Lots of people like to rag on Atlanta — especially Atlantans. Despite being one of the most populous metro areas in the United States, many tend to think of Atlanta as a city of little consequence, paling in comparison to older metropolises like New York and Chicago. But as Atlanta matures and gains notoriety for projects like the Beltline, Ponce City Market and Mercedes-Benz Stadium, is the city becoming something we should show a bit more pride in? Earlier this week John Fontillas, AIA, a partner at New York City-based H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, came to town for a meeting — his fifth visit to the city — and was left reflecting on Atlanta's dynamism and unique urban experience. Born and raised in Northern California, Fontillas has practiced architecture and planning in New York City for decades and worked on projects in many major global cities, but he found something so alluring in Atlanta that he wrote a missive on the flight home. For 2016's first edition of Field Note Fridays, Fontillas shares his favorable perception of our city, and maybe we all should take note.
I've been to Atlanta five times in my life; each time has felt like the first time. My first experience probably shouldn't count because it was at the airport with my parents. It was 1979 and we were doing what most do: connecting in Atlanta to a flight to Orlando. Although as a kid, I was more excited about our real destination, Disney World, I remember clearly my father pointing at things out the plane window — look at the red clay beneath power lines, slashing through the green forest around the city. Do you see the curlicues of the subdivision cul-de-sacs? What's that cylinder taller than anything else on the horizon? The Westin. Now you know where downtown Atlanta is.
The second time I came to Atlanta was New Year's Eve in 1988. I was helping a friend from architecture school move across country. We started the day after Christmas in Los Angeles and had until Jan. 3rd to get him and all his stuff to Philadelphia. By the time we reached Dallas we had to make a choice — detour to New Orleans and Bourbon Street, or stay on Interstate 20 to Atlanta and ring in the New Year there. Some would say we made the wrong choice, but because we were two recently graduated architects — one with a vivid childhood memory of a John Portman hotel — meant we were headed toward Georgia.
We arrived at 11 p.m. and stashed the truck on some deserted downtown side street. Not knowing where to go, we followed a huge group of screaming University of Tennessee fans to the Marriott Marquis. Looking up, I was dumbstruck. It was like looking into the throat of a whale. Sinuous ribs of red and white light, curving, bending, reaching up, up and up. The visual wasn't the thing that was overwhelming; it was the sound. On one side of the atrium, Tennessee fans were chanting. On the opposite side were an equal amount of fans from Indiana. The Volunteers were playing the Hoosiers at the Peach Bowl on Jan. 2nd, and both teams had decided to spend New Year's Eve in competition, seeing whose team chants could echo up the atrium the loudest. It was even more strange when the teams, not quite knowing exactly when midnight had passed, decided to start the countdown again... and again, and again, and again, until 3 a.m.
My third time In Atlanta, I came with my girlfriend, who would soon be my wife. We decided to spend a few days in Atlanta as a quick getaway before the wedding. It was 1995, and the city was a forest of cranes getting ready for the Olympics. There were so many new things to see; it was as if the city I had seen before had been completely remade. We were staying in a fancy motor inn in Buckhead, whose location my girlfriend loved because it was within spitting distance of two huge malls. Our most memorable dinner was at the Kudzu Cafe. I had no idea who or what a kudzu was, but everyone we met suggested it as a happening place for dinner. Whatever the vine's faults, the restaurant was a lively and vital place, as busy as any we had been to in New York.
The fourth time was on assignment for a project for Coca-Cola. I was invited to World Headquarters in 2012 for a series of meetings which would culminate in a quick tour of the World of Coke. While we were all gathered in the Innovations Lounge waiting for the meeting to begin, the requisite sign-in sheet was passed around, the one where everyone writes down their contact info, their email and their phone number. Most of the names on the list had a cryptic "4-" or "7-" before their phone number. I was confused. Was this some secret Coke code representing the department they worked in? No, it was shorthand for the city's two area codes — 404 and 770. I thought this was really cool — a secret handshake that only Atlantans, and now I, understood.
Which brings me to my fifth visit. Each previous trip I was able to explore little pieces of the city, but never with as much sense of the whole than the first looking out a plane window. This time, in a very short time, I was shown the city by a group of colleagues, now friends, and through their eyes saw a completely different city yet again. We talked about my fascination with Portman — how could he have done so much at one time, affecting the city so greatly? To answer this, we went to the Hyatt Regency atrium where I saw how Portman was trying to prototype a new American public space in an urbane and sophisticated way.
We drove down Peachtree through Midtown, explaining how different the street had become over the past 30 years, from stately homes, to head shops and one-story taxpayers, now office buildings and mixed-use developments. Urban life was sprouting up as more and more people were moving into residential apartments downtown. Then to the Beltline and Ponce City Market — unique Atlanta locations freighted with history, but brought forward to new life with contemporary uses. To me, these moments of urbanity mixed with a flood of memories about this city, built up over 30 years, each time completely different. The one important thing about any true city is not really the physical places that you remember — it's the people you were with that matter. That's what makes a place what it is. After my fifth trip to Atlanta, I realize it's the real thing.