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Architect John Bencich: Atlanta Needs a 'Balanced Approach'

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Welcome to the second installment of the weekly series Field Note Fridays, where we cover a range of design-related issues facing our city with some of the foremost architects (and other key players) of modern-day Atlanta. Last week, Atlanta architectural patriarch Tom Ventulett, FAIA shared his thoughts on Atlanta's hideous freeway infrastructure and more. Today's Q&A picks the brain of John Bencich, AIA, founding principal of Square Feet Studio, based near Krog Street Market. The firm emphasizes respectful repurposing of spaces with a penchant for slick design. Their portfolio includes multiple restaurants at Ponce City Market, the White Provision residences on the Westside and General Muir in Druid Hills. Bencich received his bachelors and masters degrees in architecture from Georgia Tech and has been practicing in the city for more than 20 years. In addition to architectural practice, Bencich heads the Dining + Design series, a regular public event dedicated to exploring and celebrating the impact of design on Atlanta's booming restaurant scene.

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Curbed Atlanta: Atlanta has seen the adaptive reuse of many ex-industrial spaces becoming mixed-use neighborhood hubs (Ponce City Market, Westside Provisions District, Krog Street Market, etc.). Square Feet Studio has worked on many of the fit-outs, and you even have your offices at Inman Alley. What factors are making ex-industrial conversions so successful and will we continue to see this embrace of old infrastructure, or is it merely a fad?

John Bencich, AIA: The adaptive reuse of our industrial spaces has been going since before I arrived in Atlanta (in 1985), and we've seen multiple generations of developers and landowners believing in that as a way to develop our city. It is clearly not a fad, but a way of growth that's here to stay, and I think there are several reasons why.

First, many old structures have physical qualities that can never be recreated. That's a great starting point for making special architecture that is otherwise impossible. Just look at Ponce City Market. That building would not be buildable today, period. It would be exorbitantly expensive. Due to (developer) Jamestown's commitment, Atlanta now has a place that can never be recreated anywhere ever again. How cool is that? To me, adaptive reuse is the backbone for how our neighborhoods need to grow. It's what keeps the genus loci of the place intact. Without it, big new developments may unintentionally destroy what brought them there in the first place. Dropping down 300 apartments in a 60-foot-tall block on a site that previously had a collection of single-story structures is jarring to the eye and to the neighborhood, no matter how well it might be designed. We need a balanced approach.

CA: Building off of that, do you feel these adaptive reuse projects are catalysts for further development in intown neighborhoods which were formerly neglected, or are these transformations more a natural response to the reversal of suburban flight which the city is currently experiencing?

JB: It's is clear that adaptive reuse projects are catalysts. When we invest in buildings which are already embedded in the fabric of the neighborhood, we are encouraging the organic and natural growth that really makes communities thrive. We might now associate the Westside with White Provision, but twenty-five years ago, it was the smaller steps taken at King Plow and the Brickworks that started the trend in that neighborhood. On the topic of migration back to the city, I would only say that I believe people strive for emotional attachments to other times, people and places in their lives. In our cities, you have so many more opportunities to make those attachments due to the layers of history.

It's like living in an old house versus a new one. When (my wife) Vivian and I renovated our first home, we uncovered a layer of red wallpaper in the kitchen that was embellished with applied decorations representing farm images — animals, fences, trees, silos and such. It was totally creepy, but at the same time made us love the home even more because it reminded us that we weren't alone in wanting that wonderful house for our family. So while you can start a new story like at Avalon, you can't recreate the millions of stories that already exist in a city that's been around for a while. I think that reaches something inside all of us.

CA: As Atlanta continues to fill in spaces and adaptively use existing buildings, the neighborhood contexts change with each new project. Buildings don't exist in isolation but add — or detract — from their environments. What is the responsibility of architects as it relates to creation of the more complete neighborhoods, and how are Atlanta architects doing that?

JB: First, I would say that I think we should be careful not to overstate the power of our individual buildings to make significant differences. We derive more joy from the environment that our buildings frame and define, so that is where we get a bigger payoff for our design efforts, but it is too often neglected. For instance, La Rambla in Barcelona is a spectacular place to enjoy, but I can't call your attention to a singularly wonderful building anywhere along its length. And look at the Beltline. Overnight, it took the rear end of countless buildings and made them fronts. They were never designed that way. Sounds like a bad idea, right? No, not at all. It's actually been great and now we're turning those buildings around to face this great space we created. It's not complicated. Don't get me wrong, we all love a well-designed building, we just might need to work a bit on what defines "well designed." Architects are debating design pedigree and conceptual rigor while the rest of the world worries about whether they'll have good views from their room and what amenities they have nearby.

