's downtown are two wonderful cases of reinhabiting, redeveloping, and re-greening the legacy of our rail infrastructure.

The Atlanta Regional Commission's Livable Centers Initiative and Lifelong Communities programs have and are continuing to help over 100 metro communities re-envision how to retrofit some of our auto-dependent areas into more walkable, more compact places.

Whether it's replacing a dying mall with a new downtown - as in the plans for Gwinnett Place Mall, integrating much-needed senior housing into walkable communities - as planned in Mableton, or building a new downtown for Dekalb County on the underused land owned by the county and MARTA at the Kensington station - as hypothetically proposed by my students this spring - it's not about taking away traditional suburban lifestyles.

It's about adding more choices.

Stuart Horodner explains it all

Stuart, discuss the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center in terms of "place," "geography," "form," and "function."

The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center started as Nexus in 1973, and that word "nexus" is still a relevant term. You want a great art city to have places where people congregate and experience significant art and ideas and each other. We are a site where art professionals and enthusiasts come together. That can be to see an ambitious and talented Atlanta artist (our current Shara Hughes exhibition is a fine example) or to be exposed to consequential artists from around globe, often being shown in the context of the South for the first time, or in a novel way.

We see ourselves in a dialogue with our community as well as the larger world of contemporary art and culture - with artists, curators, critics, dealers, collectors, educators, etc.

In terms of form and function, we want a more effective and expansive building and site, one that will empower all our endeavors. That is why we're doing our renovation this summer. It both celebrates our 40th anniversary and offers enthusiasm and intelligence for the decades to come. Art is always evolving, so a responsive art center must as well.


Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, still the nexus
  • Erin Ashford Photography, courtesy of ACAC
  • Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, still the nexus

The building that is the Contemporary has quite a history. Tell us about the evolution of the land and the building.

The building was a truck repair facility dating back to the 1920s, and in 1989, we completed a $1.95 million capital campaign to renovate this 30,000 square foot warehouse complex.

In the years that followed, Nexus Press (the publishing arm of the center, dedicated to producing unique artist books) was built out, followed by gallery spaces, offices, and artist studios. In time, partnerships and tenant relationships were developed with the Atlanta Film Festival 365 (formerly IMAGE Film & Video Center), and The Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences.

From the beginning, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center imagined itself as a site for bringing artists and audiences together, with provocative exhibitions and programs - lectures, screenings, tours, panels, collaborations, and publications.


How does the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center's current role - and your plans for the immediate future - play into the idea of retrofitting?

Our Center, like many other non-collecting institutions that are located in old factory buildings or ex-auto facilities, finds that the rough industrial situation is a perfect site for contemporary art. There is an appropriate degree of physicality and solidity - concrete floors, high ceilings, and open expanses.

We moved into our complex 20 years ago and renovated it, and this summer we will be updating the HVAC systems for efficiency, exposing more natural light, building a new lecture hall and event space, and redesigning our lobby and bathrooms.

There is something good about retrofitting and adapting an old building for new uses, and growth in attendance and membership. And you can see this in our Westside neighborhood too, with galleries, home décor stores, new restaurants and mixed-use projects all making use of existing buildings.

Urbanized screens on Monday, May 13, at Georgia Tech's Reinsch-Pierce Family Auditorium at 6:30 p.m., followed by a conversation with Ellen Dunham-Jones and Stuart Horodner.

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