Center for Civil and Human Rights — Atlanta’s opportunity for great architecture

Striving for great architecture has been hit and miss in Atlanta. Take the mediocre 17th Street bridge, a far cry from the alternative fanciful design by world-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava.

But with the Center for Civil and Human Rights, we have an opportunity to create a work of art that speaks to Atlanta’s history and its special role in the world.

Five architectural teams unveiled their proposed designs for the center to be located on the block north of Centennial Olympic Park. It will be wedged on the northeast corner of the block, which already houses the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coke.

A wonderful element of this endeavor is that the public has been invited to review the five proposals. The designs were first presented to hundreds of Atlantans on March 3 and 4. And now the designs are online with blogged comments and opinions.

The five teams are as follows:

• Polshek Partnership Architects of New York with Atlanta partners — Cooper Carry and Stanley Love-Stanley;

• Huff + Gooden Architects of New York with partner Hammel Green and Abrahamson of Minneapolis working with the Atlanta firm of Smith Dahlia;

• Moody-Nolan of Columbus, Ohio working with Antoine Predock of Albuquerque and the Atlanta firm of Goode Van Slyke;

• Freelon Group of Durham, N.C. and partner HOK of Atlanta; and

• Diller Scofidio + Renfro of New York working with the Atlanta firm of Stanley Beaman & Sears.

After reviewing all five, I wish we could pick and choose ideas from each proposal.

So I will share with you my thoughts on which design elements should be incorporated in our Center for Civil and Human Rights.

The good news is that sustainability is an integral part of each design. But some take green building to a whole new level — namely the Moody-Nolan design which proposed the building really looks and becomes a park above the structure. The park would collect rain water and include solar panels.

Having an accessible green roof would be a way to let visitors experience the center outdoors by offering another level for displays.

No matter what, the design for the center should be sensitve to all its borders. The pedestrian experience from Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard and Centennial Olympic Park Boulevard should be just as inviting as the vista from the green space between the Aquarium and the World of Coke.

All the proposals included an outdoor ampitheater, but some were better thought out than others. I particularly liked the ampitheater space in the Freelon design because it was incorporated as part of the center yet was completely open to the public.

One idea included in several of the proposals was the ability to project video images either on the building or on special screens incorporated in the design. Imagine being able watch the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize from that location.

Although not mentioned during the presentations, the final design should envision a possible expansion of the center. Given its location, the landscaping around the center is almost as important as the center itself.

One of the drawbacks of the location is that it is not in the heart of where history was made in Atlanta — Auburn Avenue, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Wheat Street Baptist Church, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center and birthhome, the Carter Center, the Atlanta University campus and the original Pashals.

Although it’s not part of the design process, the proposed streetcar that would connect the Center with Atlanta’s historical landmarks is critically important.

Lastly, the layout and design of the exhibit space (particularly the King papers) needs to draw on the symbolism and imagery of the past.

Several architects suggested that some of the exhibits (such as the one on lynching) would be disturbing and uncomfortable, but those feelings could be offset by the optimism of the King papers and human rights successes.

The good news is that a highly qualified group of jurists will make a recommendation on the architectural team to the Center’s board, which is meeting on March 19, according to Doug Shipman, executive director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights.

“The important thing to remember is that we are choosing a team and not a finished design,” Shipman said. “No matter which team we pick, the finished product is going to evolve.”

That will allow the center’s board to work with the architectural team to incorporate some of the best ideas into the final design. And it also means there will be an opportunity to weigh the comments and opinions of the public.

“I’m just really pleased that so many people come, and so many people are talking about design,” Shipman said. “It’s good for Atlantans to be talking about architecture.”

Maybe this means we’ll end up with a special symbolic icon for Atlanta that will speak to our soul rather than a forgettable yellow bridge.

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.

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