Commentary: Atlanta's Olympic planners may have set a record for the number of mediocre buildings erected in one place at one time. But there was a method to their mediocrity.

BRASS MEDAL

July 21, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

ATLANTA -- The races are just beginning in the 1996 Olympics, but in many ways the biggest one is already over.

Since 1990, civic leaders in Atlanta and Georgia have been racing to get ready for the 2 million visitors who were expected for the Games.

Now that the opening ceremonies have taken place, it's finally possible to see what they accomplished. The results are stunning in at least one respect:

Never in American history has so much mundane architecture been thrown up in one place at one time -- and on purpose.

With more than $2 billion worth of new construction completed for the Olympics, visitors can't walk anywhere without confronting evidence of the Games. For the most part the work is practical and competent, but it lacks any sense of flair or finesse. Its lackluster quality will disappoint those who remember the architectural gold-medal winners in Barcelona four years ago.

Yet there has been a method to Atlanta's mad building spree, and one cannot help but be intrigued by the unusual strategy that civic leaders pursued in their quest for the gold.

For better or worse, planners never sought to build the expensive monuments that made such a strong impression in Barcelona. Instead, they sought to use the privately funded event to leverage money to build a "legacy" of public works that can serve the city long after the Games.

Organizers realized that this is primarily a television spectacular. They placed a high priority on developing striking graphics that could dress up Atlanta for the worldwide TV audience, while masking any shortcomings.

In taking that approach, they produced a "virtual" Olympics that will indeed look good on TV. And beneath the temporary banners and flags, they got the urban goodies they were after: an improved airport, more parking, street improvements and the first major city park in 25 years.

But they missed the opportunity to give this notoriously centerless city a greater sense of place or personality. After the architectural excitement of Barcelona, this is likely to go down as the ordinary Olympics, the budget-conscious Olympics, the flat Olympics. In the hometown of Coca-Cola, there may be plenty to drink in, but it doesn't have much fizz.

"There are not a lot of frills on these projects," concedes architect Oscar Harris, president of Turner Associates. "These Olympics are about people, the personality of the South. Architecture is not the main event."

The focus just wasn't on design to the same degree it was in Barcelona, said Randal Roark, head of the Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta (CODA).

"No one felt that architectural bravado was the way this Olympics was going to make its mark. This is not a signature Olympics," Roark said. "This isn't a city that does that sort of thing."

A defining moment

The 26th Olympiad represents a defining moment for Atlanta, one that has forced the city to take stock of its assets and decide how it wants to evolve.

"Our entire goal is to ratchet up the quality of life in the city and state, using the Games as the vehicle," explained Richard Monteilh, executive director of the Metropolitan Atlanta Olympic Games Authority. "We're trying to put the money where it can do the most good."

The Olympics are the biggest event to shape the character of Atlanta since Sherman's march to the sea, said local architect William J. Stanley III.

"Everybody wants to put his best foot forward," he said. "Huge company's coming. Bryant and Katie are going to be on TV every day from Atlanta. The whole idea is to prime the pump for the next wave of improvements that will really catapult the city into the next millennium."

The reason for the construction blitz was pure dollars and sense: The Olympics are expected to pump $5 billion into the state's economy by 1997. But to accommodate the deluge of visitors, the city of 400,000 had to expand.

Inside the fence

The projects fall into two categories: what's "inside the fence" and what's "outside the fence." Inside the fence -- areas surrounded by Department of Defense-grade security fences -- are 15 venues that will be accessible to athletes, the media and ticketed spectators. Many fall within the Olympic Ring, a walkable area near downtown that includes the Georgia Dome and the Omni arena.

Other sports venues are spread throughout the city. Two stadiums for field hockey were built at the Atlanta University Center complex west of the business district. An aquatic center rose at the Georgia Institute of Technology, north of downtown. The Olympic Stadium stands next to the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, south of downtown. Five venues are in outlying areas as far away as Savannah, site of the yachting races.

Games-related commissions also include a wide range of temporary structures by FTL/Happold, architects of the Pier 6 Concert Pavilion in Baltimore. All of this work was the responsibility of the nonprofit Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG).

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