Up Close: Buildings Seeking Art

View of downtown Atlanta's Peachtree Center, showing its John Portman-dominated skyline, including the Marriott Marquis (left) and the Hyatt Regency with rooftop restaurant (center). Courtesy John Portman & Associates.




Disused manufacturing lofts have historically attracted artists seeking affordable spaces-this is how New York’s SoHo came to be, and the “SoHo effect” a widespread model of gentrification. Atlanta’s former industrial buildings are being repurposed too, and its neighborhoods rebranded with four-letter nicknames, just as they are in many American cities. All this is happening at an accelerated pace, encouraged by city leaders and made possible by private investment from the city’s prime mover: real estate development. Traditionally, though, property developers have followed artists to the frontiers or forgotten corners of a city. In Atlanta, they put them there. A look back at the city’s entwined architectural and economic histories sheds light on this inversion, and what it means for the artistic life of Atlanta today.  


The Old Urbanism (or, Koolhaas vs. Portman)

Among the many cultural events staged in anticipation of the 1996 Summer Olympics was “Atlanta,” an exhibition of photographs by Jordi Bernadó and Ramón Prat taken in the centennial games’ host city, and presented at the Institute of North American Studies (Institut d’Estudis Nord-Americans) in Barcelona. Most of the works on view were black-and-white urban landscapes, devoid of people but full of cars and buildings. These were reproduced in an accompanying photo book of the same name that includes written contributions by art historian Maria Lluïsa Borràs, writer Rafael Argullol, and architects Richard Dagenhart, Enric Miralles, Randall Roark, and Rem Koolhaas. 1

Koolhaas had written about Atlanta before. In 1989, his essay “Toward the Contemporary City” appeared in Design Book Review, where it urged readers to “leave Paris and Amsterdam-go look at Atlanta, quickly and without preconceptions.” 2 Koolhaas included the essay, “Atlanta,” in S, M, L, XL (1995)-a 1,376-page tome produced with his firm, Office for Metropolitan Architecture, and designer Bruce Mau, and containing twenty years of architectural plans, diary excerpts, sketches, and research, among other items. The essay crystallizes the architect’s apparent, if brief, preoccupation with the Georgia capital. “Sometimes it is important to find out what the city is-instead of what it was, or what it should be,” Koolhaas wrote. “That is what drove me to Atlanta-an intuition that the real city at the end of the 20th century could be found there.” 3 Listed among Koolhaas’s findings: “Atlanta has culture, or at least it has a Richard Meier museum.” 

About three years ago, when I was moving to Atlanta, if people I talked to from other cities around the world had read anything about Atlanta, it was Koolhaas’s essay in S, M, L, XL. I believe this text remains the most true and relevant theoretical text about the city, but its observations-often abstract-lend themselves to casual misinterpretation by those who have not spent time here. Koolhaas’s comment about the Richard Meier museum refers to the High Museum of Art, after which Meier received a Pritzker Prize in 1984. (It was completed the previous year.) Though it may seem so, Koolhaas was not dismissing the museum’s contents, which even at the time were impressive. What makes his comment continually relevant is not the collection’s cultural or material value, but the fact that the museum’s holdings doubled in size after the execution of a Renzo Piano-designed annex in 2002, almost as swiftly as the square footage. If the current incarnation of the High was born a building in search of a collection, then Koolhaas’s intuition points to the reality that in Atlanta, the city’s buildings motivate the production, acquisition, and exhibition of visual art. 

