Next month (June 2011) is my tenth anniversary of spending almost all of my waking hours in downtown Atlanta. Over the years I have grown to love this landscape that most derisively assume to be an abject failure of an urban model.
Articles and thoughts abound about how John Portman destroyed the city’s vitality and richness. Although he is enjoying a bit of a renaissance these days among those same folks, I tend to believe it is for the wrong reasons. The fact that he was both a developer and an architect seems of interest to many. Boring! Younger folks may be seduced by his tremendously awful interiors and geometric mania.
What I think is most constructive about his work in downtown Atlanta depends on these two schools of thought in a sense but it is something altogether different: inscrutable geography. The bewildering redundancy and the ambiguous definition of ownership create an arcane hypertext of spaces in the continuous interior whose seed JP planted with Peachtree Center. This disorienting effect is only possible through the developer’s metastasization of property and the hypnosis of JP’s geometric themes. In his lecture at Georgia Tech he explained that Venice was his inspiration for this work. Chuckles were stifled across the audience. Of course it is silly to look at this mixed use warren for the richness of character and complexity of Venice. It is hard to know if JP meant it that way. If so, he deserves to be ridiculed. But perhaps in failing at his aspirations he accidentally infused his work with another aspect of Venice. Superimposing my most recent visit to Venice onto my days in Peachtree Center I find the kinship of never knowing where you are in space at any time but not caring because there is always somewhere else to go, something to draw you along.
I reflect often on the purpose of Architecture. It comes back repeatedly to its educational capacity. Most of the built world is horrendous, mediocre, and numbing. It will always be so. The purpose of Architecture is to teach us how to see things differently by exposing the latent possibilities of something as rote as a hotel, food court, or office tower. Each architect necessarily has something different to say on each subject and therein we learn the language of occupying space just as we composed our personalities from all of our parents, mentors, and experiences. We become independent, then proficient. When we return to the stagnant fabric of the rest of the world we have a bit more of our own perspective on it. We can find the possibilities in it we never before recognized.
The cavern network of Peachtree Center, et al has educated me about how to see, experience, and claim the middling terrain of downtown Atlanta. I have learned to puncture through blocks that look impenetrable. I have learned to look like I belong places. I have learned to try to open locked doors. I have learned that I don’t ever have to stop moving, that the circuit never ends, and that although it changes at every step it is bound into one slender and continuous work of man by my happenstance choice of route. I still discover new things on almost every outing. I still make my own way out of a way that has been established by planners and builders before me. I can’t say I will miss this beige city, and I like to assume that I would have learned these lessons and cultivated this perspective elsewhere, but I will always owe a debt to its mediocrity.
All that being said, just after my tenth anniversary I will be moving away. I have recently had the notion that instead of drawing floor plans and doing terrible animations and renderings of buildings in school, students might awaken more in their critics by leading them on guided tours that compose a building out of the surfaces and spaces of other buildings. I would like to try this with friends and acquaintances before I move. I will be taking these walks every day at lunch as I have for ten years anyway. Instead of saying goodbye at a bar or coffeeshop or wherever, let’s take some walks and make some memories! Who knows, we might even see JP lunching on the patio at the Pacific Rim Bistro!
Write me if you’re interested.