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.

Calatrava's design for Atlanta's new symphony hall

Calatrava's design for Atlanta's new symphony hall

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.

A Calatrava bridge in Italy

A Calatrava bridge in Italy

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.

Calatrava's Gare de Oriente in Lisbon, Portugal

Calatrava's Gare de Oriente in Lisbon, Portugal


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.
An interior shot of Calatrava's Gare de Oriente station in Lisbon, Portugal

An interior shot of Calatrava's Gare de Oriente station in Lisbon, Portugal


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?

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

11 replies
  1. James R. Oxendine says:

    I completely agree with you concerning the absolute necessity and utility of great urban design however, there is a substanial body of eveidence that some of Calatrava’s projects have had problems with the cost of their upkeep and maintenance. A significant issue for institutions/ the public sector in this economy.

    I would not mind having some wealthy patron of the arts underight a Calatrava design for the proposed multimodal station but until and unless such an individual (s) come along, I would prefer that Atlanta gets the best design for the money by whomever is deemed to be worthy by a solid design review panel .Who knows,maybe a local firm may have the right stuff?Report

    Reply
  2. Geoff Koski says:

    I would argue that Calatrava is not a good urban designer. He’s looking to leave a mark on a city but he cares not whether his building fits in contextually with its surroundings. The multi-modal station, the new symphony hall, etc. don’t have to be as un-inspiring as Nashville’s hall, but they should “fit” in Atlanta and help to create vitality on the surrounding streets. His design for the symphony hall on 14th would have not have fit those criteria. His version of modernism typically sucks the life out of the adjacent street life. I look forward to the new symphony hall adding to the burgeoning urban, pedestrian street-life on Peachtree.Report

    Reply
  3. AF says:

    your design good that you get all hot and bothered for = cost; ultimately passed on to people like me in the form of taxes… I’m okay with a great building, as long as you pay for it!Report

    Reply
  4. Tony Rizzuto says:

    Maria’s point is well taken. Atlanta has long been the poster child of poor design and bad urbanism. A great city is marked by its vision a vision that includes aspirations to great urban spaces and architecture. The excuse is always the same good design costs too much why should we pay for it. In fact studies of the costs of work by major international architects vs. regional and local architects revealed the cost of a signature building to be only 10% more. What is lost is the fact that such signature works bring in revenue to the city for their notoriety in the form of both advertizing dollars and tourism. The Bilboa in Spain by Frank Gehry single handedly revitalized that cities economy and his Disney Hall in LA has been used in countless advertisements around the Globe providing its owner with increased revenue. The city of Prague is a great tourist designation because for ten centuries its people commissioned important architecture from the worlds greatest architects, the fact that it has never been bombed makes it an architectural museum and the choice location of the film industry.
    As to the 17th street bridge, Calatrava’s design was not more expensive and that is the disgrace. His design cost included the cost of all the new ramps and interchange up to 10th street. Critics aruged his design was more expensive than the DOT version but the numbers they used did not include the interchange ramps for tenth street. In hte end the DOT bridge and ramps cost as much as the Caltrava Design. That was not a savings but a fool hardy way of spending money.
    In addition to the economic factor there is also the issue of civic pride the pride of worker who built the structure, of people who work there and of the people who patronize great art (architecture and urban design are afterall artforms.Report

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  5. ATL says:

    Thanks for this article… Atlanta certainly needs to aspire to greater things when it comes to architecture and urban design–
    and the eventual design for Symphony Hall needs to be a signature work of architecture whether by Calatrava or someone else… these are more than just buildings—they are the physical representations of who we are as a people, our aspirations, dreams and goals—
    If we had been as timid in business as we sometimes are in design—we would still be Nashville (or Birmingham)…
    As for cost—some things are certainly more important than money—(besides the city and state have never offered a dime to the Atlanta Symphony’s hall-building efforts anyway)…
    But this kind of building can help to make a city’s image and the payback for that as any good Atlanta Businessman or woman should know can be immense…Report

    Reply
  6. Julian Frost says:

    Thanks for the insight on the various Calatrava designs as I wholeheartedly agree. Being a native of Atlanta and somewhat of an endangered species myself; in which I have seem the demise of some of the cities greatest landmarks and the saving of very few. Atlanta is the gateway city to the south, and yes we do lack in many aspects the architectural brilliance that a great city such as Atlanta needs and should pride itself upon. Concrete and asphalt with the lack of vision and architectural detail are abundant in this city starting with the Atlanta International Airport, any of the major highways, many of the major buildings and the list goes on and on. As the old adage goes here in Atlanta, “take the money and run”, “more lip service and inaction seem to prevail”. As one of the previous comments indicated the cost in many aspects of great urban design and urbanism is no more than currently being spent in many cases can be less. With a detailed vision the grassroots support of the community and industry regardless if you agree to disagree on the various Calatrava designs, it creates a positive dialog that this city has been lacking for decades and is just now being expressed in the streetscapes designs in Midtown, Buckhead and various other projects which I stand and applaud. Did everyone forget that Atlanta is home to Georgia Tech and some of the best architectural design firms in the world; I would ask, “why have these institutions not stepped up to the challenge”? Wake-up, great vision and design bring Industry and Tourism Dollars to the area, think about that at your next budget meeting!Report

    Reply
  7. Maggie says:

    Yes, what if you don’t think it’s beautiful or … fitting?

    Calatrava’s buildings could be anywhere in the world -> white curvy stuff. Paris, Peoria or Ikea. One or two of ’ems okay but I’d like to see something more unique to Atlanta.

    Where’s an Atlanta style? A Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright hollers Chicago even if it’s not in Chicago. But we don’t have too much indigenous architecture here. Where’s the artist to light the world afire with tar paper shack-inspired symphony halls?Report

    Reply

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