Atlanta's a great city. Nice people, lots of places to eat, great culture, four distinct seasons, and a low cost of living compared to other towns of the same size. But let's be blunt: Some of the newer architecture that houses and surrounds us is lacking.
That's not necessarily to fault the architects themselves, who are often constrained by their employers' budgets and wants. Neither does the blame always fall on the developers, who are sometimes restricted by antiquated zoning codes decided long ago by unaware city officials and bureaucrats.
But there is a growing group of Atlanta residents eager to be a part of a city that doesn't recklessly bulldoze its past and, instead, builds its future with some flair and innovation. Or that just wishes architecture wasn't an afterthought.
Enter the Architecture and Design Center, a nascent effort by some of the city's most forward-thinking architects to connect design "professionals, advocates, aficionados, and fans" to celebrate good design and the role it plays in our lives.
"For Atlanta to maintain its place as the dominant economic and cultural city in the Southeast and for it to grow into an international city that competes with New York and Paris, the environment we live in has to be well-designed," says Nathan Koskovich, an Atlanta architect and one of ADC's three acting board members. "For Atlanta to be designed well, its design and development community must bring its knowledge to the public to create a culture that understands the impact of poor design and the value of good design."
The center is envisioned as an independent nonprofit with a diverse board of designers and members of the public. Its role would be similar to New York's Center for Architecture and Chicago's Architecture Foundation, the latter of which opened more than 40 years ago. Unlike those cities, Koskovich says, Atlanta is still incomplete and growing.
"We don't have that heritage, so that means there's a role for this center to bring architects and the public together and develop ideas about what that future of Atlanta is going to be," he says. "And put those plans in action by coordinating with other groups."
In 2005, the American Institute of Architects, the industry's national professional organization, started urging local chapters and offering seed money to create centers where the design community could build relationships with the public and other organizations that care about how their cities look, feel, and work. Other cities that have recently done so include Philadelphia, Miami, Raleigh, Seattle, and Portland.
Five years ago, AIA's Atlanta chapter decided it needed to follow suit. Local architects started researching other centers around the country in hopes of sparking one here. AIA Atlanta supplied more than $100,000 in seed money, which will help establish and support the ADC until it can sustain itself as an independent entity. Or, as Bencich says, get its "sea legs." The ADC hopes to obtain its nonprofit status before the end of December.
Unlike some other centers, the ADC plans to forego a physical location at first and instead focus on building the organization. The first year, Koskovich says, the center plans to "develop and execute" three to four programs that would appeal to a broad group and generate revenue to help the nonprofit continue its mission.
Examples could include anything from film series, lectures, and tours of overlooked and forgotten buildings to workshops to assist neighborhoods, public officials, and developers.
The organizers also want to forge ties with other like-minded groups, preservationists, transit, pedestrian, and cycling advocates, and professional organizations with the goal of the center acting as a hub where Atlantans who are pushing for a better-built environment can come together, learn about quality architecture and design, and perhaps even brainstorm about the city's future.
By doing so, Koskovich says, the center would "not just celebrate architecture and design, but also do meaningful work to bring about a better developed Atlanta by being a moderate and neutral party to help people understand what the issues are."
In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the group could help educate developers, elected officials, and the leaders of public institutions about the importance of architecture. The ADC could inform them how the environment we create — and which they largely influence with their votes and funding decisions — is more than just groundbreakings, ribbon-cuttings, and revenues generated from property taxes.
For example, rather than viewing the historic but dilapidated buildings as eyesores, the center could join other preservationist groups and urge those structures be viewed as assets that could be reused, adapted, and provide a solid — and cool — foundation for architecture.
Look around the city and you'll see it has a ways to go. While Atlanta certainly boasts some gems, such as the Flatiron Building on Peachtree Street, Marcel Breuer's downtown library, the crumbling Atlanta Constitution office, and dozens of overlooked classic storefronts and facades that have escaped the wrecking ball, they're the exception rather than the rule.
And as development picks back up and developers look to build intown and up into the sky — and quickly — we run the risk of being burdened with ho-hum buildings that don't bring us any civic pride or feel like they're of Atlanta.
Mayor Kasim Reed has talked a lot recently about the city's aesthetics. He wants Atlanta to look like a world-class city. So do a lot of other people who are young and yearning for an urban experience and an older generation who have stood by Atlanta through the grim years of white flight and the boom of the suburbs. To do that, we don't just have to know what we want, but also how to get there.
The ADC could foster those conversations.
How will Koskovich know if the center's accomplished its mission? "For me it will be when I tell someone I'm from Atlanta and their first reaction isn't to mention the great weather or the airport, or how fast people drive, but to tell me a story about how much they just love being in Atlanta, how they love the way we've built our city, how they love our neighborhood and how we live our lives. I want New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to look to Atlanta for the best ideas on building cities. I want them to be jealous of Atlanta and to dream of moving here."