This goes for Atlanta’s private collections as well: the most impressive and international of these seem to be owned by individuals involved in real estate development, sales, or management. One notable collection, belonging to Sue and John Wieland (of John Wieland Homes), contains works by Olafur Eliasson, Rachel Whiteread, John Baldessari, Louise Bourgeois, and Gregory Crewdson, among others. Each piece in the wareHOUSE, as the Wielands’ by-appointment-only exhibition space is called, has been selected because it engages the image of the house. 4

Far from these private collections, Atlanta’s skyline is still dominated by buildings designed and realized by the city’s own starchitect, John Portman, in the last decades of the twentieth century-convention centers, “marts,” and hotels, interconnected by labyrinthine pedestrian skyways and punctuated by grand, surreal indoor atria. A staff writer for the urban design blog Curbed Atlanta once called Portman “the ultimate architect/developer-in-one,” noting his resounding rejection of “the notion that his projects should be built in dialogue with site, context, or any space shared by the larger public.” 5 With Portman’s multiple roles, Koolhaas wrote, “the traditional opposition between client and architect—two stones that create sparks—disappears. The vision of the architect is realized without opposition, without influence, without inhibition.” 6 Portman himself identifies as an architect, a developer, and an artist, and in his view, these three occupations are at their best when merged. Portman has said that “to understand development, analyze feasibility, and design accordingly is an architect performing at the highest level,” and similarly that “architecture and art, particularly sculpture, can both be elevated to a higher realm by their impact on each other when properly fused.” 7

Portman’s fusional impulse resonates with some of Koolhaas’s conclusions about Atlanta as a whole. “Atlanta is a creative experiment,” the Dutch architect wrote, I believe favorably, “but it is not intellectual or critical: it has taken place without argument.” The best (and least frictional) place to see a John Portman artwork in Atlanta is inside a John Portman building. At SunTrust Plaza, the tallest building in the downtown area, corporate employees and intrepid art hunters can view the polymath’s One-Eyed Jack, an aluminum sculpture installed atop a fluted column, in the two-story lobby. Portman’s Beilei I, a “budding flower” made of sheet bronze, is installed on the lower lobby level.

When SunTrust Plaza opened in 1992, John Portman & Associates already had a thirty-year global portfolio that included Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency (Portman’s first atrium hotel, which opened in 1967); San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center, Los Angeles’s Westin Bonaventure Hotel, and Detroit’s Renaissance Center (all 1970s); the ostentatious and controversial Marriott Marquis in New York’s Times Square as well as hotels in South Korea and Singapore (all 1980s); and the Shanghai Centre in China (1990). Major cities across the United States, East Asia, and “even” Europe, as Koolhaas put it, came to boast examples of Portman’s reinvented atrium: an architectural device that was once “a hole in a house or building that injects light and air-the outside-into the center,” but in Portman’s hands was the opposite: “a container of artificiality that allows its occupants to avoid daylight forever-a hermetic interior, sealed against the real.” 8  

The isolationist flavor of Portman’s buildings—”self-contained citadels,” to cite scholar Eric Avila, in which public life and space are aggressively privatized-has been explained as both a symptom of and a response to suburbanization and white flight. 9 Following desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement, as white Americans began to leave the city center in search of homogeneous communities “outside the perimeter”—OTP, as we say in Atlanta-they took their business, and their businesses, with them. In 1960, central Atlanta contained 90 percent of the metropolitan area’s office space; by 1980, it held 42 percent, and by 1999, only 13 percent. 10 Yet this period of attrition was Portman’s heyday. John Portman & Associates built in downtown Atlanta throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, enticing commerce with convenient skyways that allowed transient conventioneers and salespeople to float undisturbed above the city’s increasingly impoverished and crime-ridden streets. Portman’s atrium replaced the piazza and became, again in Koolhaas’s words, an “ersatz downtown.”

