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Perkins+Will Architect Talks Globalism, ATL's Perks & Flaws

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In the world of architecture, firms range in size from a single person to massive international corporations with tens of thousands of employees. Self-characterized as the "smallest large firm," Perkins+Will operates 24 office around the world with more than 1,600 employees. The Atlanta office is the overseer of design for the Beltline, and its team focuses much of their practice on healthcare and hospitality. One principal in the Atlanta office, Jimmy Smith, AIA, has spent the last 34 years of his career working on an array of projects around the world. A fourth-generation Atlantan, Smith has strong roots in the city but has learned a lot from his travels. We sat down with Smith to hear more about international practice and the global lessons that inform Atlanta architecture for this edition of Field Note Fridays.

CURBED ATLANTA: Perkins + Will is a firm with offices and projects across the globe. As such a large firm, what defines the work done in the Atlanta office and how do you view the firm's brand?

JIMMY SMITH, AIA: We ARE a large firm — around 1,600 employees — and yet for me P+W feels in ways quite intimate. Last April I was out in Oregon on a firm retreat with some 200 of my fellow partners. Phil, our CEO, mentioned to us all that his goal for the firm was to be the world's smallest big firm in the world. That actually does speak to our core values and it touches on how we in Atlanta can be an integral part of a larger entity but have our roots and our identity still anchored here in this city. Actually on the back of business card[s] we have written in over-sized letters our core values: "Ideas and buildings that honor the broader goals of society." I sometimes facetiously claim that those words are printed in a font that is larger than our name on the building. I find it intriguing that it comes back to Phil's comment and also speaks to our core values.


CURBED: In practice you engage in a lot of work overseas — what are some lessons that you have picked up that highlight differences as well as the universality of architecture globally?

SMITH: Working for a large firm has a number of great advantages. Getting to know so many diverse and talented people from so many different backgrounds and regions and having so many different skills makes working at P+W a continually refreshing experience. With the addition of our international [practice] into that, experience has been enhanced geometrically.

For the past decade most of my work has been in the Middle East: in Doha, Qatar, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Erbil (in Iraqi) [and] Kurdistan. Our engineering and architectural affiliates and partners in the region are based in those cities but their production arms are located in Cairo, Egypt; Amman, Jordan and Beirut, Lebanon. Needless to say that my passport has some interesting visas. The biggest adjustment for me was the distance and the time difference. The week begins in the Middle East region right around 1 a.m. Saturday Eastern Standard time. Also, adapting to our clients as well as our partners' work habits can be particularly demanding at times. But we all learn to adjust and the adjustment has occurred on both sides of the Atlantic. I have found that our clients are quite versed in Western technology and both familiar with and interested in Western culture and with our current affairs, far more so than we are with their culture, their traditions or their language. As such they have high ambitions for state of the art fashion and for our latest fashions. It's refreshing even if at times there is a tendency to want to go a bit overboard with the latest trends.

Another challenge is that the work is very large in scale and the timeline to design and get it under construction is very tight. It is hard [to] work out the detailing, and while construction capabilities have improved dramatically as well, it is even harder to manage it effectively mostly from afar. So two things that I've carried away are hitting on ideas and solutions more quickly and to make both those ideas bolder and more direct and their resolutions more straightforward. I find it really makes for better design solutions.


CURBED: And what have those experiences shown you about the challenges we face in Atlanta?

SMITH: Traffic, and infrastructure, are universal challenges that most all cities face. I read once that predictions made about the future of the 20th Century city completely ignored the impact of the automobile. Cities that were well established before the onslaught of the automobile seemed to have fared better for creating public spaces. I also think they have fared better soaking up modern architecture. I think London is a great example as is a smaller city such as Stuttgart or Amsterdam. I also think that cities that spring up and grow very rapidly or that continually discard or ignore part of their urban fabric really suffer from having a sense of place.

Atlanta, like a lot of cities in the Sun Belt that really took off after WWII, suffers to an extent from its rise and rapid growth as a center of commerce and distribution in the Southeast and from its increasing reliance on the automobile. Atlanta's issue with traffic is exacerbated by the fact that four major regional interstate highways run through its downtown as well as by its lack of effective public transportation. Funds needed to address the traffic and infrastructure will become increasingly more difficult to raise as metro Atlanta continues to fracture with the increase in the number of annexations.


CURBED: How do you see Atlanta as fitting into the global architectural paradigm?

SMITH: The Beltline may be the best thing I can recall to happen to Atlanta in terms of helping redefine Atlanta as a more pedestrian-friendly city. The ring road as a pedestrian and light rail connector that fosters growth along its boarders has such great potential. While I am not involved in our office's work on designing its infrastructure I am very proud of our office's role in its development. Interestingly enough I also think the emphasis on the pedestrian experience and on local venues that address the Beltline has made for more intriguing architecture. Adaptive reuse along sectors of the Beltline and within parts of the existing city fabric are for me the most interesting aspects of architecture popping up around Atlanta.

CURBED: A few years ago, Perkins + Will designed a new office within an older building on Peachtree Street, relocating from an old home and low-slung office building. What was the impetus for the change and what drove the redesign and adaptive reuse of the building?

SMITH: Our move from our old office on Peachtree was not an easy process. After much anxiety wrought with great Sturm und Drang we ended up moving all the way down Peachtree one block to our present office at 1315 Peachtree. One of the main reasons that I came to work at Nix Mann some 34 years ago was because of the office at 1382. In the summer of '81 I worked for FABRAP just a block way on West Peachtree, and walking by the office I thought the idea of working there just seemed so cool.

