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Houses Have Hats: The Cerebral Side of ATL Architecture

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This week for Field Note Fridays we caught up with Jennifer Bonner, Associate AIA. Since beginning her architectural education at Auburn University 18 years ago, Bonner has worn many hats in the field, from researcher to designer to professor. Director of her own architecture firm, MALL — which stands for Mass Architectural Loopty Loops... or Miniature Angles & Little Lines... or Maximum Arches with Limited Liability — Bonner operates on the academic side of the profession, approaching design through calculated research (and a bit of quirk). Bonner lived in Atlanta, lecturing at Georgia Tech, for three years before defecting to Boston this fall to teach at Harvard's prestigious Graduate School of Design (GSD). Despite the relocation, Bonner is working on projects in Atlanta and has an affinity for the Big Peach. (You can take the girl out of Atlanta; you can't take Atlanta out of the girl). Check out her take on Atlanta's historic legacy, designing on the Beltline and the more academic side of architecture in this week's Field Note Fridays.

CURBED ATLANTA: In addition to being a practitioner, you also are engaged in academia. What can you say about the intersection of the two? How do teaching and research inform your practice?

JENNIFER BONNER: I am devoted to a model of applied design research where pedagogy developed inside academia often infects the way I practice. Similarly, work in practice influences the way I teach. For example, the methodologies used in an Atlanta-based installation, Domestic Hats (2014), follows an initiative where I was asked to reimagine an undergraduate curriculum at Georgia Tech College of Architecture during the 2013-2014 academic year. Titled, It's All about the Roof, I led 30 sophomore students through a series of rigorous design exercises around individual elements in architecture. These pedagogical experiments influenced my Domestic Hats project which began as a catalogue of ordinary roof typologies found in the neighborhoods of Atlanta. The result of this work was a large 10,000-square-foot exhibition at the Goat Farm filled with 16 models on display that hoped to demonstrate an enthusiasm for the possibility of new domestic roof forms for the city.

CURBED: In practice you engage in a lot of exhibition and installation works – often outside of what many would consider the realm of architecture traditionally. As an architectural designer, how do you approach projects such as Domestic Hats and how do these translate to practice?

JB: Ideas for projects might be worked on inside academia, then run through an experimental exercise which tends to result in a public exhibition. Finally, I push for all of these ideas to culminate in a "real" project. It's important to me that the research and experimental work becomes built manifestations in the city. I'm currently working on construction documents for a "roof" house.

CURBED: During your tenure at Georgia Tech, your classes produced publications about Atlanta's built environment. Can you tell us a little about those?

JB: In 2012, I was hired by Georgia Tech College of Architecture as the tvsdesign Distinguished Studio Critic. It was an exciting time to be able to return to the South for the first time since my undergraduate studies. I felt very much at home and was extremely dedicated to stirring up a discourse about "Dirty South architecture." East Coast-West Coast architecture dominates the discussion in academia and the profession. I saw an opportunity to use ideas invented by Atlanta hip hop artists in the mid-90s to brand a generation of young architects and students entering the field of architecture. And by doing so, we did a close reading of the histories that came before us in the format of a guidebook. Part tour guide, part architectural manual of Atlanta's b-side, A Guide to the Dirty South: Atlanta will be released in May 2016 from a London-based publisher, Artifice.

CURBED: In Guide to the Dirty South: Atlanta, what were some of the more interesting things that you and your students discovered about Atlanta?

JB: The students uncovered a set of strange spatial patterns that are unique to the city of Atlanta. For instance, in a tour titled, "Façade Trafficking," Patrick Deveau discovered multiple buildings in the city where the façade was disassembled, moved to another location and reused. Annie McCarthy catalogues all businesses along Buford Highway and proposes the BuHi Gift Shop to be filled with trinkets representing each culture in the city. Another tour, by Jennifer Lewis titled "Escapes" points tourists to the tops of skyscrapers which tend to be flat or pyramidal in shape. She proposes cutting off the top floors and re-appropriating these levels to public activities. Lastly, Mary Coleman Rogers surveys Underground Atlanta dating back to 1886 prior to the insertion of the viaducts and speculates on how to make this historical site productive again. Oh yeah, there's also a never-seen-before map of Campbellton Road illustrating Goodie Mob's Soul Food album and a tour that leads tourists through the city via scent called a "Geography of Smells," ending at Marcel Breuer's Central Library.

Besides opening up a discussion about Atlanta's architecture, my wish is that a developer would take a close look at this work, engage these young architects and consider developing the city based on strange histories and urban patterns identified as uniquely ATL rather than imitating models from other places. We've also got a guide to New Orleans in the works.

CURBED: You are working on a house on the Beltline. Can you tell us a little about that?

JB: There are very few empty parcels of land for sale in neighborhoods without historic overlays. Last year, we found a skinny lot located on Sampson Street in Old Fourth Ward a couple hundred steps from the Beltline. This was several months prior to the opening of Krog City Market. With only 18 feet of buildable space in width, I imagine most people would not be interested in such a skinny house. As architects, we get excited about working with constraints and challenges of the site. The house which I've affectionately named Haus Gables will be recognizable because of its exaggerated gabled roof structure. (Note: The design is a development from Bonner's Domestic Hats exhibition.) Another exciting part of the project is the use of faux-finishes throughout the exterior and interior of the house. There are deeply rooted traditions and examples of faux-finishing found in the Southern architecture, and I am looking at how to do this in a contemporary way.

CURBED: After three years in Atlanta, you've decamped to Boston to teach at Harvard. What have you found that you miss about Atlanta when you are in Boston?

JB: I miss the food. Oysters, lobster rolls, and clam chowder are all tops in Boston, but I miss places like OK Café, Miller Union, Victory Sandwich Bar, Floataway Café and Abattoir.

(Editor's note: RIP, Abattoir).

CURBED: Finally, what places in Atlanta do you love the most?

JB: I love sitting in the lobbies of the Marriott Marquis and Hyatt Regency. [John] Portman is one of the few star architects working in the city that was able to leave us with a series of fantastical spaces that are also accessible to the public. I often bring out-of-town guests to see these atria, especially the architects — they go nuts. With other friends who are dedicated to the art and architecture culture of Atlanta like Victoria Camblin (editor of ART PAPERS) we meet in Portman spaces to scheme about starting a new School of Architecture in city.

· Mass Architectural Loopty Loops - MALL [firm website]
· Field Note Fridays coverage [Curbed Atlanta]