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Tom Ventulett, Architect of ATL Icons: 'We Must Do Better'

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It's no secret that architects play a significant role in shaping our daily lives — the buildings we work in, the streets we drive on and the way in which we inhabit our homes. In a new series that launches today, Field Note Fridays, we'll delve into the world of Atlanta architects, speaking with those whose practices span the decades as well as those fairly new to the scene, to get a better sense of what shapes the profession, how they perceive Atlanta and what they think the city's future holds. For the inaugural segment, we spoke with Tom Ventulett, FAIA, a member of the old guard of Atlanta architects who's been instrumental in shaping the city since graduating from Georgia Tech in 1958 (with a brief stint at University of Pennsylvania in the early 1960s for a masters degree). With fellow architects Bill Thompson and Ray Stainback, Ventulett founded the firm now known as tvsdesign in 1968. For almost 50 years, they've been helping to shape Atlanta, designing buildings including the Georgia Aquarium, the Georgia World Congress Center, the Omni, the Georgia Dome and the College Football Hall of Fame — not to mention their contributions to cities throughout the world. Now Chairman Emeritus of tvsdesign, Ventulett offered his thoughts on the rise of the firm, the role of architects and how preservation plays a role as Atlanta continues to grow.

Curbed Atlanta: Your firm, tvsdesign, has had a major impact on the appearance of Atlanta over the last half century. How do you feel tvsdesign has helped shape the city and what do you feel are the firm's crowning achievements?

Tom Ventulett, FAIA: In 2002 the National AIA presented Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates Inc. (now tvsdesign) with the Architectural Firm Award. In addition to the firm's convention centers in Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington, the AIA recognized perhaps the firm's most significant achievement in Atlanta – the transformation of the railroad gulch downtown. Tom Cousins had an amazing vision developing the air rights over the old original Atlanta railroad tracks. It began with the Omni Coliseum that attracted over two million people a year downtown. The Omni was complemented with Omni International, now CNN Center. Cousins then donated the property for the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC). Add three expansion phases to the GWCC, the Georgia Dome and the Georgia International Plaza — all of which served as Olympic venues in 1996 and influenced Billy Payne's vision for Centennial Olympic Park. That vision has stimulated the building of the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the College Football Hall of Fame. (Each one of these attractions is a new draw to downtown Atlanta), providing facilities to host millions of people to our city each year.

CA: From a population of just over one million in 1960, the metro area has grown dramatically in your years of practice. How do you feel Atlanta has changed architecturally in that time?

TV: When I came back to Atlanta in 1961 I was encouraged to note that Atlanta had no real physical barriers to growth. It could grow as necessary in all directions, maintaining a strong central core. I was mistaken. I did not see the allure of Peachtree Street and its ridge that has created a linear city. We have built our own barriers with a wide, river-like interstate highway system that pierces our city with an architecture that presents a lack of caring about how our infrastructure looks. The bridges, retaining walls and particularly the sound barrier walls combine to create an ugliness witnessed by thousands every day. We must do better.

CA: How do you think we can improve the aesthetic of our infrastructure?

TV: Retaining walls could be constructed with precast concrete, as they are now, but with cells that hold earth and plants within the wall. This would soften and greatly enhance the appearance as well as absorb sound. Our sound barrier walls are ugly in form and an obnoxious color which makes them stand out instead of being dark and receding in value against the landscape. The metal construction just reflects the sound back and forth across the highway. Imagine living behind one. Architects would never skin a building with sheet metal to keep noise out! When I was in France and Switzerland last year I noted how they care about the appearance and noise absorption of their highway walls. Many are glass to see through and laid back to reflect sound up. Others are fully landscaped to visually disappear and absorb noise. Atlanta is too great a city to allow this kind of visual pollution to exist and continue.

CA: Clearly, architects can have an influence on more than just buildings and are responsible for the molding of outdoor spaces which shape perceptions of the city as a whole. How far beyond the realm of the building itself do you feel the responsibility of the architect lies? Do you think that Atlanta architects are doing enough to positively influence the urban design of Atlanta?

