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Architectural challenge

Can the symphony make beautiful music with Calatrava?

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Atlanta will no doubt occupy a curious distinction in the professional history of Santiago Calatrava. Ironically, in 1999 the famed bridge builder was snubbed by the city in favor of the more lackluster Georgia DOT for a project to span the highway and connect the Atlantic Station development to Midtown. But now he has been selected to design the Atlanta Symphony Hall, a project unlike any other in his portfolio.

This will arguably be the most challenging of all his architectural projects, both in terms of its site and purpose. To date, Calatrava has been more successful at designing expressive and enigmatic structures than creating rich and dynamic public spaces. Most of his buildings are located in relatively vacant urban peripheries, allowing his innovative and often animated forms to serve as catalysts for future developments. But in Atlanta's Midtown, Calatrava must compete (and comply) with an existing urban fabric, one sorely in need of a pedestrian revitalization-- not just a World's Fair folly.

Opportunities for enhancing pedestrian zones in and around the new cultural center already seem threatened by master planner Cesar Pelli. His preliminary vision for the site calls for construction within the block of a new street and cul-de-sac to access the hall. The last thing Midtown needs is more asphalt, even less another dead-end, drop-off zone catering to the city's car culture. But more dismaying than the proposed tree-lined allee is Pelli's comparison of the view leading to the new symphony hall as being like the approach to a "great plantation."

Unfortunately, the myths generated by Hollywood's production of Gone With the Wind are alive and well. Peachtree was never an avenue of plantations, and the notion of invoking that type of space is clearly insensitive to the city's needs and the community at large. Furthermore, to create such a metaphor under the steering of the ASO's predominantly white board of directors is easy fodder for criticism.

Calatrava's approach to architecture, however, is largely anti-regional and does not subscribe to particular building traditions (although stylistic ties have been loosely made to his fellow countryman, Antoni Gaud'). But like the progressive buildings of American architect Eero Saarinen (TWA terminal, Dulles Airport), Calatrava's designs embody a modern zeitgeist -- part space age, part biomorphic. For good reason, both architects' boldest creations have been facilities for transportation; those crossroads of travel that service the advances of our modern era. Calatrava's concepts for airports, train stations and radio towers are fantastic intersections of technology and design, which celebrate the relationship between architecture and the machine.

To be sure, Atlanta Symphony's Midtown site requires a very particular and precise kind of architectural machine -- one that integrates circulation for people and cars, while generating a new topography of outdoor public spaces. To perform this function, consider a precedent more useful than Pelli's "romantic" plantation: Charles Garnier's Paris Opera (1862-75).

Built during Baron Haussmann's restructuring of the city, the opera house commanded a central position among the newly carved avenues and incorporated visual connections to Paris' existing monuments. Both inside and outside, Garnier's design did more than serve the function of the opera -- it reinforced and choreographed the experience of the audience. There, the guiding concept was the ritual of opera attendance: the arrival, socializing before the show or during intermissions, and then the ceremonious departure. Separate entrances were provided both for those arriving by foot or those in carriage, and yet all groups came together at the wide, grand staircase that accessed the various levels of the concert hall. Within a large domed court, the staircase generated a complex experience of "showing off" and observing.

Ideally, Atlanta's symphony hall will turn Garnier's design "inside-out," opening up the experience of the building to the public and city. The gradual slope of the ASO's site provides ample opportunities to create dynamic urban spaces organized around ramps for traffic, connections to the MARTA station and Woodruff Arts Center, and extensions to the sidewalk. Outdoor staircases are great devices for public space, as they provide both access and a place to sit. And they allow us to get up off the street, giving us a new view of our surroundings.

But in answer to Calatrava's ability to make beautiful music, he doesn't need to. Although he has constructed performance venues before, Calatrava will follow the lead of the ASO's acoustic consultants Larry Kierkegaard and Auerbach & Associates, who are demagogues in the world of designing and fixing concert halls. With master-planner Pelli, Kierkegaard has already collaborated on a half-dozen other projects around the globe, so this routine is old hack for them. Such success is promising, but it can also yield stale results -- which is why one hopes Calatrava will flex his muscles to challenge the relationships between buildings both on-site and off.

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