Art Papers  

more from the
Nov/Dec 2015 issue:

The Age Ahead:
Tim Keane

– Victoria Camblin

Colin Renfrew

– Will Corwin

Everything Will Be Fine:
Wim Wenders' Road

– Stephanie Bailey

– Marisa J. Futernick

Nov/Dec 2015
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Commissioner, Department of Planning and Community Development,
City of Atlanta

Text / Victoria Camblin
Images / Jill Frank

Tim Keane, Commissioner, Department of Planning and Community Development, City of Atlanta
(All photos by Jill Frank)

The phrase "The New South" isn't itself very new: Henry Grady coined it at the end of the 19th century, using this idea of the "new" to promote a region born again to stand for union and freedom. The "new" south—and its counterpart, the "old" one—are nonetheless still referred to with enough frequency below the Mason-Dixon line that as cultural entities they remain separate and real. Atlanta is known to invest in the economy of the new; in South Carolina, Charleston has in the last decade turned explicitly toward its architectural heritage, encouraging a culture of restoration and heritage-conscious redevelopment—a regional contrast, to say the least, to the "tear down, rebuild" philosophy that has historically dominated development in Georgia's capital.

Before Tim Keane joined Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed's administration as commissioner of planning and community development back in July, he was Charleston's director of planning, preservation, and sustainability. This was a move from a city whose Latin motto translates to "She guards her buildings, customs, and laws," to one where it is "Resurgens"—where buildings and plans are scorched, not guarded, and new ones necessarily "rise again" upon foundations of ashes. There is, of course, a potentiality attached to the cult of the new—historical preservation in the south means, among other things, caring for the architecture of a colonial, planation-based economy built on slavery, and a legacy maintained by apartheid. Design-wise, Atlanta is a tabula rasa, and Keane's platform is appropriately design-centric, even more than it is city-specific. To "better our city," according to the commissioner, is to formulate and implement solutions that would be useful in urban contexts elsewhere, possibly anywhere.

This approach—let's call it comparative infrastructure—requires a certain amount of agility/imagination on the part of its practitioners. When ART PAPERS asked to take Keane's picture, he suggested that photographer Jill Frank and I meet him at the corner of Alabama and Forsyth streets in downtown Atlanta, one of the intersections surrounding the Five Points MARTA station, the city's best-connected public transport hub. This crossroads is also home to the former headquarters of The Atlanta Constitution—a publication that had once been Grady's editorial stomping ground, from which he preached southern renaissance at a time of industrial revolution. It's a serenely beautiful and seemingly irreparable ruin of a building, overgrown and perched above the train tracks separating Forsyth from the megaliths of the CNN Center and the Georgia Dome. It's one of Keane's favorite buildings in Atlanta; it belongs to the city, too, and he won't be told that it can't make some kind of contribution to public life again. ("You should have seen the buildings we had to deal with in Charleston," he says.)

Keane is not quite ready to divulge his game plan—whatever he's proposing, it's still subject to review and approval, but is to be implemented in early 2016. His interests, and presumably those of the city that hired him, align productively with (or, perhaps, have influenced, by osmosis) ours at ART PAPERS: next year, it would seem, the culturally concerned Atlantan will be looking at transportation, public health, water, stadia, and sports—topics only grazed in the conversation below, plucked from the dominant discourse in Atlanta but, in culture production as in policy, applicable any- and everywhere.

Victoria Camblin: You recently did a talk in the Department of Public Health at Georgia State University; it's a big field of interest in Atlanta, given the presence of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but I'm not sure it's addressed much outside the "let's ride our bikes along the greenway" conversation. What is the discourse about public health in the urban planning community?

Tim Keane: The biggest idea there is that cities in this country for a long time were thought of as dirty, unhealthy places. That's no longer the case. We spent more than two generations abandoning the city for different reasons.

VC: Right, and when it started to get good again all the assholes that left came back and messed with it again.

TK: So, now the city is the healthy place! That's the new public opinion, anyway. What does it mean in terms of my role? It's completely connected to the idea that you have to have an actual design for the city to accommodate changes like this, built for healthy, dense populations. I'm not saying that when we do these talks it's all about New Urbanism 101 or Haussmann's Paris. It's about bettering any city, and the things you need to do if, say, Atlanta becomes a city with a million and a half people in it and twice the employment. What, physically, structures that?

VC: In the past you've advocated for the maintenance and creation of affordable and public housing, for instance in areas that were swiftly gentrifying. What is your view of public housing in Atlanta, historically?

TK: I'm a huge supporter of public housing. Atlanta has such a history of redeveloping these projects—tearing them down; rebuilding them—and some of that, I think, was necessary. I'm not sure how dense Atlanta's were, but Cabrini-Green in Chicago and Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis needed redevelopment when they were torn down. Of course, Atlanta didn't have tall, dense buildings like Pruitt-Igoe.