The canonical Portman atrium has made some exciting new appearances in popular visual culture in the last several years—a comeback that was the subject of a 2015 article in the Atlantic called “How 1980s Atlanta Became the Backdrop for the Future.” 11 The author cites television series such as “The Walking Dead” and movie franchises such as The Hunger Games and Divergent-all filmed in Atlanta, thanks in no small part to Georgia state tax incentives-as inheritors of the dystopian aesthetic of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop and John Carpenter’s Escape from LA, which contain footage shot in Portman’s Renaissance Center and Westin Bonaventure, respectively. For The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, a film that depicts a society-wide class revolution, the impressive atrium in Portman’s Atlanta Marriott Marquis was adapted as part of the setting for the decadent and corrupt Capitol of Panem. When artists, designers, or architects come to visit, I take them to the lobby of the Marriott Marquis for cocktails, then on to the Hyatt Regency—via skyway—to Polaris, a “Jetsons”-meets-“Mad Men”-styled rotating restaurant. Each revolution charts a city structure hostile to humans and the connectivity and mobility that traditionally nourish dialogue and discovery in the arts. Peppering the view from Polaris are pockets of buildings confined by freeways and heavy industrial rail lines; to the north, two additional clusters of skyscrapers assert themselves through the density of Atlanta’s tree canopy: the alternative commercial districts of Midtown and, beyond it, Buckhead, which ascend in affluence as one moves uptown. 


The Creative Class and the Myth of the “New”

Despite its cinematic popularity, Portman’s twentieth-century legacy, in all its dystopian glamour, seems mostly maligned in twenty-first-century Atlanta, particularly by the creative community. The “fortress impulse”-to combine retail, office, public, recreational, and even residential spaces in megastructures that segregate themselves from city centers-is considered socially and culturally destructive. The scale of Portman’s buildings is viewed as “inhuman,” unnatural, and counterproductive to things like community building, green space, and “place-making.” 12 By the 1990s, something called the New Urbanism (TNU) had gained traction among urban designers, planners, and frustrated citizens, first nationally, then internationally—”even” in Europe—as an alternative to the model that Portman and Atlanta had come to epitomize. 

According to its charter, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) “views disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society’s built heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge.” 13 Georgia’s built heritage has received substantial investment from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Founded in the once declining old center of Savannah, the arts university began to purchase and restore historic buildings in its hometown in 1979. SCAD has since been responsible for the rehabilitation of some of the few remaining architectural gems in Atlanta, where it bought the Atlanta College of Art in the mid-2000s-acquiring the school responsible for the undergraduate educations of artists Radcliffe Bailey, Kara Walker, Roe Ethridge, and Fahamu Pecou, and for complex reasons dismaying many locals, faculty, and alumni. 14 SCAD calls itself the “University for Creative Careers,” and its ethos is particularly suited to TNU’s creative-class-driven mission. SCAD puts capital into the eroding built heritage of its environment, and puts out creative professionals. The school’s appetite for historic buildings has increased-and apparently, it has the capital necessary to restore them-making for another compelling confluence of real estate and artistic production in Atlanta.  

Of course, the values of TNU were brought to the city center by the same influential social and economic group that abandoned it in the first place. In other words, the bourgeoisie is back in town, and it doesn’t travel light. It expects to live in town, and to live so well that it forgets why it moved to the suburbs in the first place. The New Urbanists, seeking to “preserve, design, develop, and restore our regions, cities, and neighborhoods,” claim responsibility for creating and disseminating now internationally popular strategies such as mixed-use development, transit-oriented development (TOD), and traditional neighborhood design (TND). The New Urbanism is thus a neo-traditional movement particularly suited for the digital age, its tenets easily distilled into Twitter-ready three-letter acronyms. It embraces an attractive rhetoric of “beautification” and “restoration,” the implication being that the city’s default position is ugliness and blight. Atlanta is approached by newcomers and returnees as though it were an old warehouse: the city needs some work, it’s priced “as is” (depending on the neighborhood), but it’s got plenty of potential. Just as Atlanta was a blueprint for white flight, now it’s the ultimate fixer-upper. 

