The Gulch: Atlanta’s Cultural Capital for Sale

The fire sale of public assets continues, and this time it’s the very heart of old Atlanta. For nearly fifty years, a gaping hole has marked an unresolved problem in the downtown: the devastated site known as the Gulch, where three railroads once converged from the south, east, and north. The train stations that, here as elsewhere, served as focal points and urban set pieces in the nineteenth-century city have long since been demolished, but the dead space left by Atlanta’s historical train lines remains an unresolved urban wasteland to this day.    READ The Gulch_Atlanta’s Cultural Capital for Sale

The Future of the Atlanta Civic Center: Erasing History or Creating Urbanity?

Civic Center, Atlanta

Before the old Civic Center is written out of the city’s history, there needs to be a robust public discussion. Atlanta deserves a true Civic Center, one that embraces rather than erases the historic significance of the site, and that welcomes the public and fulfills the promise of its strategic downtown location.

READ MORE  The_Atlanta_Civic Center

The BeltLine or the Art of the Urban Corridor

Atlanta could offer the perfect cinematic experience that urban development has brought us since the 1950s if the city had a functioning transportation network. However, instead of floating by stadia, malls, Olmsted designed parks, gleaming towers, and edge cities, one is more likely to get stuck in traffic and, involuntarily, jolted to an earlier historical era of urbanism when cities were laid out as a theatrical stage: a scenography created by topography, main streets, public squares, civic, religious, and cultural monuments, and distinct neighborhoods. READ MORE

BeltLine Or The Art of Urban Corridor

Legacy and Vision (Avondale)

The Avondale Commons will extend and update the city’s historic legacy, creating a twenty-first century Garden City where the arts are at the heart of the community, with a city center featuring a new city hall, performing arts spaces, mediatheque and spaces for café, offices and retail. READ MORE

GIS Land Use Plan (Avondale Call for Designs)

My thanks to Elizabeth Goodstein (English) and Michael Page (Department of Environmental Sciences) from Emory University for helping with historical research and GIS technology to support the project of art-centered development in Downtown Avondale. The attached pdf shows the present topography and proposed future land use.

Narrative: Avondale Call for Designs

The Avondale Commons, Art and Town Center

Challenge: Capturing History and Protecting Avondale’s Legacy

Avondale is at a historic juncture. The city-owned 4 acres at the heart of the Central Business District provide a unique opportunity to extend and revitalize Avondale’s historic architectural legacy and to define its economic, cultural, and civic destiny. To preserve the qualities that make Avondale a special community in the burgeoning twenty-first century Atlanta metro-region, the present scheme builds on George Willis’ holistic vision for a mixed-used community embracing the natural beauty of the Piedmont. In the 1920s, Willis envisioned a city where neighbors of all ages could enjoy the pleasures of peaceful living with parks, trails, and shared public space. Avondale’s downtown plan echoed the spirit and architecture of Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, and embodied the proto-suburban ideal of the Garden City. The National Register of Historic Places recognizes this double legacy. This design scheme draws on the city’s early twentieth-century roots in the Garden City and updates the winding streetscapes inspired by medieval England, for a walkable twenty-first-century Avondale that is also embedded in and richly connected to the cultural, economic, and transportation networks of the Atlanta metro-region.

Vision: Integrated Walkable Downtown

The design holistically embraces the sloping topography characteristic of Avondale’s natural landscape and complements the historic center of the Tudor village, using the site to enlarge Avondale’s downtown while maintaining and protecting the small-town experience that we all cherish. Following the mandate of the Avondale Masterplan, Arts, Parks + Opportunity, the site will become Avondale Commons, an extended pedestrian zone that realizes our values in a livable and walkable community that is easily accessible by modern transportation. It will be anchored by extensive green space, a civic and community center, a state-of-the-art performance venue, and high quality retail space to create a genuine downtown destination as well as an economic and cultural catalyst for the entire city. The Avondale Commons will extend and update the city’s historic legacy with a city center featuring a new City Hall, performing arts spaces, a mediatheque, and spaces for cafés and restaurants, offices and retail.