TV: Good question. We should always look beyond the site for things that not only influence our designs but how to enhance the value of adjacent property. Look at Georgia Tech's Technology Square: the architect struggles to influence urban design beyond the site. (Ultimately, it's up to) the client; the owners that are the visionaries (allow for their projects to contribute to the urban realm). The architect responds to those visions to make them all they can be.

CA: Technology Square is just one of many instances where large swaths of the core of the city are being remade. With a lot of dense development honing in on Midtown and downtown, how do you see Atlanta's urban core changing in the next 20 years?

TV: It's not just downtown and Midtown ... it is that distinctive linear spine of Peachtree Street that I see continuing to be the focus of development. Peachtree Street can and should be the great Atlanta architectural space. I say architectural because it is architecture that frames the space. The Peachtree ridge has strong anchors with Buckhead on the north and Midtown and downtown on the south. The infill between is natural but the architecture and landscape of the street has to be the best it can be and the signature of Atlanta.

CA: Shifting gears a little, how do you feel the profession has adapted in response to the changed demands placed on it?

TV: The computer has given architects a new freedom — the ability to imagine structures we could not conceive of when I started practice. It has allowed us to freely search for solutions of space, form, structure and materials that brings a whole new dimension to architecture. Personally, I still treasure the hand drawn expression of the design idea. It speaks from the soul, not a machine.

CA: Computers and hand drawing aside, what do you feel is the role of architects as Atlanta continues to grow and densify?

TV: Architects, and particularly the AIA (American Institute of Architects), can be a significant voice of design aspirations and excellence. A conscience for quality development. Praise good work. Make it visible to the public through the media. Increase exposure for project design awards.

CA: Atlanta has a complex and varied architectural landscape. With so much to choose from, representing a wide array of styles and vintages, what are some of your favorite architectural space in the city?

TV: Atlanta is blessed with many significant architectural spaces. (John) Portman's Hyatt Regency and Marriott Marquis are truly great. CNN Center, the Georgia Dome and the Georgia International Plaza of course come to mind. I also like the Fox Theater, St. Phillips Cathedral and (Philip Trammell) Shutze's gathering space at Patterson's Funeral Home.

CA: To close, let's come full-circle in the life cycle of a building. You've mentioned the Omni Coliseum — torn down in 1997 to make way for Philips Arena — and the Georgia Dome — slated for demolition following the completion of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Neither building lasted more than 25 years. And recently it has come to light that Patterson's Funeral Home may also be threatened. Hardly the only examples of Atlanta's penchant for reshaping the city with a wrecking ball; there isn't necessarily a lot of value in our architecture of the past. Do you see this as a detriment?

TV: The survival of our best architecture is certainly important, (but) the threat of a building's demise comes from many reasons. Principally because there is no feasible extended use beyond the building's original purpose or because structural deterioration is both dangerous and beyond repair. Back in the 1960's the old Pantheon-like Federal Reserve Building downtown was a beautiful building to be saved, but the concrete structure had nearly degenerated to sand and threatened collapse. In the case of the Omni, TVS tried to reconfigure the seating in order to create more private suites, but could not make it work. The value of the land at the Patterson Funeral Home, as is often the case, has exceeded the financial value for the building with no feasible extended use (to be) found. Saving Shutze's gathering room might make a wonderful restaurant within a larger development but hard to achieve. It is all too often easier and less expensive to take a building down and remove physical constraints than let it control a total development. On the other hand, in downtown Philadelphia we were able to find a great new use for the 100-year-old Reading Train Shed (note: see above). It became the grand entrance and ballroom for the Pennsylvania Convention Center. If it were not for this new use, the historic shed and Reading Market below would be history.

· AIA President: ATL Could be 'Amazing, Horrifying, or Both' [Curbed Atlanta]

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