[Atlanta from downtown to Midtown from Stone Mountain. Photo: Greg Foster]
Gregory Walker (applicable acronyms: LEED AP, AIA, NCARB) isn’t just any old Atlanta architect with an abundance of letters after his name. He’s a Founding Partner at Houser Walker Architecture and also the current President of AIA Georgia. Educated at Auburn and Harvard universities, Walker has been an architect since 1993 and an Atlanta resident since 1998. With Atlanta in gangbusters growth mode, we asked Walker a few questions about: the city’s architecture as it stands today; where he sees trends headed in the future; and if we should be worried that Atlanta will one day be a bland mass of concrete and glass. He was kind enough to provide his thoughts, after the jump.
Curbed Atlanta: Often, Atlantans get bogged down in what is perceived as the banality of architecture in our city. How, as an architect, would you describe Atlanta’s architecture?
Gregory Walker: Atlanta is an interesting paradox — although it has a small historic core and more historic city plan, it’s largely a relatively “new” city in terms of its buildings. And, like most “new” cities, the overall quality of the architecture is fairly banal. Banal can be good sometimes, but with Atlanta… not so much.
CA: Despite the banal, there are some pretty phenomenal buildings. What are your favorite buildings in the city?
GW: Among my favorites (that are still standing): the High’s top floor gallery, the Westin’s place in the skyline, and Ansley Park as a whole.
CA: John Portman (helped, of course, by his development company) reshaped a large portion of downtown over the course of more than three decades and is arguably the most prolific and influential architect to have put his mark on the city. Are there any local architects today who could match the driving force Portman was for Atlanta, or is Atlanta now simply too big to be a one-architect town?
GW: No, I don’t see any one firm following on in the footsteps of Portman. And that’s great. Thankfully, Atlanta is much too large for any one architect or developer to exert too much influence over the whole of its design and development. Genuine diversity of expression is essential to all great cities. The more an urban environment is tied to a single idea or influence, the worse the experience.
CA: As Atlanta emerges from the recession, we’re beginning to see big developers erect repetitive glass and concrete towers across the city. Of course not every building constructed in a city will be an architectural masterpiece, but do you see the current growth patterns as a threat to Atlanta’s architectural landscape, or merely a byproduct of a healthy city?
GW: The development pattern we’ve seen with these large residential towers is less a “threat” to Atlanta’s overall urban experience as it will define a pattern of living for the next 50 years. The real question we should be asking of these developments: “Is that it?” These sorts of towers are popping up all over the Southeast — Tampa, Charlotte, Jacksonville — we should be asking if there’s a more sustainable pattern. At the very least, we should be expecting far better architecture.
CA: Speaking of a healthy city … obviously the Beltline is a major driving force in the Atlanta development world. As architecture is far more than a practice in just designing a building — the building’s relation to its environment is arguably more impactful than the building itself — do you see the new architecture in Atlanta better engaging with the city as a whole than in the past?
GW: There are certainly recent developments which are creating far better connections to their context — Inman Quarter is one that comes to mind. And, certainly, the Beltline will help focus development around a pattern of living that’s far more sustainable over the next 50 years. But that doesn’t guarantee great architecture will be built in each location. To a degree, you can create parameters where it’s really hard to do “bad” environments, which was largely the original motivation of the New Urbanism movement. Great individual buildings will always require a talented, skilled architect, a client with a clear vision, and the right opportunity to put both together.
CA: We haven’t seen the explosive growth upward of the Atlanta skyline since the optimistic times of the early 1990s. Since the completion of the Bank of America Plaza in 1992 — which incidentally does the exact opposite of what I mentioned in the previous question regarding relating to the street — buildings really haven’t been going for the distinction of tallest. Do you foresee a sky-race in the future?
GW: Atlanta has so much available land and so few truly “marquee” locations, there’s little incentive to build higher than the last person just for bragging rights. This isn’t New York, which has seen so many needle-like luxury condo projects spiraling up ever higher in the past five years; it’s finally prompting even the best architects to question their logic within that environment.
CA: It’s impossible to predict the future, and architecture is wholly contingent upon many other facets outside of an architect’s control (new technologies, the economy, etc.), so feel free to indulge flights of fancy in answering these final questions: What trends typify our direction as we move forward architecturally in Atlanta? How will the city differ in the next five, 20 or even 50 years from the Atlanta we know today?
GW: Architecturally, adaptive reuse of our existing stock of buildings and building sites — especially strip shopping centers, malls, and other post-war neighborhoods and structures — will be the canvas on which many of us are asked to paint. Creating environments that will age well is always a primary concern. But perhaps the single largest question we’ll be asked to answer is how will we choose to upgrade our transportation and utility infrastructure — how we creatively imagine solutions to those concerns will help determine how “livable” Atlanta is. We could have the most beautiful buildings created in all the world and leave them hanging on the rotting carcass of a failed infrastructure. It could be amazing, horrifying, or both simultaneously.