The Home Depot was founded in Atlanta and remains one of the city’s top employers. It is also the holy land of do-it-yourself (DIY). (Until 2008, the company’s slogan was, aptly: “You can do it. We can help.”) Atlanta knows that nothing fixes up a place more quickly and cheaply than a fresh coat of paint. Underfunded arts institutions-new and old, public and independent-have embraced the potential of this low-cost DIY approach to supporting the arts. Perhaps this is because Georgia is the second stingiest state for arts funding in the country: its arts agencies will be allocated only 10¢ per capita in 2017, placing it ahead of only Kansas (6¢) and well behind its neighbors Tennessee ($1.06) and Florida ($2.15). 15

Organizations operating on a “coat-of-paint” or a crowdsourced model emerged in this climate of penury; their missions of neighborhood improvement and/or public engagement have in turn attracted public funds, limited as they are. WonderRoot, an arts organization explicitly committed to community advancement and grassroots social change, recently commissioned Fahamu Pecou as lead artist for a mural on the King Memorial station, part of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) rail system located near the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. The elevated concrete wall now depicts a young person taking flight beneath the words rise above. 

This mural project was financed by the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulton County Arts & Culture, the Georgia Council for the Arts, and the Atlanta Regional Public Art Program of the Atlanta Regional Commission. 16 The embrace of WonderRoot’s accessible public art model by public funding entities constitutes an ironic institutionalization of the ethics and aesthetics of the DIY culture that thrived in response to austerity. 

On a neighborhood scale, a coat of paint can be a strategy for New Urbanist beautification, be it encouraged by artist/activists, by public institutions, or by private interest. One Atlanta organization exploring this model is Living Walls, founded in 2009 with a mission to “promote, educate and change perspectives about public space in our communities via street art.” Supported by a variety of in-kind and fiscal sponsors, from national foundations to local businesses and property owners, Living Walls has pursued this goal through conferences on street art and urbanism and by commissioning local and international artists to create murals in public spaces in neighborhoods across the city. 17 Although the program has been largely well received, by the time I arrived in December 2013, the New York Times had already reported that “two murals intended to spruce up blighted neighborhoods in Atlanta have been painted over after some residents complained that they were confusing at best, demonic at worst.” 18 One of the murals removed depicted an alligator-headed man with a serpent’s tail; it was painted by a French street artist named Pierre Roti, who had traveled to Atlanta on his own dime to create what he intended to be an allegory about capitalism. A representative from the mostly black neighborhood in southwest Atlanta told the Times, “people didn’t understand it. . .It absolutely did not represent what people want to see on a busy street every day.” The coat-of-paint philosophy has been embraced elsewhere in Atlanta-and elsewhere in the world, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Tirana, Albania-but this episode suggests its limits: DIY improvement works best in your own house.  

Similar misunderstandings are perpetuated by newcomers and those returning to cities such as Atlanta “born again” urban evangelists, as I like to call them—who have a limited grasp of neighborhood occupancy. What developers, property investors, and prospective homeowners perceive to be abandoned fixer-uppers may actually have had people living in them all along. This misconception has led to such confusing headlines as “The Mammal Gallery Brings Humans to Downtown: South Broad’s new music venue focuses on community,” which appeared in the community-driven free culture weekly Creative Loafing (Atlanta’s answer to the Village Voice). 19 South Broad is a short downtown street located in the overlapping shadows of Portman’s skyscrapers and the offices of the City of Atlanta; it’s lined with storefronts, though only a couple of the current businesses survived downtown’s decades of desertion. 20 Those that did are fabulous: Miller’s Rexall Drugs is a drugstore carrying Hoodoo and homeopathic remedies that appear on the cover of Paul McCartney’s 1999 album Run Devil Run; Taj Perfumes stocks body oils and incense, and hosts daily prayers at the nearby Islamic Center. 21 Still, as a local urban-planning blogger who goes by ATLUrbanist put it, “drugs and prostitution stubbornly linger” on South Broad-a formulation that, like the headline above, minimizes the humanity of the area’s existing communities. 22 The default vocabulary used to describe neighborhoods that might be new to the creative class thus erases any history of previous occupation, and credits recent arrivals with the areas’ effervescent culture. 