VC: Charles Jencks called the day of the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe the day "Modern architecture died." The social ambition of postwar architecture fell with it—basically America telling International Architecture to fuck off with its ideals. I lived in a midcentury housing project in London, and it was beautiful, functional, humane—perfect for the modern subject.

TK: Was it full of people in complete poverty?

VC: Touchée. My building was actually mixed-income, partially subsidized, but yes, these relics of modernist social ambition have pretty much either been town down or turned bourgeois.

TK: The middle 20th century was, of course, a great time for housing and innovations in architecture. But the issue, for me, is less about the quality of the architectural environment and more about dissipating extreme concentrations of poverty. An extreme concentration of poverty is never a good thing.

VC: So how do you convince a high-earning or very upwardly mobile Atlantan to live next door to an extremely poor person?

TK: I think they probably already do. I think the traditional neighborhood is a good way to organize ourselves: around a variety of housing. One of the reasons I'm here is to change things, to make design a more prominent part of our work—to make it a centerpiece of our work, in fact. Right now in Atlanta, design is a completely regulatory function; it's very reactive. We don't do anything; we just have historic districts that have rules. This drives me nuts. Right after I got here, a woman in Cabbagetown contacted me. We had been citing her because a neighbor had complained that her pickets were three inches apart, and they're supposed to be four inches apart. We made her go rip out her pickets so she could make them four inches apart.

VC: You could argue that it's not design if it's not constructive of solutions—it might be aesthetics, relating to a historical look, but is it design?

TK: Well, it's definitely the extent of what we do when it comes to design, right now: we annoy perfectly innocent people.

VC: That's ironic that Atlanta should be such a stickler for picket regulation, given that it doesn't seem to give a shit about historical preservation.

TK: You can tear anything down, but your pickets better be four inches apart. And it's going to be very expensive, very inconvenient for you to achieve that. So design will be very important in my reorganization, and transportation will be the second thing—mostly transportation other than vehicular travel.

VC: How do you plan to pursue these priorities?

TK: The city's a half a million people now. That is, in a metro region of 6 million people, only 500,000 of them live in the city. I want to design for the population that we want the city to become home to—I personally think that's around a million and a half people. What that will entail is determining how the city will become more urban, on the one hand, and how the city will enhance nature, on the other, to accommodate triple the inhabitants.

VC: Do we really need any more green space in Atlanta? We've got plenty. In some neighborhoods, posh ones like Buckhead, there are forests all around, and I wonder, "Who owns all this green space that means there isn't another house there when I look out the window of this manse?" Then a friend told me that wealthy homeowners will buy the land and give it over to a land trust so that it's "preserved"— so that nobody will ever be able to build on it. I thought that was so Machiavellian, using green space and green vocabulary to be able to maintain a status quo that is segregated in terms of income, race, and so on, all the while congratulating ourselves for caring about the trees.

TK: I'm not sure that would go down very well in some of our planning meetings! We absolutely do need to become denser. But, if we're going to do that, we're going to want some of those trees around. That's one design project I would like to begin in early 2016: green space will build upon the way the city has evolved over time. I'm talking about prioritizing a natural ecology in the process of becoming more urban: restoring old creeks and urban forests, with streets becoming connectors through greenways. I think it'll be fun to do, because it's also about establishing what in Atlanta is unique and different than in other cities—climate, topography, materials—and incorporating that into design. We're coming up with a set of parameters that are unique to Atlanta to help drive the way we plan for and design the city and the public realm, but also the way we guide public development.

VC: In Atlanta, you don't have views. Every so often I have to go to the top of a tall building to get my bearings because it's like the terrain here occludes itself. There's no geography bisecting human activity, no giant body of water dictating our movements—just trees, over which we assert power.

TK: But that geography is here, and we can shed light on it. Did you know that Peachtree Street is the ridge? Peachtree itself was put on the ridgeline through this whole district. Downtown was built where it is because there was a flat area there. If we had a design program as city—and we need to if we're going to be in a leadership position, globally—I would not like to base it on design ideas imported from other places. I'd like to base it on things like that ridge. I don't think Atlanta has any self-identity at this stage, but I think there is a desire for it; I think Atlantans are ready to know precisely why they can be proud of their city.

VC: Does that identity problem arise from the city having been systematically unplanned, built over, and most of all fragmented, in order to contain communities, to move or to grow others? It impacts the way we socialize on very mundane levels. Take the arts: there are all sorts of creative industries here—music, film, television—and in any other city, we would all be mingling at the same events. Yet we're not congregating; the architecture, or anti-architecture, of the city itself is preventing creatives from cross-pollinating, dialogues from happening. There are actual walls separating neighborhoods here. Of course for critical people, for me, that is also what's attractive about this city: Atlanta has all these issues, which creates this opportunity and this urgency to resolve them.

