Hurt Building (Downtown Atlanta, James Edwin Ruthven Carpenter Jr., 1913; 1926 addition)
Plenty of cities have triangular blocks and, occasionally, you’ll find a building whose architect took full advantage of an acute angle to design something special. It’s a matter of “turning a corner,” in studio parlance, but it’s also a matter of acknowledging the city beyond.
One of the most handsome examples of this, which also happens to be a model of the Greek Revival in America, is William Strickland’s Merchants’ Exchange Building in Philadelphia (1834). There, Strickland made the most of an odd angle by designing a rotunda that borrowed the proportions and scale of a monument on the Athenian Acropolis, and created a piece of urban sculpture. Three generations later, James Edwin Ruthven Carpenter Jr. referenced Strickland’s approach with the rotunda for his Hurt
Building, one of Atlanta’s own “flat irons” designed for a difficult triangular site downtown. But Carpenter had to turn more than just a corner using Classical proportions. He also had to deliver a 17-story structure behind it. Working with the building’s patron and builder John Hurt (an engineer by training), Carpenter turned to Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron Building (1902) in New York and Louis Sullivan’s Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building (1899) in Chicago to not only understand how to design a tall office building (“artistically considered,” as Sullivan would say) but how to humanize it at street level.
High Museum of Art (Midtown Atlanta, Richard Meier & Partners, 1983; 2005 addition by Renzo Piano Building Workshop)
You barely have to scratch the surface of “famous debates in architecture” before your nail hits the Whites versus the Grays—two groups of architects, conveniently packaged by critics in the 1970s into diametrically opposed camps: the Whites, Corbusian in their spare approach to form and regard for context; and the Grays, willing to adapt historical precedent and critical of architecture that makes no attempt to reference the broader culture.
It’s much more complicated than that, as ideological debates often are (perhaps taking a Gray view), but it’s also just about that simple (perhaps taking a White one). Richard Meier, FAIA, typifies the Whites (perhaps more than anyone) and his High Museum of
Art typifies a Late Modernist approach to design. It’s a stark white “machine for living” (or, in this case, gallery-going) in which the abstract geometrical plan drives its basic organization and program. The plan also defines its basic experience and procession through atria and galleries. It’s also an iconic part of the skyline in Atlanta everyone knows the High and how to get there-and it attracts more than half million visitors each year. An addition, which was completed in 2005 and designed by Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, doubled the amount of available gallery space; its aluminum panels gel nicely with the 1983 building’s enamel façade, and its subtle massing balances some of the sweeping heroic gestures of the southeast corner. More importantly, the Piano addition proves that the debate between Whites and Grays—acontextualists and contextualists—is still a viable one. These aren’t mutually exclusive camps after all—just as Meier’s and Piano’s contributions to the High aren’t mutually exclusive buildings. Rather, they are part of a timeless discussion about architecture’s role. And, in the end, Whites need Grays to prove something just as much as Grays need Whites to disprove something.
Playscape (Piedmont Park, Isamu Noguchi, 1976)
When Parc de la Villette opened in 1986, it transformed the career of Bernard Tschumi, FAIA, as well as a corner of Paris that lost its abattoirs and much of its identity. Parc de la Villette’s follies—museums, sculptures, and stages—elevated the idea of a “playscape” for urbanites, defined by elemental shapes and bold colors. It also represented a reinvestment by the city in civic space expressly for public benefit. When cities do that, it becomes one of those quality of- life issues that pays dividends ad infinitum.
Rewind a decade, and you will find an important precedent: Isamu Noguchi and Herman Miller’s Playscape in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park—an echo of the Japanese sculptor’s failed 1933 plan to turn one New York City block into Play Mountain (reportedly killed by parks czar Robert Moses). Playscape, completed in 1976, continues to thrive—its elemental shapes knit together in a tight radial plan. Itsfollies, rendered in blue, green, orange, and red, feel just as inviting to adults as they do to children. Sure, there’s a slide and swings, but there are also sculptures that have no purpose other than to be climbed, sat on, and explored.
The park’s 3.5 million visitors each year—more than six times the population of Atlanta proper—confirm its popularity. Those who find their way to the southwest corner of the park find a moment that’s open to interpretation. And, so long as we rate cities according to quality of life, our ability to interpret our cities remains vital (or, derive and détournement, as a younger version of Tschumi would have claimed). If Atlantans are guilty of anything, it’s of having a good time—particularly at Playscape.
Central Library (Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System, Marcel Breuer Associates, 1980)
Thirty-five years ago, Marcel Breuer completed his final building—the Central Library for the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System—at the age of 80. It’s often compared to the Hungarian-born architect’s Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, with a steel frame supporting concrete slabs and façades composed of bushhammered precast concrete panels—reminiscent of an inverted ziggurat. It’s also a fine piece of formal Brutalism, a style of architecture coined by British architecture critics decades ago that’s attracted some press of late, predictably centering on maintenance issues and divided public opinion on aesthetic propriety.
In the same vein, the Breuer library is a more troubled building, than New York’s Breuer counterpart, dogged by costly water damage, material failures, and performance issues. A $5 million renovation in 2002 stemmed the leaks, but the building remains imperiled by years of deferred maintenance, which landed it on the World Monuments
Watch for endangered buildings in 2010—galvanizing the local preservation community. The library will survive, it seems. It’s just a question of cost. “If you want a home run you pick Hank Aaron,” said Atlanta’s public library director Carlton Rochell in 1974, to convince his selection board to go with Breuer. Looking back on Breuer’s oeuvre, it’s clear that, in a 50-year career, he rarely ever swung and missed. There were only Aaronesque hits—thoughtful, sculptural, and stirring works of architecture all over the world. Atlanta’s library is certainly no exception.