Athens on the Interstate

A neoclassical designer attempts to civilize Atlanta
   by Paul Goldberger, as reprinted from The New Yorker, February 1999

Rodney Mims Cook, Jr., insisted that I meet him at the Piedmont Driving Club as soon as I arrived in Atlanta, even thought it was closed. He went to some trouble to make certain that the club, his club, opened its doors on a Monday--the one day of the week on which Atlanta society traditionally finds someplace else to eat and drink--because the Piedmont Driving Club very clearly demonstrates, if one had somehow forgotten, that Atlanta is not entirely a city of glass office towers set astride shopping malls. It is an easy thing to forget in much of the city. Atlanta's most famous thoroughfare, Peachtree Street, is Wilshire Boulevard with a Southern accent: a line of office and apartment towers, strip malls, gas stations, and hotels. For most of its length, it is not much pleasanter to stroll on than an interstate highway. Atlanta grew large and powerful in the age of the automobile, and underneath its thin Georgia veneer it has a lot more in common with Houston than with Savannah.

The Piedmont Driving Club, which attained a certain notoriety recently as the settling for satiric scenes in Tom Wolfe's novel "A Man in Full," was established in the nineteenth century as the Gentlemen's Driving Club, and provided a place for Atlanta's gentry to cavort in carriages and broughams. The clubhouse was built in 1887, but it didn't really come into its own until the nineteen-twenties, when it was renovated and expanded by Philip Trammell Shutze, one of the great classicists of modern times, who turned an old, farm-houselike building into a sprawling complex of dining rooms, bars, lounges, and a ballroom. Today, the building is a curious mixture of elegant neoclassical details and graceless remnants of fairly recent renovations, like the acoustical-tile ceiling in a room lined with exquisite mahogany paneling. The place has the feel of a rich, slightly bland country club that somehow cut loose from its golf course and drifted back toward the center of town. I liked seeing it empty: the Driving Club without its Drivers, except for Rodney Cook, who is a typical Old Guard member. Many of the newer members are more like Charlie Croker, Wolfe's overextended real-estate-developer protagonist, who made his fortune building glass office towers and created a private world surrounded by symbols of old money.

When you meet Cook, you wonder why Tom Wolfe didn't build a character around him as a foil to Charlie Croker, except that maybe it would have been too easy. Croker eats people like Rodney Cook for lunch. Cook is an affable and quiet man of forty-one who wears tweed jackets and khaki pants and projects the earnest demeanor of a missionary, which is more or less what he believes himself to be. He is a prominent member of a small band of young American classical designers, people who are determined to mark the end of the twentieth century with pediments and Doric columns. Many of them, like the architects in the firm of Ferguson, Shamamian & Rattner, are based in New York, where new Wall Street money seeking to look old provides ample call for their services. Doing this kind of work in Atlanta is more of a challenge.

Rodney Cook aspires to be the kind of figure Philip Trammell Shutze was. Shutze, who died in 1982, at the age of ninety-two, scattered mansions of remarkable elegance, inventiveness, and finesse across the wealthier sections of Atlanta. Cook himself grew up frolicking in one of the greatest Shutze houses, which was owned by an uncle. His father-in-law, James Robinson III, the former chairman of American Express, was raised in another Shutze mansion-the house that Tom Wolfe purloined as the home of the tycoon Inman Armholster in "A Man in Full." Wolfe described it as an "Italian Baroque palazzo…sheer homage to conspicuous consumption." Cook idolized Shutze, whom he met when he was going to school, and that kept him, he thinks, on track. "My friends were going in classical and coming out modern, to my horror," he says. "I mentioned this to Mr. Shutze, and he said, 'I'm sorry, Mr. Cook. You're going to have a life of misery.' But I pushed on."

Cook doesn't live in a Shutze house now. Until recently, he and his wife, Emily, and their two daughters lived in an apricot-colored mini-Italianate stucco palazzo of his design. They sold it so that they could buy a sixty-acre estate in Buckhead, a Beverly Hills-like mix of glass towers, shopping malls, and mega-mansions where the richest citizens of the city live, and where Cook is developing an enclave of classically styled houses. His office on the grounds of the estate is a renovated stable, which he expanded into a residence for his family. Until the house, a turreted structure that looks something like a Russian dacha, was ready, they lived with Emily Cook's grandmother, Josephine Robinson, in a huge modern high-rise apartment that Rodney Gook outfitted with enough classical trim to obliterate all traces of the original architecture.