TK: I felt that way about coming here. The last place I want to go is someplace that's working perfectly. I had interviewed with other places that I was not interested in—on the West Coast, for instance, I got a number of job offers. I went out there and said, "Hell, no. Who wants to be around a bunch of rich people?" There was no way I was going to do that. Atlanta is a fascinating place, and we really tend to compare it to other cities. We absolutely need to move away from that.

VC: The arts community has always been sort of an urban development canary. Downtown redevelopment in particular is on the tips of all our tongues right now, in your office in particular, but it seems to me that the artist-run spaces were there before policy makers were looking at it. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has had headlines claiming that artists are leading the rehab happening there because they're taking over storefronts and making them into project spaces.

TK: : That is actually the area that is of most interest to me right now—I think downtown Atlanta has extraordinary potential. I've met lots of interesting people down there who are really creative, but they're very frustrated.

VC: Well, who isn't.

TK: I'm hoping to help with that.

VC: There are some interesting conversations happening downtown between, say, public transportation efforts through MARTA and community advocacy groups, bike advocacy groups ...

TK: And I ride my bike all the time—not as an exercise or social thing, but purely as a means of transportation, without all the gear you see on the BeltLine, without a helmet. I know; it's dangerous, and downtown Atlanta has it especially difficult, because of the removal of people from the street that happened in the second half of the 20th century, and the inwardness of so many buildings.

VC: You're referring to John Portman's legacy. The Portman thing poses some interesting problem-solving opportunities, though. A friend of mine who used to work for him says, keep the buildings, just destroy the skyways. Portman was responding to this condition in the 1970s where people didn't want to be downtown—white people, anyway—so he gave them sidewalks above the streets. I suggest that rather than blow them up we preserve them, but block them off, fill them with plants or art or something. I think that would undermine them more effectively, and force us to deal with our legacy a little for once.

TK: Portman's work makes gathering and getting around a bigger challenge in today's environment. What happened at Peachtree Center helped the city then: Portman was responding to a real need at the time. How can that kind of approach make a street or a gathering place, now? The answer is that we have to re-design for a new kind of city.

VC: You could turn the Portman buildings into public housing—keep the atria and the spinning restaurant, throw some charter schools in there that could use the recreational facilities.

TK: What about giving them to Georgia State University (GSU)?

VC: Do you think they're going to buy Turner Field once the Braves move to Cobb County?

TK: I don't know, but I think it would be a good thing.

VC: Didn't you recently tell WSB, a local TV station, that you did not support GSU's decision to tear down the Bell Building on Auburn Avenue to make apartments?

TK: I did say that those are great buildings and they shouldn't be torn down. I've dealt with a lot of older buildings in my life, and you can't convince me that they must come down. But look around at what GSU has done and what they've built: it's good they're downtown. Pay attention to the Georgia State buildings. They're making a lot of investments downtown, and I think GSU can drive a lot more improvement there. It's begun to position itself like New York University, in the sense that it needs to be an urban campus—which is the right approach. It just needs help on the details. And we should and can help them with that, for instance by finding another use for the Bell Building that makes sense for GSU economically, for the space architecturally, and for the community in a broad sense. If they invest in historical preservation as well as all these new buildings, including Turner Field, it could be awesome.

VC: Anything that happens to Turner Field would be bittersweet at best, though. Braves games are already so empty that for seven dollars you can sit there in your nosebleed seats, or wherever you want, and you have this exquisite view of downtown, with the Olympic torch and rings from 1996 peering out behind the stadium LEDs.

TK: The braves moving to Cobb County—that's historic. Has ART PAPERS done any work around the Olympics?

VC: We're going to, in 2016—with our transportation issue we are starting to look a lot at infrastructure, and we'll keep doing that going forward. The [20th] anniversary of the Olympics next year marks the anniversary of a lot of Olympics-related infrastructure and development: stadiums, the last major MARTA expansion, if I'm not mistaken. We're going to do a "sports" issue too.

TK: I was thinking about what's left over from the Olympics—Centennial Olympic Park, for one. If we took a different approach to its design, Centennial could be one of the great public spaces in this country. The park falls quite a bit from the top, on the Marietta side, to the bottom, so the site itself hasn't really been engaged. Yet the topography and the edges there actually provide a great opportunity, design-wise.

VC: What is good about Atlanta, infrastructurally? Not in terms of potential—I mean existing.

TK: I think Piedmont Park is the best park in the South. I've seen the best park in every city in the South, and it's the best. The BeltLine, of course, is good. In general I like the edginess of Atlanta—the unplanned nature of it. I'm going to be proposing a lot of changes in my office, in the way we do things, and we'll use the momentum of these successes to continue to grow. But I'll know a lot more by Christmas.

— Victoria Camblin is ART PAPERS editor and artistic director.

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