A tale of two roofs, a bridge and a widening wealth divide
By Guest Columnist MIKE DOBBINS, a professor of the practice of planning at Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture who has overseen several Tech studios that examined Northside Drive and its neighborhoods
We often view buildings, architecture, as symbols of the times and the cultures in which they are built. The implosion of the Georgia Dome juxtaposed against the Mercedes Benz Stadium call on us to reflect on what they both mean. They have in common the destruction and obliteration of significant African American history and culture.
The Dome erased the Lightning neighborhood in the early ‘90s. The Falcons stadium erased Friendship Baptist Church, birthplace of Morehouse and Spelman colleges and the pulpit of Maynard Jackson, Sr. State action and funding destroyed Lightning. Private action, abetted with funding from the mayor and the city council, wiped out Friendship.
The spaces and the experience inside the two, however, are as different as day and night. The Dome, with its expansive luminescent fabric roof, projected a calm and unifying space. It was an evenly lighted envelope, highlighting the field as the main event. Outside, its appearance, access ways, and engagement with the city were bland and uninspiring.
It reflected the state, which paid $214 million for it. While perhaps dull and impersonal, it was nonetheless an expression of public will at the time, including destroying the neighborhood it replaced.
The Falcons’ nest, on the other hand, is a fragmented, spiky collision of angled shards of glass and steel, topped by a troubled, hyperactive roof structure. The result is a multi-tiered conflict of disjointed forms and tangled structures that prop up the compression ring base for the “retractable” roof. This roof, intended to be the stadium’s crowning icon, is made up of nested slivers that are supposed to open and close like an old time camera lens. But will they?
Outside, though, it projects an arresting presence, carrying the eye into and through the building. Inside, looking back downtown is equally dramatic in its exposition of the skyline. Of course, facing the neighborhood on the other side of Northside Drive, it presents its service gates and blank walls, farther extending the neighborhoods’ barrier to downtown. This $1.5 billion venue is about itself, not so much about the events it’s supposed to house. It’s the expression of one man’s will, what architecture critics might term a “look at me” building. Its route to realization required a twisted path of political complicity and lots and lots of city money, beginning with a direct infusion of $200 million, ultimately projected by some to total as much as $900 million over the life of the building.
Yet, like the Dome, the Mercedes Benz Stadium is a fair expression of the current times and values. It reflects a culture of great individual wealth and extravagance, commanding public largesse, unbridled by accountability. It echoes the Shard tower in London and any number of other fragmented buildings designed by trophy architects for uber-rich patrons intent on memorializing their mark. Interestingly, like the Shard, a number of these employ fracturing, deconstructing forms that, however consciously, seem disturbingly appropriate in an ever more splintering society.
And then there’s the question of when the other shoe will drop. That would be the new bridge, slated to swoop over Northside Drive between the Vine City MARTA station and the Mercedes Benz. The deal on this one is for the city to fully fund the project to the tune of some $24 million, or half again more than the city’s commitment of funds collected through the area’s tax allocation district to the whole of the Vine City and English Avenue neighborhoods.
Touted as overcoming the barrier that Northside Drive represents, it will enable people to cross over the roadway by ramping up 20 feet and then back down for a walking distance of some 700 feet or about two blocks worth of length. Instead of simply walking across the 70-foot wide roadway on the level at a traffic signal. Design-wise, as a shimmering tubular metallic slinky-like concept, it’s all about glittering twists and curves, in sharp contrast to the spiky triangular sheets of the stadium.
It would appear that the city leadership made some kind of a deal to match the stadium’s extravagance with its own. The bridge’s actual use, however, is likely to compete in numbers with the use of the Atlanta Streetcar. Different users, though: A $24 million skateboarders’ paradise for the bridge and people who just need a rest on the $100 million streetcar. All this against the larger city backdrop of a widening wealth divide and one out of five Atlantans living at or below the poverty line.