Mammal Gallery, one of the first artist-run initiatives to open on South Broad, was already ambitiously programmed when I arrived in Atlanta. In the intervening years, additional project spaces have opened on the same block; these include the recording studio Broad Street Visitors Center, the performance venue Downtown Players Club, and Murmur, a community resource for DIY media and printed matter where I currently serve on the board of directors. Chief among the newer entities’ reasons for moving to the area is the extremely low rents they pay, an incentive organized and brokered by the Goat Farm Arts Center, which Creative Loafing editor Thomas Wheatley has described as “one of the city’s most creative real estate companies.” 23  

The Goat Farm is a twelve-acre former textile mill on Atlanta’s Westside purchased by Hallister Development Partners for $7 million in 2010. Artists had occupied the complex’s industrial buildings on and off for years, and its new owners-finding themselves with a ton of property and little capital to develop it, given the recession-embraced this history and ran with it. 24 The Goat Farm is now a profitable “arts incubator” occupied by creative professionals who pay market prices to rent studio space. Various groups receive “arts investment packages” and get access to the Goat Farm’s communal areas and production resources; their well-attended art parties in turn boost the Goat Farm’s citywide reputation as an arts commons. The Goat Farm charges for permission to film or shoot photographs on the property, and its picturesque industrial ruins have made it a popular venue for everything from wedding photos to big-budget movies. Hunger Games producers chose the Goat Farm as the backdrop for the impoverished District 12-a dystopian counterpoint to the District 1 scenes shot in the Portman atrium downtown. 

Last year the Goat Farm turned its interest downtown to South Broad and launched a program called BEACONS-another arts incubator, and the mechanism by which artist- and activist-run spaces have been able to secure such affordable rent in the area. Organizations that preexisted the program—including Mammal Gallery and the much older Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery, which was founded in the 1990s and is now located a block away from the South Broad enclave—have been made retroactive members, designated on social media by a #GoatFarmBEACONS hashtag. Occupants agree to contribute to the improvement and maintenance of their storefronts, assisted by limited access to the Goat Farm’s construction resources. In other words, Broad Street’s organizers get help in the form of materials and manpower to execute that critical improvement: the new paint job. 

Though wildly different from Portman’s work in appearance, the Goat Farm’s cross-disciplinary arts incubator-
meets-developer model derives in some ways from Portman’s, for instance in its synthesis of traditionally separate roles and in its site-specific approach to artistic endeavor. Despite its population of artists and organizers, and its distinct popularity with the New Urbanists, Atlanta’s latest arts district thus flirts with Portman’s fusional philosophy—the megalithic products of which these groups claim to oppose. It’s all happening only steps away from Portman’s ground zero-just on a smaller budget, and in much smaller buildings. For now. As we go to press, the South Broad Street buildings have been bought by the German company Newport Holdings GmbH, whose plans for the area have not yet been announced. Other developers recently purchased the neighboring Underground Atlanta, another massive mixed-used facility opened in 1969 as a “city beneath the streets,” slated for redevelopment as a live-and-shop hub. 25 Just as Portman’s developer-cum-architect-cum-artist model represented an unusual and, to some, unsavory conflict of interests, its equivalent in twenty-first-century Atlanta—developers moving artists in?!—implies an obviously problematic system in which creatives become agents of displacement and real estate capitalism, far more quickly than their twentieth-century counterparts in SoHo. Where this leaves BEACONS, or Atlanta’s next new arts district, remains to be seen. What is certain is that this model subverts the traditional gentrification approach of real estate capital waiting to see where artists go, then following them—an accelerationist move, perhaps, toward certain social change. 


Resurgens (or, plus ça change?)