So when I graduated the following winter I interviewed with Lewis and Henry (Nix and Mann) — I suspect that the 1382 office was a draw for many who have come and gone through its doors. It was just such a wonderfully homey and hip place to work despite the fact that we had been outgrowing the place from almost the moment the original partners had purchased it. The firm underwent several renovations, three expansions, and rental space in the EarthLink building and the "Kaplan" building next door. When it was time to move, a number of options were explored including moving into one [of] the recently completed office towers that we designed in Atlantic Station. We also looked into building a new building over (on) 14th Street. Neither were on a MARTA line and when the library site came on the market at 16th Street, the idea of adaptive reuse of a well-built TV & S [now tvsdesign] office building located in Midtown on Peachtree seemed to make sense.

We decided to really test our mettle and our own commitment to sustainable design by designing our new office as sustainable as we could. I will not go into all that went into the design and construction of the office: radiant cooling, cistern and grey water retrieval, recycled materials, solar panels the list goes on. Having taken on the challenge to develop a living learning lab in sustainability was an exciting and audacious task. We received Platinum LEED status. We were rated the highest LEED sustainable building in the world... for five days. Before we could get the news out in public, a building in Australia [Pixel] had beaten us out. Fame, I suppose, is fleeting.


CURBED: Clearly, sustainability and architecture are intertwined concepts. Do you find that clients are receptive to the additional costs associated with sustainability and what role do you think architects play in championing the initiative? How can we better advocate for sustainable design in Atlanta?

SMITH: Our office is a good example of how design and sustainability are intertwined. We set out to design a great space for our business for work and we set out to refurbish an existing building that would make a good neighbor that responded to its urban context and was an attractive as well as environmentally sensitive. Sustainability is just another aspect of design, as is context, program, function, tectonics, and aesthetics.

As citizens, we in the design profession should practice what we preach… live by example. Our office experiment in sustainability is an ongoing affair. We hope that the data, which so far has been encouraging, will provide us and our clients with more quantitative evidence on operational efficiencies. Being able to quantify the value of sustainability will go a long way to winning over our clients. There is already a good deal via evidence-based design that speaks to the value of sustainable design.

I also think that we have to move beyond "green" energy conservation as a definition of sustainability. Redefine sustainability with a focus away from energy conservation and more on durable design… on creating a healthy design environment. Design resilience is another area that is garnering attention with natural disasters and a growing awareness of global environmental issues.


CURBED: The urban environment in Atlanta is quickly changing, with the city's core becoming denser and urban. What do you think Atlanta should look toward as attainable goals in the continued development in the city, and what are you most concerned about losing as Atlanta grows?

SMITH: I don't think that density in and of itself is a concern. In fact I think more density is needed. When I taught at Tech with David Green on a studio based on the Beltline, he pointed out that while the size of Paris proper is comparable to the size of Atlanta within the Beltline loop, the population within Paris is by far more dense. That was almost 10 years ago and there has been a lot happening intown since then. With more and more people wanting to move closer in intown, housing has taken off with mid-rise and high-rise and mixed-use development sprouting up, especially in Midtown, which I think is great sign.

The key is how we go about building and accommodating the increase in density. Somehow we have to figure out the connectivity between all of the development and adaptive reuse and how it ties into the intown neighborhoods. There are some really cool parts of Atlanta…the Krog Street Market is this wonderful little gem as an example. But really there is no there there. Atlanta is a great city to live in but where do you go to when visitors come in town… the mall? What most concerns (me) about Atlanta is its lack of connectivity. Certainly providing more effective public transportation, pedestrian pathways and bike lanes would help, but I also think a connection to its urban past is missing.

I really think the adaptive reuse is critical to helping Atlanta rediscover itself and as a result become a more vibrant city. Atlanta in the 60s and 70s lost so much of its old urban texture. I remember reading and studying at the GSD [Harvard Graduate School of Design] around 1978 about the old Peachtree Arcade. At the time it had only recently been destroyed. And, of course the Fox barely survived being torn down. Atlanta grew so fast after WWII and through the 70s and 80s that a lot of its urban fabric was destroyed in the process

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

SMITH: If I am honest, perhaps my favorite place is sitting on my covered deck looking out into our wooded back yard. My wife and I renovated a midcentury home designed in 1972 design by Jim Chapman. It feels like a house in the mountains that is minutes from the Chattahoochee and yet within Atlanta's city limits. Pat Conroy once described Atlanta as a city built in the forest. I love Atlanta's trees, its rolling hills and its wonderful string of intown suburbs.

From our office towers, Atlanta's intown suburbs literally get lost in Atlanta's dense woods. Frederick Ohmstead was the perfect match for Atlanta. Suburbs that wind through trees and wooded parks. When my wife and I used to run and train for marathons, we would run through all the intown neighborhoods: Virginia-Highland and winding back and forth through Lullwater and Stillwater by Little Five Points to Inman Park or Candler Park and over to Cabbagetown and the Oakland Cemetery all the way to Grant Park.

What really makes Atlanta unique are its trees, its hills and its intown suburbs all wonderfully woven together by its intimate parks. As an architect, I should note that there are some nice civic and corporate pieces of architecture as well. The Flatiron building, the Healy building, the Equitable Tower downtown, Breuer's Library, Mack [Scogin] and Merrill [Elam]'s Library in Buckhead, Renzo Piano and Richard Meier at the High Museum. There are some others, of course, including, I hope, some of our own firm's mixed-used developments underway in Midtown.


· Perkins+Will Atlanta office [firm website]
· Field Note Fridays coverage