There's been a lot of talk lately about Atlanta's look. Are we Vancouver-lite, filled with generic concrete and glass high-rises? Are we a futuristic dystopia sprung from the mind of John Portman? Perhaps we are destined to be an agglomeration of mixed-use developments that all look pretty much the same. When it comes down to it, Atlanta's "architectural style" is hard to pin down. With the tallest skyline in the US — outside of New York and Chicago, of course — you can chalk a lot of our buildings up to adhering to the en vogue style of the time they were built. Calling it all "eclectic" might seem like a cop-out, but it might be the most appropriate adjective. Let's break the situation down a bit.
A lot of cities have signature buildings or distinctive districts which define people's perception of place. Atlanta is, however, a city of transplants with a penchant for constantly reinventing itself. Instead of examining the city as it is, an exploration of how it evolved, with a few distinct growth spurts, could give a sense of why the built environment looks how it does, and what architectural style we may call our own.
Atlanta - Haven of History?
The first round of reinvention came after Sherman's sojourn in 1864. Rebuilding was slow going and the earliest structures were long gone. The first growth spurt, which still defines the look of the city today, happened around the turn of the century. Given Atlanta's penchant for destroying historic buildings, it might come as a surprise that many of Atlanta's high-rises of yore have survived into the present day — and not just in pieces — around Five Points. But outside of Fairlie-Poplar, it's hardly our historic architecture that sets the tone in present-day Atlanta.
Atlanta - Modern Metropolis?
There was a long lull in development in Atlanta following the Depression. But with a population explosion following World War II, high-rises began to emerge, shaping the city with a Modern flair. Many nondescript modern buildings shot into the sky, like in other cities around the country, so there's nothing too defining there. However, from that period, we find a few architectural standouts, including the International Style Equitable Building. Designed by world-renowned firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the structure cemented Atlanta as a purveyor of global architectural style, but it didn't exactly lend a sense of identity to the city.
Atlanta - Bastion of Brutalism?
The late 1960s marked the emergence of arguably the most prominent and prolific architect of Atlanta, John Portman. The Regency Hyatt House hotel, the first atrium-hotel in the world, opened in 1967, heralding a new archetype and branding the city with Portman's distinctive fusion of Modernism and Brutalism. Over the subsequent years, Portman's firm would reshape the streets of downtown Atlanta with buildings that were bulky and boxy, yet cavernous and sculptural. It is undoubtedly Portman who has left the most distinguishing mark on the core of the city. Beyond Portman, other buildings such as Marcel Breuer's seminal brutalist work, the Atlanta Central Library, contributed to what many find a banal, concrete appearance.
Atlanta - Postmodern Posterchild?
The late 1980s and early 1990s brought another building boom, adding to the eclectic collection of styles. Noted Postmodernist Michael Graves left his geometric mark on the skyline with Ten Peachtree Place. The Bank of America Plaza topped out on North Avenue, giving the skyline a serious stature boost with a fusion of Art Deco design surmounted by a gold pyramid to make Egypt envious. But for all the growth around the Olympics, many important venues — the Olympic Stadium included — took a more reserved approach to design, utilizing vernacular language such as red brick, making the buildings inconspicuous, if not embracing some suburban regional vernacular.
Atlanta - Gaga for Glass?
And now we come to the Atlanta of today. The hot style in cities throughout the world is a combination of gleaming glass and exposed concrete. Atlanta, never one to ignore a trend, has added a fair share of glinting new towers — many thanks to Novare. A profound style it is not, but not all glass high-rises are created equal. Like any style, we'll have some duds among standouts like Sovereign.
In the end, it's pretty clear that Atlanta doesn't have a singular dominant style. Yes, we have John Portman and his fancy hotels, but as a whole the city is an agglomeration, an aggregate of boom-and-bust cycles. Atlanta is a transient city, and so too is our architecture. But so what if we don't have a singular defining feature that ties Atlanta together? After all... we'd probably just tear it down anyway.