Cook wants classical architecture to be something more than fancy dress for the rich. He wants to remake the whole cityscape. He has had one public commission: a small museum for the work of the nineteenth-century painter Jasper Cropsey in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. A vaguely Baroque jewel box of a building, it was finished in 1994. In Atlanta, however, he is under siege--or, at any rate, that is how he sees it. "There is a climate of hostility here to what I'm trying to do," he says, and explains that it is a kind of "hostility to beauty."

When Philip Trammell Shutze was designing buildings, the traditional nature of the architecture expressed the certainty of the social order. Irony was uncalled for, and the striking forms of modernism were barely known. But these are ironic, not to say ambiguous, times. Modernism cannot be denied, and neoclassical and Renaissance and Georgian and Baroque buildings, however well executed, risk looking like chic stage sets, pretty but shallow. Cook talks of beauty and proportion and history in a city that defines its architecture in terms of depreciation and marketing and easy access to the interstate.

Real-Life Charlie Crokers, of which Atlanta has plenty, should have made quick work of Rodney Cook long ago, but, oddly enough, they haven't. Cook has had an interesting effect on the city's corpus, if not on its soul. A couple of years ago, he managed, with the cooperation and the financial support of Prince Charles, the patron saint of contemporary classicists, to erect a fifty-five-foot-tall monument at Pershing Point, one of Atlanta's prime intersections, along Peachtree Street. A round structure with five columns crowned with bronze figures holding up a globe, it was intended to suggest a tie between the classical tradition in architecture and the Olympics, which were held in Atlanta in 1996. It is officially called the World Athletes Monument, although it is popularly known as the Prince Charles monument, and--for reasons that would have been impossible to anticipate--it has ended up as a memorial to the Prince's late wife. When Diana was killed, grieving Atlantans seized upon the site as the locus of their emotions. Crowds thronged the tiny traffic island on which the monument sits, depositing flowers and lingering through the night.

Cook's success in getting the Prince's monument built followed a failed attempt to impose his vision on Atlanta in a more grandiose manner. In 1992, he proposed putting a huge Beaux Arts-style plaza of his design in Piedmont Park, which is somewhat run-down and just happens to be beneath the windows of the Piedmont Driving Club. An anonymous donor--who was thought in some Atlanta circles to be connected with Cook and his wife's family--offered to foot the ten-million-dollar bill. This project was also intended to mark the Olympics, but it was soon mired in local politics, and was ultimately rejected as being too fancy, too much Rodney Cook's own, too much a piece of noblesse oblige to be in tune with the democratic, free-flowing spirit that the city hoped to convey through its public spaces during the Olympic Games.

Not that there is much public space of any kind in Atlanta. When the Prince Charles monument suddenly became central to Atlanta's civic life, it was not only because of Diana's husband's connection to it but also because there aren't a lot of places in the city that fulfill the traditional function of a communal gathering place. If Atlantans feel like congregating, where are they to go? Do they pour into the parking lot at the Lenox Square mall? Take over the field at the Georgia Tech football stadium? Maybe they could assemble in the atrium of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. As the architect Charles Moore once noted about Los Angeles, where would you go to start a revolution?

The extent to which the monument seems to have settled into the fabric of the city suggests that traditional urban forms can still have an impact, even in a city as wedded to the automobile and urban sprawl as Atlanta is. Rodney Cook certainly saw it that way. He looked around the triangular, grassy site and noticed that there was an empty lot beside it, and he began to wonder if he could make the monument the focal point of something bigger; with a little effort, he thought, he could turn the traffic island into a traditional piazza, right on Peachtree Street. And so Cook and his partner, an Atlanta architect named Peter Polites (Cook himself is not technically an architect, and collaborates with Polites on most of his work), designed an office building to fill the empty lot, closing off the west side of the site and giving the place at least the beginnings of the qualities of a real urban square. If the proposed structure is built--and Cook and others are trying to find financing to develop it themselves--it would be Atlanta's first office building with a façade inspired by the Farnese Palace, Sangallo and Michelangelo's mid-sixteenth-century Roman masterpiece.