Goal: Become a Regional Destination

As Atlanta has become a global city, the Garden City Avondale has been increasingly enclosed by a modern metro-region. While past residents voyaged between city and countryside or suburbia, the journey to contemporary Avondale has become multi-directional. Located in a dynamic part of DeKalb County with a highly educated population, the city-owned 4 acre site lies equidistant between two MARTA stations, with good access to highways, interstates, and the Path trail. This site thus provides a unique opportunity to realize the goal envision in Avondale’s Masterplan: becoming a thriving Regional Destination. Creating a pedestrian-oriented town center anchored by parks and green space and ringed by exceptional architecture will give the city a lively and walkable downtown that speaks to the community’s identity and historical past. Updating the model Stratford-upon-Avon and other garden cities, the Avondale Commons will establish both cultural and economic anchors in the city and connect with the Tudor Village to complete the heart of the business district. While the pedestrian zone acts as a regional destination, the individual buildings on the perimeter have dual directionality–being part of shared community space, yet activating the surrounding streets, they will create synergies with the Avila site, the Tudor village, and the Western Gateway.

Public and Commercial Uses

Avondale is a special community that needs new public spaces as it grows. The design of Avondale Commons integrates diverse forms of public gathering to enhance the entire downtown area with a space keyed to celebration, the arts, civic participation, and community service. In this new downtown center, civic, artistic, recreational, and commercial uses are placed in a dense relationship linked by a park and pedestrian zone to create regular foot traffic and interconnectivity. To enable continuous use by day and night, the holistically designed site is surrounded by three major components that renew the city’s legacy: a civic center, a regionally significant performance space, and existing and new commercial zones. Ample street, underground, and close satellite parking are included, assuring that downtown will be walkable, with Franklin Street providing a permeably paved pedestrian/biking route between new and old parts of the city.

The major components are situated to take advantage of the natural topography and provide a catalyst for adjacent areas. Placed at a prominent spot on North Avondale Road, the historic spine of the city, and hugging the sloping site, the Civic Center includes an updated City Hall, offices and public meeting rooms, and conference and event spaces. This building establishes a visual marker of arrival in the Avondale business district and will create both places for community functions and new revenue streams for the city. The two-story Civic Center footprint includes ample space for other uses such as workshops and classes. Destination shopping is also located prominently along North Avondale Road, with architecturally exciting arcades forming a bridge from the GA 278 axis to the interior of the Commons and to the Tudor Village.

On the northern edge of the park, a state-of-the-art, flexible performance space, galleries for rotating exhibitions, a garden restaurant, and beer garden anchor the opposite end of the site and provide multiple synergies toward the future Avila development, the Rail Arts District, and the current site of Second Life. High quality performing arts space that can accommodate dance, music, theatre, and performance art is currently lacking, especially on the east side of the metro region. Arts programming will engage multiple stakeholders in the Atlanta metro to ensure economic success for the venue and anchor a thriving and diverse arts economy in Avondale. An amphitheater below the civic center and a bandstand concealing the ATT structures will be in place for regular outdoor concerts and popular festivals. Across the park, the elongated property at 90 North Avondale becomes a mediatheque, a multimedia library complemented by an outdoor movie screen for movies in the park on the adjacent green space. All the venues and uses of Avondale Commons are held together by integrated park space in a hallmark pedestrian zone. Walkable connections between public buildings, shops, restaurants, and civic spaces provide a peaceful yet dynamic environment for Avondalians and others to play, shop, dine, and interact.

Benefits and Viability

The city-owned 4 acres give Avondale a historic opportunity to create cultural and economic benefits through public investment in the future. Arts-centered development has a long and successful history locally, nationally, and internationally. With arts and event spaces, retail, restaurants, and an integrated park as an experiential and visual anchor, Avondale Commons will have direct and indirect positive economic impact. Event spaces have the potential to create a significant direct revenue stream for the city, and, as a city-controlled operation, the Avondale Commons will create new jobs. Furthermore, performing arts events benefit surrounding businesses all year round; according to Americans for the Arts, arts audiences spend on average an additional $24 per person on lodging, gifts, meals, and transportation per event, with non-local attendees spending two times the amount of local audiences. Overall, the arts are outpacing growth in other sectors of the economy, including food and retail, and producing more revenue than construction, travel and tourism, or the transportation sectors.

Developing this central site as a public space will increase Avondale’s greatest asset: its cultural capital. Fulfilling the call of the Masterplan for Arts, Parks, + Opportunity, the Avondale Commons will enhance the prestige of our city, which is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places for our parks and landscaping, the Tudor village, and architectural variety. As citizens, we are charged with preserving and strengthening the assets we have inherited. Arts-centered development inspires quality architecture, and innovative site design and landscaping will create a walkable, livable downtown magnet and generate synergistic energies at the boundaries of the city’s four acres. By taking our legacy in hand and creating dynamic new downtown public space for Avondale, the city will attract new quality businesses and motivate commercial developers to adopt much more deliberate and high-quality design schemes that will maintain and update the unique feel of our city for the twenty-first century.Number207

