By Maria Saporta
Friday, June 15, 2012
More than 300 Atlantans participated in the 2009 design competition for a proposed National Center for Civil and Human Rights. In a public forum, the five teams of finalists presented their vision for what was destined to become one of Atlanta’s marquee attractions.
The winning architectural team was a joint venture of the Freelon Group, which is based in the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and HOK-Atlanta. And the winning design included a building that paid tribute to one of the symbols of the Civil Rights Movement — people marching with interlocking arms.
But budget and operational realities set in and the architectural team had to go back to the drawing boards to design an attraction that was about half the size and one that could be built in phases rather than at one time.
The end result —- announced June 11 — is a vastly different design — a three-story oval structure with two multi-story arching walls — leaving ample space to expand the attraction in the future.
“I like the new design, and I liked the first design,” said former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who is chairing the Center’s board. “I like the expansion possibilities for the current design better. I also have a lot of confidence in the Freelon design team.”
In conversations with the primary architect and leaders involved with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, several themes emerged. Everyone had become attached to the original design. But as the project evolved, they realized that they would fall short of raising the $125 million needed to build it.
So they decided to build a center that could be developed with the dollars they had in hand while planning to expand the facility in the future.
To them, it was important to actually start construction on a facility that spoke to the very core of Atlanta’s soul — a place that has fostered the philosophies of nonviolent social change and basic respect of the rights of people of all nations and backgrounds.
The Center will display important moments in the history of human and civil rights and how they relate to modern-day conflicts and issues. It is envisioned that it will be a “living” Center aimed at inviting national and international dialogue and resolution.
The groundbreaking for the Center is scheduled for June 27, and the attraction is expected to open by Memorial Day 2014.
“The important thing is that this building is getting built,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, who also serves on the Center’s board. “All of us on the board and all of us involved with the project loved the first design. But what’s important is what will be inside the building, not what’s on the outside.”
The Center also has faced another stark reality: Major foundations raised the bar and said that the attraction had to be self-sustaining when it opened.
Back in the 1990s, Atlanta’s cultural landscape took a hit when the then-new Fernbank Museum of Natural History opened with a sizable debt of $20 million — a financial weight that was impossible to manage with existing revenues. That debt was erased when banks, foundations and the community worked out a bailout plan, and the museum has been doing well ever since. But, from that point on, any new attraction had to guarantee that it would open with no debt.
Now the expectation is for the Center to be able to pay all its bills with anticipated revenues without having to have an annual campaign — which is commonplace among most cultural institutions.
That new standard, which the Center’s board welcomed, added yet another financial constraint to the budget and to the design.
Doug Shipman, CEO of the Center, said that after much study, the original design did not lend itself to be built in phases. That design also had multiple walls that added to the expense.
And instead of having $125 million for a 90,000-square-foot attraction, the Center raised $70 million, including $5 million for an endowment, to build a facility with up to 42,000 square feet.
Phil Freelon, the lead architect on the project, said it is expected that there will be refinements and adjustments to designs that come out of a competitive process.
“The project that we’ve designed is an evolution of the original concept,” Freelon said. “This is one solution with a smaller footprint. What that allowed us to do was move from a horizontal expression of interlocking parts to a vertical, reaching motion upward to the sky. Both reflect the concept of civil and human rights, and both are equally valid.”
Freelon went on to say that it’s less important for a design to be “literal” rather than “subtle” — giving visitors an opportunity to create their own interpretation of the space.
Freelon also said that, unlike the original design, the new plans do not have finished renderings to really portray how the building will look. Also the finished materials have not yet been selected that would show the “texture” of the building.
“This is a very important project to us, and we wouldn’t put forward any design that we didn’t think was excellent,” Freelon said.
He then added: “We would start over if they told us to. We are totally flexible. If we are directed to revisit any of this, we are happy to do it.”
Freelon also said that he enjoyed the public participation during the design competition, and he would have welcomed community involvement in the redesign.
“We would have loved to do that, and we would have welcomed that,” Freelon said, adding that the team is “working at the behest of the board” of the Center.
Time, however, was working against the Center’s development. A key part of its financing — up to $40 million in the city’s tax allocation dollars — stipulated that the Center would have to have a temporary certificate of occupancy by March 2014.
“In the best of all worlds, we would have had a community collaborative and get public input in the redesign,” Robinson said. “But we had a very, very short window to get the project out of the ground.”
Still, Robinson said that the design of the Center will continue to evolve.
“We still have time to make what has been designed better,” he said. “The reality is that we want to build a project that’s meaningful to Atlanta.”