In the summer of 1995, as the world prepared to turn its attention our way for the '96 Olympic Games, a exhibition of images by Jordi Bernadó and Ramón Prat at the Institut d'Estudis Nord Americans in Barcelona provided a thoughtful sneak peak. The photographs — mostly bleak black-and-whites of an empty city lying in wait — were accompanied by a number of essays contemplating Atlanta, including one from prolific architect and architectural theorist Rem Koolhaas.
Koolhaas's career is truly an international one — his Rotterdam-based firm, OMA, known for its research-driven design and recently the cantilevered CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, is responsible for dozens of master plans and infrastructural projects worldwide — yet his analysis of an Atlanta ripe with Olympic anticipation is still remarkably relevant.
Koolhaas, ever the urbanist, begins, "Sometimes it is important to find out what the city is, instead of what it was, or what it should be. That is what drove me to Atlanta — an intuition that the real city at the end of the 20th century could be found there ?"
He then lists, thoroughly, what exactly he found here: "Atlanta has culture, or at least it has a Richard Meier museum? Atlanta has an airport, actually it has 40 airports. One of them is the biggest airport in the world. Not that everybody wants to be there; it's a hub, a spoke, and airport for connections, it could be anywhere? Atlanta has history, or rather it had history. Now it has history machines that replay the battles of the Civil War every hour on the hour. Its real history has been erased, removed, or artificially resuscitated? Atlanta does not have the classical symptoms of a City; it is not dense; it is a sparse, thin carpet of habitation, a kind of supremacist composition of little fields. Its strongest contextual givens are vegetal and infrastructural; forest and roads. Atlanta is not a City; it is a landscape."
Koolhaas, who celebrated the potential of dirty 1970s New York in his Delirious New York, is critical of our city, but — refreshingly — is neither dismissive nor condescending: "A new aesthetic operates in Atlanta: the random juxtaposition of entities that have nothing in common except their coexistence? Atlanta is a creative experiment, but it is not intellectual or critical: it has taken place without argument. It represents current conditions — without any imposition of program, manifesto, ideology."
He was struck by the speed with which the city's design firms completed even large scale projects — new "nodes" set up without a nod to context within the disorder of the city fabric: "In Atlanta, architects have aligned themselves with the uncontrollable? [and] have become its official agents, instruments of the unpredictable: from imposing to yielding in one generation."
"Atlanta's is a convulsive architecture that will eventually acquire beauty," he claims; instead of a navigable street grid, a sensible zoning code or a dominant housing type, it is our green space — both public and private — that weave together our disparate neighborhoods and commercial monuments into something approaching a cohesive whole. "A thick tapestry of idyll accommodates each architectural appearance and forms its only context: the vegetal is replacing the urban: a panorama of seamless artificiality, so organized, lush, welcoming, that it sometimes seems like another interior ?"
Koolhaas has built a career around architecture that is about ideas, and his favorite ideas are about cities. He came to Atlanta looking not to scold us for failing to emulate the culturally established image of a thriving city, but to learn from it as an example of un-regimented, un-reasoned American urban development: "Modernity is a radical principle. It is destructive. It has destroyed the city as we know it. We now inhabit 'what used to be the city.' In a bizarre way, [Atlanta] comes close to fulfilling that kind of modernity, a post-cataclysmic new beginning that celebrates revolutionary forms in liberated relationships, justified, finally, by no other reason than their appeal to our senses."
— By Curbed Atlanta contributor Sarah Beth McKay
· Recommended viewing: More stunning Atlanta imagery [Jordi Bernadó. Ramón Prat.]