Atlanta's neighborhoods have plenty of fine buildings and quality spaces. If we can fix all the stuff between these great moments, we will be on our way to being a great city. Take a look at where we have our parades and where Streets Alive operates. That starts to gives a pretty good sense of where we are connecting the moments well.

I do think it's important to give our profession credit for taking responsibility for our role in making the world. In Atlanta, I am proud of what firms like ours, Summerour and Kronberg Wall have done by purchasing and renovating buildings in Inman Park, Loring Heights and Reynoldstown respectively for our own offices. Putting down that anchor, I am fully vested in the future of Inman Park, Old Fourth Ward and the Beltline. I love the big moves as much as anyone, but sometimes it's the cumulative effect of many small moves that truly makes the difference in our communities.

CA: As much as architects are helping reshape neighborhoods across Atlanta, many of the changes are based in infrastructural manipulations and other initiatives by urban planners. However, many feel changes are piecemeal at best and often ill-conceived or mired in red tape. What do you see as the role of the city in guiding and assisting in the rejuvenation of Atlanta?

JB: I think it's been really wonderful to hear more about "complete streets" and ideas for infrastructural improvements come to the forefront. It's pretty much a total inversion to what I've witnessed since I came to Atlanta, but I think Atlantans are ready for a more holistic approach to planning our city.

It's impossible to overstate the impact the Beltine has on our collective sense of place. Piedmont Park, Ponce City Market and Krog Street Market are all great places in their own rights, but they are so much better when connected via the Beltline. We're seeing intentional governmental (or quasi-governmental) planning at work right in front of our eyes and it's wonderful. Imagine a similar vision being cast and implemented between the Mercedes Benz Stadium and White Provision along Northside Drive and Howell Mill Road or along Memorial from East Lake Golf Course all the way to downtown. That's a vision that generations of Atlantans could enjoy. I question if the singular impact of a new stadium can ever match that kind of legacy.

To its credit, Atlanta has a bin full of plans and initiatives and quality-of-life ordinances. They are all well-intentioned to result in a better city. Unfortunately, they often wind up unintentionally looming over the dreams of (particularly the small) developers waiting to crash down with the necessity for Special Exceptions and Special Administrative Permits, Variances and Design Reviews while also simultaneously requiring a tricky navigation of neighborhood politics. I often find myself delivering this news to potential clients, and it's gut wrenching. "Mr. Smith, I think you have a tremendous concept. You are well-respected in the community, your funding is secure and this building will really come to life with your project. Do you have a few moments to talk about the process we will need to go through to get you permitted?" By the second acronym, they are starting to see the dollar signs and time adding up and their shoulders literally drop. For developers, I think it becomes more of a game that they can afford to play even if they don't necessarily love it. It seems like there must be a better way to capture the optimism and collaborative spirit of these plans in the mechanisms we have for implementing them.

CA: You were formerly the president of the Atlanta chapter of the AIA. What is the role of the organization and how can it better engage the public to drive discussion on architecture?

JB: The built environment is such a huge part of our lives and the AIA is our most recognizable steward and advocate, but they can't do it alone. Some of the best work our chapter does involves supporting and collaborating with groups that have sympathetic missions to reach the public such as the Architecture and Design Center, Georgia Conservancy — Blueprints for Successful Communities, Congress for New Urbanism, and Urban Land Institute. That simply needs to continue.

CA: What is your favorite architectural space in Atlanta?

JB: If you make me pick one, I would probably say the north stand of Bobby Dodd Stadium. Midtown and downtown catch and reflect the sunset back to you and form this stunning backdrop to the football spectacle in front of you. I also love the (Renzo) Piano Plaza at the High Museum. Particularly the way you can enter into it from so many different directions — your experience changes depending on which way you choose. You know it's there, but it feels like a little reward once your path opens up to it. Also, the lobby of the Hyatt. I just like the fearlessness of the geometry and the elements that define the space.

· Field Note Fridays Archive [Curbed Atlanta]

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