Koolhaas wrote that Atlanta comes close to fulfilling a “post-cataclysmic new beginning.” Perhaps he was aware of the city’s slogan, resurgens, and its accompanying mascot: a Phoenix rising from the ashes. Atlanta has been burnt to the ground more than once—in 1864, by Sherman’s Union Army, and again during the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917—resulting in the city’s deeply ingrained preoccupation with its own destruction, and a fascination with radical new beginnings. (Atlanta is an ideal setting for “The Walking Dead” for this reason.) The language of TNU resonates with ideas about the “New South,” a term coined by journalist Henry W. Grady in 1874 to address the region’s shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. The terms of Grady’s post-slavery, white New South have since been tossed around newspaper headlines and music columns seeking an updated definition, reappropriated for a Black New South, in which historically oppressed communities are repositioned as both the motors and the beneficiaries of progress and prosperity; for the recent postindustrial growth of the creative class in cities such as Atlanta; or to broadly suggest an equitable, integrated, or simply more dynamic near future. In hip-hop-the culture industry for which Atlanta is best known-what the South newly “sounds” like has been actively questioned in the twenty years since rapper André 3000 declared, at the 1995 Source awards, “the South got something to say.” When Brooklyn’s Desiigner released “Panda,” with its memorable line, “I got broads in Atlanta,” he was accused of ripping off Atlanta native Future, whose work was in turn put forward as the authentic 2016 sound of his hometown. 26 While this claim caused contention too, this is one of many conversations that speak to Atlanta’s place as a city whose specific identity is constantly in question—even in its highest-profile cultural exports. 

In the visual arts, the nature of the contemporary Southern voice has been widely sought in small- and large-scale exhibitions in Atlanta, in the Southeast, and nationally. The High has turned its attention to local artists with two drawing exhibitions in the last three years: “Sprawl! Drawing Outside the Lines” in 2015, and “Drawing Inside the Perimeter” in 2013, in which the works served “as a roadmap to the crisscrossing avenues of artistic production in Atlanta” and reflected “the chaotic, dynamic spirit of the city.” 27 Elsewhere, the self-questioning specter of the New South is merely implied. “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art” is on view at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University (through January 8), and aims to articulate “a composite portrait of southern identity through the work of 60 artists”—including Radcliffe Bailey, Fahamu Pecou, and Kara Walker—and to “create a space to reimagine the South in new ways.” “ATLBNL: Recent Conversations”-a reboot of the on-again/off-again Atlanta Biennial, which I co-curated with Daniel Fuller of the Atlanta Contemporary (where the show is on view through Dec. 18), Jacksonville-based curator Aaron Garvey, and Gia Hamilton of the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans-directly references Atlanta’s claim to be the “capital of the New South.” We selected artists from throughout the region to demonstrate the diversity of creative experience here, and indeed, all the participants had to be “new”: to the Atlanta Biennial, to the Atlanta Contemporary, and to other major exhibition spaces in the city. 

Despite its means and resources, Atlanta is not known as an international art city. The often-cited reason for this is the 1962 crash of a chartered plane at Paris’s Orly airport, which killed more than one hundred Atlanta art patrons who were on a European museum tour-another fire after which the city, and its arts community in particular, had to reinvent itself. Atlanta’s accelerated cycle of renewal, then, is part of its historical DNA, fueled by fresh coats of paint promising to consolidate a kind of identity, or at least to brand a narrative. With regard to hip-hop, it’s been argued that what makes Atlanta’s sound distinct is its freedom from the East Coast/West Coast binary, allowing artists to try new things; appropriately, the city’s annual hip-hop conference-A3C, standing for “all three coasts”-asserts Atlanta as the capital of a new, Southern shoreline. 28 Atlanta’s visual arts community, with its art-hungry buildings providing luxurious space in which to self-question, stands only to grow from this condition.


This article is part of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Art in America Arts Writing Fellowship, a joint project designed to foster cultural criticism in cities throughout the United States.

Victoria Camblin is the editor and artistic director of Art Papers.