When my daughters were younger and I would transport them from place to place, I purposely chose routes around Atlanta shielding them from unattractive buildings. I did not want my daughters to decide early on that the world was not a beautiful place and that it was fine that is was not. The 1980’s were an awkward period for buildings in our city. Squat, cartoon towers clothed in rose granite, or worse, rose-tinted precast exposed aggregate concrete panels started appearing along Peachtree Street.
Since the exterior image was a given with its square punched windows, oversized painted round aluminum columns and various shades of green glass, the buildings claimed their individuality by positioning themselves at apparently random angles to the street wearing an alarming array of party hats, from the ziggurat to the pediment to the pointed or pitched. The street was abandoned. Each building a world to itself, existed in the city, but was never a part of it.
Recently, I was with my oldest daughter in her new home, New York City. She met me at my Midtown hotel and we began a leisurely stroll down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square. There was no need to edit the stroll. Passing along vibrant, store-lined sidewalks we were aware of the quiet quality of the mature urban experience. We passed by the monumental buildings, St Patrick’s Cathedral, the RCA Building, the NY Public Library, the Flatiron Building, but it was the quiet quality of the in-between, background buildings that enhanced the experience. Quality material selection and detailing, attention to scale and proportion and a reserved individuality marked the design of the buildings. Each building working with its neighboring building to form an urban fabric and edge that carefully modulates the city from towers to brownstones. While these buildings are recessive to the City, many of them are of such high quality that if placed in newer cities they might be monumental buildings.
With the renewed interest in redeveloping our midtowns and downtowns, it is important that we learn the lessons of successful cities. Quality design with quality materials supportive of sustainable strategies in rational urban designs that encourage pedestrian interaction and create an identifiable sense of place should be the norm, not the special project.
My daughters do not think the world is an ugly place. I am glad I took the long way.