Calatrava — please don’t give up on Atlanta
Two strikes. One more and we’re out.
Atlanta has struck out twice with internationally-acclaimed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
First, it was the 17th Street bridge connecting Spring Street with Atlantic Station. Calatrava had designed a bridge that would have been a fanciful and graceful gateway to our city. Instead of a Calatrava bridge, we got a low-budget, DOT-concrete span painted yellow.
Second, it was the new concert hall for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Calatrava had designed a hall that appeared able to take flight in between the highrise buildings on 14th Street between Peachtree and West Peachtree streets.
When the $300 million design was unveiled, it was called Atlanta’s next signature postcard. Instead, it will end up in the file of unbuilt designs.
The Woodruff Arts Center has approved a new master plan that moves the site for a new symphony hall to the corner of 15th and Peachtree streets on the same block as the rest of the center.
Moving the location has merit. It will be a prominent Peachtree landmark that will be able to use existing backstage facilities, reducing the overall cost of a new symphony hall.
But the fallout is that Calatrava has indicated that he will not submit a design for the concert’s hall new location.
So where does that leave us? Will Atlanta miss its opportunity to have a Calatrava-designed structure in the city. Will the Woodruff Arts Center lower its architectural standards for a new hall because of cost?
Let’s hope the answer to both those questions is “NO.”
Cities don’t have enough opportunities to showcase excellent urban design.
Atlanta has had a fairly good track record of eye-catching architecture — the High Museum of Atlanta (both the original and the expansion); John Portman’s Hyatt Regency, Marriott Marquis, Westin Peachtree Plaza and SunTrust Plaza; the old IBM Tower (One Atlantic Center); the Bank of America Plaza; Philips Arena; the 191 building; to name a few.
And soon, we’ll have the new Center for Civil and Human Rights, which certainly will be a welcome addition to our architectural profile.
But we have torn down just as many fabulous structures — the historic Terminal Station, Union Station, Leow’s Grand, the old Carnegie Library, and so many more.
Signature public buildings — such as museums, symphony halls, major government buildings, office towers and condo highrises — deserve great designs. In this economic environment, it is hard for developers to get financing to create buildings with stunning design.
So where could we invite Calatrava to return to Atlanta and give us another chance to rise above our own mediocrity?
The most obvious answer is the proposed multimodal passenger station in downtown Atlanta near Five Points. At long last, there’s growing realization that we need all modes of transit, especially rail, to carry us into the future. We need a grand central station, and ideally, that project could help us revitalize the Five Points MARTA station and the area between Underground Atlanta and CNN Center.
It just so happens that Calatrava is well-known for his design of passenger stations, primarily in Europe. Atlanta, which owes its very being to railroads, could put itself back on the map with a station designed by Calatrava.
At the same time, the Woodruff Arts Center needs to aspire to architectural greatness in picking the design and architect for a new symphony hall. Several top donors have let it be known that their pledges are tied to great design.
Unfortunately, Atlanta has a bad track record of settling for second or third best. People forget that if Atlanta wants to become one of the world’s great cities, it needs to act as one.
One of the most dangerous conversations that I keep hearing is how Nashville was able to build a new symphony hall for only $123 million. The neo-classical design is functional, mundane and ordinary. Is that what we aspire to be — as good as Nashville?
Actually Nashville and several other Southern cities that we long ago had outpaced in our quest to be a great international city are now catching up and passing us when it comes to transit, livability and urban design.
So Atlantans, you decide. Do we want to strike out? Or do we want to begin winning again?