Cities as Exhibition Space

In our globalized culture, cities have increasingly transformed into large-scale exhibition spaces, amplifying a trend that had its origin with the Parisian Arcades in the nineteenth century and that has since moved from inside the building to the built environment as a whole. The origin of the current state of affairs, as Walter Benjamin already noted in the 1930s, lay in the display culture developed in luxury shops under steel-supported glass roofs of the Parisian Arcades. In this system of “visual merchandizing” before passers-by the Arcades worked like enclosed theatres: people could enter those shopping spaces and stroll along the display windows in passages protected from bad weather, that sported gas lighting with the familiar haze of nineteenth-century stages. This created a space of experience in which theatricality became a central mode of operation, generating a phantasmagoria of desire and placing the consumer in the role of an audience.

In the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, department stores adapted the strategy of using architecture to create a stage. Taking advantage of the new glass and steel technology, they moved from encased stone structures to creating, initially only on the lower floors, glass facades that helped blur the boundaries between inside and outside space and turn the street into an auditorium from which the goods could be observed. Erich Mendelsohn’s designs for the Schocken department stores in the first half of the twentieth century were instrumental in creating street level glass designs that shaped an urban theatre and, at the same time, fluid buildings with rounded corners that reinforced the spectacle of commercial culture.


The amorphousness of the contemporary mega-city has amplified the operations of the original exhibition space of the Arcades. In this space of experience architecture becomes both a stage for displaying goods and a display object, if not set design, in its own right.  This tendency to turn the shopping environment simultaneously into a stage and an urban set piece has spread everywhere since the 1960s. The quantity and quality of the exhibition space has changed substantially as cities have expanded exponentially along railways, highways, and airport networks. Strategies of looking, creating narratives, role playing, and performing have been transferred to building types such as factories and office buildings whose original incarnations were foremost functional.

The vastness and fluidity of this contemporary exhibition space requires more nuanced and performative approaches to staging both local and global values. This has triggered what one might call an “architectural arms race.” Signature pieces by, for example, Foster, Gehry, or Libeskind become display pieces for competing ideas and performative strategies. Thanks to both technological advancement and the global culture in which cities compete to become desirable sites for global corporations, public officials, city governments, and affluent individuals built attractive set designs to compete for visibility in the global market place.

The international economy has produced a global exhibition space filled with the work of star-architects who develop signature architectural language and maintain offices in multiple countries. In this global context, buildings need not only function as theatres, hotels, or factories but must deploy strategies of performance to create a successful image and function as attraction in the context of global competition. To be sure, Zaha Hadid’s factory for the German car maker BMW must be capable of producing cars; however, the building’s reference to Kasimir Malevich’s constructivism (and his friend’s Meyerhold’s constructivist theatre) not only speaks a performative language but also provides a culturally sophisticated image for the luxury car maker.

As travel and tourism have become the global equivalent of strolling, urban culture has been turned into an exhibition space with performativity as its central mode of operation. Inside the global megacity, the Arcades experience, interior and limited, has spread, been reincarnated in shopping destinations, but also unfolded as cities themselves have become a new form of museum and trade show. While paintings by van Gogh or Velasquez can be gathered in a single place, one must travel the world to experience the work of Foster, Piano, and Gehry. Consumer-voyagers move through a global exhibition space of buildings curated by cities, banks, and affluent individuals in search of an experience of culture.


City Performance

The city performs as a stage for its citizens. It creates a home for traditional theatres and other site-specific venues inside its borders, but even more significantly, it becomes a site for place-making that activates the­ rich cultural history embedded in urban spaces. The ongoing expansion of metropolises such as Atlanta, Miami, Houston, and Dallas along major interstates and the increasing integration of cities into megaregions (such as Boston/New York/Washington DC or Charlotte/Raleigh-Durham/Atlanta/Birmingham) have deep implications for our cities’ historical fabric and cultural infrastructure. As natural sites, architecture, places, and historical grids are relentlessly reframed in the twenty-first century, core perceptions of urban definition are being challenged. These changes highlight the need to advocate for preserving the city as a public and meaningful place that can support and enhance the making of culture.

Sustaining cultural infrastructure is vital to a city’s performance as a stage for civic life and its citizens’ identities. The shape and history of places, streets, and buildings generate cultural value beyond consumption, counteracting the detrimental impacts of urban sprawl. To build and sustain performative infrastructure inside the postindustrial space of the emerging megaregions, it is necessary to provide new visions of urbanity, redefine urban space(s), and structure activities for new kinds of sites that can shape narratives and experiences of space in a placeless mediatized world. This blog is designed to foster interdisciplinary conversation about cultivating and curating cultural spaces inside the global city.