The building proposed for the Prince's monument site seems like an earnest and endearing affectation until you consider the grim legacy of architecture in Atlanta. There is no modern building that even approaches the stature of New York's Seagram Building or Lever House. In a city where most medium-sized office buildings look like pint-size versions of bigger ones, the notion of a structure that is a nicely proportioned seven or eight stories is itself radical.

The ersatz Palazzo Farnese would give Cook, who has thus far designed houses, apartment interiors, and the little museum in upstate New York, his first major civic building. (Neither Cook nor Polites actually created the design for the World Athletes Monument, it should be said, though Cook was very much its impresario. The specific design was the result of a competition open to students affiliated with Prince Charles's institute for the study of classical architecture. The winner was a young Russian, Anton Glikine.) The scheme makes sense not because the building is a piece of classical architecture but because, if it is built, it will be a piece of classical city planning. If there is one area in which modernism has failed abysmally, it is in creating civilized urban spaces.

Can you graft old-fashioned urban space onto a postwar city? That Cook wants to try makes his proposal something more than merely charming. Most cities defined by the automobile have been resistant to such attempts; cars are just too overwhelming, and the cityscape of freeway interchanges, wide boulevards, parking garages, and shopping malls that they create has such power and presence in its own right, not to mention scale, that small, pedestrian-oriented places inserted into the middle of it usually end up looking trite and silly. That's certainly the case with, say, CityWalk, at Universal Studios, in Los Angeles, a street of stores and restaurants and theatres; it's hard to tell whether it is a street masquerading as a theme park or a theme park masquerading as a street. So, too, with Two Rodeo Drive, the upscale little shopping mall in the middle of Beverly Hills which has been designed as a faux European street. Cuteness is not the antidote to the plague of the automobile-oriented city. Not that anyone will dismiss Cook's new square, if it ever gets built, as too cute. While the piazza would indeed have the Prince's monument as its centerpiece, it would also have a couple of on-ramps to Interstate 85 swooping through the middle of it. Apparently, the ramps cannot be moved, even though the Georgia Department of Transportation is a big supporter of the project.

The square could end up being no more than a sweet-natured irrelevance in the sprawl of the city, which is how many Atlantans view the Prince Charles monument already. Yet, while not a great work by any means, it resonates with a pleasant if not a particularly profound unself-consciousness, and manages to rise above kitsch. The monument does something else, too, which may in the end turn out to be its real justification. It addresses as nothing else has a certain schizophrenic aspect of the architecture of Atlanta. For the last couple of generations, traditional architecture and modern architecture in the city have been set on opposite sides of a firm divide. Not for nothing did Tom Wolfe portray Charlie Croker as living in an old mansion in Buckhead while making his money as a builder of glass office towers along the interstate. Wolfe had it exactly right. In Atlanta, that's what you do once you hit a certain demographic category. Classical architecture is what you live in, and modern architecture is what you work in. The number of modern houses of significant quality in Atlanta is very small. Atlantans want to live in Philip Trammell Shutze houses, but they expect to go to work in John Portman towers. Rodney Cook and Peter Polites are attempting to break through this divide, to build a public realm of traditional, rather than modern, elements, thus repudiating the gentleman's agreement under which architecture has been practiced in this city for generations. They want to bring classicism out into the open, coaxing from it some response to the wretchedly automobilized cityscape that the last half century has created.

It may be naïve to believe that classicism will succeed in doing that in Atlanta any better than it has managed to elsewhere: the paneled libraries of the real-life Charlie Crokers, self-indulgent symbols of an arriviste class, do nothing to push the art of architecture forward. And behind them lurks, as always, the danger of the theme park, the risk that the unpleasantness of the modern city will be replaced by the coy disingenuousness of a make-believe old-fashioned one. But it's hard to deny that Rodney Cook's vision of the city represents, at the very least, a break from the architectural sanctimony on which so much of Atlanta was built.

As reprinted from The New Yorker, February 1999

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