Arts Agenda - Shape of things to come

Symphony Center tower rises on Peachtree Street

A street's identity is held in its buildings, such that Peachtree Street, like most major thoroughfares, has periodically renewed its building stock to promote its vitality. Although it has been said all roads lead to Rome (Italy that is), Peachtree's course seems perpetually defined by the present.

As a case in point, one of the most significant neo-modern additions to the city's architectural collection is currently under construction in Midtown. Located at Peachtree's intersection with 14th Street, the new tower (dubbed One Symphony Center) is adjacent to the Atlanta Symphony Hall site and developed by Houston-based real estate mogul Hines.

Neo-modernism has surfaced (or resurfaced) as a calm contender against the chaos-induced, formal complexity of last minute's Deconstructionist movement. But even before the real chaos of 9/11, popular taste was finding comfort in the earlier aesthetic of clarity and stability. Yoshio Taniguchi's 1997 austere design for the Museum of Modern Art expansion (nearing completion) seems to have presupposed the formal simplicity now defining the architectural world's most revelatory project — the reconstruction at Ground Zero. In the last year, architect Daniel Libeskind's jagged (albeit poetic) master plan for the site has been willfully subverted by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's tempered tower proposal, and Michael Arad's coolly reflective scheme for the memorial.

But Atlanta is not New York. To describe neo-modernism in our context, one can compare Symphony Center to its neighbors. On the diagonal preens the lush post-modernism of the Campanile, flaunting its exotic stone-paneled facade and archetypal roof pitched like a kindergartner's drawing. Across 14th to the north sprawls Colony Square with its mix of muscular, late-modern concrete forms. The new kid on the block, with its delicately crafted curtain wall of shimmering glass, will complete a triumvirate of architectural styles from the last four decades. Fittingly, such a crossroads exists in the heart of the city's arts and culture district.

Some Atlantans may think that any prefix to the word "modern" is a load of bunk, and that all buildings since World War II are simply new. Possibly, these folks are so accustomed to the fake columns, false lintels and other spurious crap routinely tacked onto the city's newest facades that the uniqueness of the new building's construction might go unnoticed.

The building's lead designer is back in the ATL for his third building and second tower. Jon Pickard, of the firm Pickard Chilton, designed the Pinnacle building in Buckhead, noted for its clamshell-like canopy of steel and glass. The Yale grad established his career in the venerable New Haven office of Cesar Pelli. At work during a period of big commissions, Pickard made his name with the Petronas Towers project in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (once the tallest towers in the world before a bit of Taiwanese envy spurred the raising of the Taipei 101 tower an extra 184 feet). Following the Petronas completion in 1997, Pickard left Pelli's office to start his own firm.

This latest addition to Atlanta's skyline is one of the most ambitious projects undertaken in the city in the last decade. Amid a surplus of office space and a lingering fear of high-rise buildings since 9/11, many developers are scratching their heads as to how Hines could rationalize such an investment.

When complete at 650 feet, Symphony Center will be the tallest building built in the city since 1992. In fact, the 41-story tower is one of the largest office developments underway in the nation. The project's heavy financial burden is carried by a partnership of Hines and the California Public Employees' Retirement System — the nation's largest pension fund. (Pickard Chilton is also designing its corporate headquarters.) Ultimately, success for the owners hinged on securing a major tenant. Last year, Atlanta's King & Spalding leased 416,000 square feet in the 681,000-square-foot building, occupying 17 floors. As a testament to fashion, the firm will be moving from another Hines development — Philip Johnson and John Burgee's post-modern conjoined-twin (aka 191 Peachtree Tower).

Pickard has yet to define himself as an architectural expressionist like Norman Foster or Richard Rogers or other members of the "hi-tech" league of designers. Beauty and innovation on that scale come at a cost few developers are willing to spend, and to date Pickard's designs have ultimately satisfied the bottom-line needs of developers like Hines. Cost-saving requirements did allow for sustainable design strategies such as solar shading and natural lighting devices in conjunction with photometric sensors to reduce the building's artificial lighting needs.

Such details are becoming a trademark of Pickard's solo designs. He has consistently employed broad strokes — typically long, sweeping arcs — but upon closer inspection, his "big" and modern gestures are held together by finely crafted metal and glass components often serving as window, wall and screen all at once.

Speaking of broad strokes, the building's size exploits a commodity many long-term Atlantans (officially those living here for more than five years) will quickly notice — the sky. In fact, the openness of Midtown may soon be the stuff of history. Much of the visual expanse associated with the arts district must credit Henri Jova's design for Colony Square. Jova's arrangement of the towers on angle with Peachtree eliminated the canyonlike character of most urban districts, and in Midtown's case, influenced all other development to follow.

Symphony Center's design, however, had to maximize a narrow site, and its positioning is more akin to the keel of a sailing ship. Artfully, the building's scalloped rear pavilion appears to cut a wake through the flow of traffic on 14th Street. Although the long profile and sweeping glass curtain wall of the tower may not resemble other "crowns" in the city's skyline, Pickard's gesture will likely complement the typically fluid forms of Santiago Calatrava's adjacent symphony hall. One can only assume, since the ASO has been consistently and cautiously tight-lipped about the project's development.

One Symphony Center is scheduled to open in early 2006.

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