Architectural bookends – 1975 and 2015 – Atlanta’s skyline is looking up

By Guest Columnist JACK PORTMAN, vice chairman of the John Portman & Associates architectural firm

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) is holding their 2015 national convention here in Atlanta later this month (May 13-16).

The first time the organization brought their convention to Atlanta was in 1975—40 years ago, at which time a gallon of gas cost 54 cents and suburban sprawl was emptying out the city. Construction had only just begun on the MARTA rail system and the Georgia World Congress Center, home to this year’s convention, would not open for another year.

When you stop to think about it, it is quite extraordinary to realize just how far our city has come since then.

Atlanta's skyline 2009

Atlanta’s skyline in 2009 with architect John Portman’s SunTrust Plaza in foreground (Photo provided by John Portman & Associates)

It is only natural that those of us in the profession would be excited about the AIA choosing to visit our city, but what does it mean to the majority of Atlantans? Think about it. Architecture facilitates life. How would we live without it?

Architects design our homes, our places of business and our entire built environment. Obviously, that growth which has taken place over the last 40 years since the AIA first visited, could not have happened without the contributions of architects – many architects.

Jack Portman

Jack Portman

Earlier this year, the AIA launched a national campaign designed to reconnect the public with architecture and position new generations of architects as catalysts of growth and visionaries for renewal.

The theme of the campaign, which you may have seen on TV, is: “Look Up.” Envisioned as a three-year initiative, the campaign cuts across all platforms –social media, digital marketing, broadcast and print advertising – to place the architect back into the national discussion on infrastructure, the economy, the health of communities, and the future of our country.

We are a vital participant in that discussion! You can learn more about the campaign on its website, www.ilookup.org and follow its hashtag, #ilookup.

Two weeks ago, the International Union of Architects (UIA), the Architects’ Council of Europe (ACE) and the AIA signed a joint declaration to highlight the key role and responsibility of the architectural profession in tackling the local and global challenges of our time, in particular with respect to climate change, urban regeneration, social inclusion and heritage conservation.

Architects have unique expertise and a social responsibility to confront the local and global challenges of our time for the well-being of humanity and the future of our planet.

Architecture surrounds us in our daily lives. Architects have the ability to see what is not yet in existence and to envision the potential for what could be. AIA members have a shared dedication to creating healthy, sustainable and livable homes, workplaces and communities.

This year, when the importance of this message is top-of-mind for leaders of the profession, and the members find themselves filled with new pride and a new sense of purpose, the AIA has picked our hometown to come together, explore, appreciate and salute architecture’s contribution to our society.

The most obvious change in Atlanta’s skyline from 1975 to now is the proliferation of skyscrapers from the Perimeter down through Sandy Springs, Buckhead, Midtown and downtown.

However, the most exciting transformation may be what is happening at street level. Mixed-use design is creating walkable communities, each with a uniqueness indigenous to its surrounding area, which are vibrant and active around the clock—desirable, close-knit communities with everything within walking distance—the way Atlanta used to be before the automobile and cheap gas changed everything.

I have been blessed with a career that has allowed me to travel the globe. It is exciting to have the opportunity to explore new places and discover how other people live. My travels have helped me hone a greater appreciation for the energy of our hometown and Atlanta’s impact on the rest of the world.

Many times, the place you live becomes too familiar to seem special. But the truth is that our city is distinctive, diverse and home to amazing architecture. Atlanta’s cityscape is a varied array of work created by “homegrown” talent, as well as exciting designs by world-renowned architects from Philip Johnson to Renzo Piano to Richard Meier and more.

It is exhilarating to recognize that 20,000 people are traveling from all around the country to celebrate the virtues of architecture in a unique place that we get to enjoy every day, our home, this wonderful city of Atlanta—and all we have to do is look up!

Atlanta skyline 1970

Atlanta skyline 1970 (Special: archival photos provided from John Portman & Associates files)

Atlanta skyline 1978

Atlanta’s skyline in 1978 (Special: archival photos provided from John Portman & Associates files)

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