Thursday, November 27, 2008

Taking on "starchitects"

A friend at CAP sent me a great article in the WSJ that I hope someone shows Robb Pitts. The gist of the article is that attempts to use "iconic" buildings for economic development rarely work. The article focuses on the "Bilbao effect", named after Gehry's Guggenheim Museum there. I personally don't care for Gehry's style (although I can appreciate it), and I agree with the article that a focus on "iconic" architecture often means that the rest of the project gets overlooked.
But for every Bird's Nest, there are scores of costly iconic failures, buildings that fail to spark the public's imagination. Of course, failed icons don't go away, which is a problem. Since the Bilbao effect teaches -- I believe mistakenly -- that unconventional architecture is a prerequisite for iconic status, clients have encouraged their architects to go to greater and greater lengths to design buildings that are unusual, surprising, even shocking. But the shock will inevitably wear off, and 100 years from now, all those iconic wannabes will resemble a cross between a theme park and the Las Vegas strip.
The existing Central Library can be seen in this light. We hired a "starchitect", and in about 30 years the style has gotten dated and is so "ugly" that Robb Pitts thinks we need to repeat the experiment. I feel the same way about casinos and halls of fame. They haven't worked for Cleveland or Detroit. I think a casino downtown could be good for the city, but there are so many details that could get screwed up that I can't get on board without knowing specifics. We don't need another bomb shelter like AmericasMart, for all the commerce it brings.

Another reason why we don't need to focus Downtown development on just big deal projects like a new central library or a health museum: residents are the real goal. In my mind, the single best thing that could happen to Downtown and to Five Points in particular would be for GSU to build the dorms at Underground that they have in their long-term plans.


  1. Agree. I think most modern "iconic" buildings will be ugly for 100 years.

    But you don't need a "starchitect" to get ugly. I prefer the Central Library to the facade of 191 Peachtree. That one facade killed a whole block. Even the beautiful Davison's/Macys Building can't overcome 191 Peachtree.

  2. Terry - have you seen the new awnings at 191 Peachtree that were installed last month? They look amazing and are a big improvement to how the building looks and feels from the street/sidewalk.

  3. Terry, I agree that the facade of 191 leaves a lot to be desired, but for some reason it never gets me worked up the way that other buildings do. The SunTrust tower at the north end of downtown is one that annoys me much much more - it is like a caricature of monumental architecture, it leaves fairly useless plaza space open on the street, and there is a huge food court inside that does nothing for the street life downtown. The ridiculous angel statues or whatever that are dancing out front make me laugh whenever I drive by.

  4. I cruised the 191 block last week. I'll check again Wednesday. My eye goes the Macy's and the zen view of Atlantic Center. It is a lifeless block. I do like the 191 lobby though. Outside, you can't even get a sense of the skyscraper part. I love how at Georgia Pacific you can touch the corner and look straight up to the top.

    Agree on Sun Trust. It's an uninviting explanation point at the north end of downtown. Again, I like the "lobby." The lobby is totally unexpected from what you see on the outside.


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