A Symbiotic rather than Consumptive Relationship
by Stephen Kieran, FAIA and James Timberlake, FAIA
There is a well known children's story entitled A Little House. That first dwelling, the American primitive hut, we imagine was erected not in the Abbé Laugier's 18th-century European vision of an open classical assemblage of columns, beams and trusses, but rather as a closed fortification of logs laid flat, one atop another. Sited in a clearing created by the felling of trees for the hut itself, this dwelling, above all else, sat alone, not only as house but as fortification against a hostile external world.
By 1942 settlers arrived in automotive waves. First came the highway, then additional homes, then elevated railways and finally, high-rise office structures. The city had come to the clearing. Paradise had indeed been lost.
What relevance does this apocryphal account hold for our 'Tale of Two Cities'? The answer, as we hope to show, is everything. The myth personified by the little house is anti-urban and pro-rural. It glorifies private space and vilifies public space. The Little House portrays with considerable prescience the roles of the automobile and high speed roadways in the urbanisation of the American landscape and the decentralisation of American cities.
Finally, the 'little house' alludes to an automobile induced form of historical overlay that isolates rather than integrates. Historic form, as embodied in the little house, has been abandoned and encircled, island-like instead of offering itself for reinhabitation, addition, alteration, or even destruction. The little house's desire to regain paradise, through relocation rather than to reconstitute itself by temporal integration, is a deeply ingrained aspect of the American mythology - and one which has been responsible for much of the physical form of the American cityscape and landscape of the past quarter century. Instead, we will present a case for a symbiotic rather than consumptive relationship between the perimeter and the traditional city, a relationship in which each prospers from the lessons of the other while maintaining its own integrity.
The Historical Development of Perimeter Center, Georgia
The 'little house' at Perimeter Center outside Atlanta, Georgia is the ruins of the Spruill Farm located in a secluded setting near the Perimeter Center Mall.
Perimeter Center, Georgia, has progressed through ten stages of growth around the nucleus of the Spruill Farm ruin. The first three stages occurred over a period of 120 years while the last seven stages have been condensed into only 20 years. Located 20 miles southeast of the Chattahoochee River on rolling, wooded terrain, the present area of Perimeter Center two centuries ago was laced with Indian trails along the river bank, as well as trails extending to and from the river into the surrounding territory. The first stage of Perimeter Center was this network of trails; the transportation infrastructure of a prosperous native American nation.
Early in the 19th century military outposts were placed at Fort Daniel near Five Points, what now is the centre of Atlanta and at Fort Peachtree on the Chattahoochee, five miles west of the present day Perimeter Center area. An important military route connected Fort Daniel and Fort Peachtree allowing trade and correspondence between them. This early military infrastructure constitutes the second stage of Perimeter Center development. With the forced exodus of the native American, much of the land in the Perimeter Center area became available for agriculture, with the early military roads, developed over the original trails, now transforming their function yet again as the farm-to-market roads.
The third step in the occupation of the Perimeter Center area was the clearing and consolidation of the land into agricultural use protected by the nearby forts. The existing native American military - now farm - roads provided transportation access for agricultural goods. By the late 1830s this access was supplemented by the development of the railroads. The rich farm land of the Perimeter Center area provided agricultural goods which the train transported through Atlanta. The market/military roads provided ready access to the railroad. As land was cleared, farmed, laid fallow and farmed again, the principal features of the rolling landscape were altered. This agricultural alteration later proved attractive to the speculator/developer who followed the farmer to the property.
The Spruill Farm was one of many family owned plots which began modestly in the late 19th century. The farm increased in size as the central market, Atlanta, to which it supplied goods, expanded. Protected by the rolling land which presented difficulties for most major transportation access, Atlanta perimeter development extended radially along the railroad lines. The growth of the Spruill Farm and other farms over 80 years from the last quarter of the 19th century through the 1950s encompassed the fourth stage in the development of Perimeter Center.
Fifthly, the momentous occurrence that had to transpire before the Perimeter Center could come into existence was the insertion of the high speed interstate highway system over the existing regional and local highways. The planning of the interstate highway system began in the late 1950s. In Atlanta, a landlocked interior metropolitan area unencumbered by major geographical obstacles, both interurban freeways and an encompassing beltway were planned. The interurban highways were to follow the natural geographic form which the railways occupied converging on the Five Point area in central Atlanta. The beltway was planned to ring the central city alleviating through traffic using the north-south interstate roads by diverting it to the Atlanta perimeter. The interurban roadways would provide the radiating spokes on this wheel of infrastructure, all centered on the hub: Atlanta.
Like much urban infrastructure throughout history the origins of the interstate highway system were military. Two early selling points for this massive network of highways were the ability to transport troops swiftly across the breadth of the country and its usefulness as an evacuation system in the event of nuclear warfare. In addition to the city-to-city connections afforded by the interstate system, a common characteristic of the network is the central city ring road or beltway.
What was not foreseen by America's military tacticians, however, was the inadvertent manner in which the interstate highway system would become the enabling mechanism for the city of the late 20th and 21st centuries. At the intersections of the spokes and perimeter beltway around Atlanta, land speculators began to gather inexpensive land along the planned path of the new highways. This effected the sixth step in the development of Perimeter Center.
The Perimeter Center Mall was developed in the late 1960s on one edge of the Spruill Farm land. This event became the seventh step in the development of Perimeter Center. Located at the intersection of a major regional road and the new perimeter beltway, the easy-on, easy-off access to a new commercial centre attracted shoppers from the Atlanta regional area. Surrounded by large parking areas and supplemented by accessory commercial establishments, the mall established Perimeter Center as a destination.
The eighth step became the introduction and improvement of a major north-south regional highway, Route 400, on the eastern fringe of the Spruill Farm area. The cloverleaf marked the new crossroads of Perimeter Center. Automobile access was increased fourfold. New entrances could now be made from the east which supplemented the road access from the south. The new highway simultaneously divided the development area at the same time increasing the amount of land available for new building.
Low-rise speculative office structures were built on property across the road from the mall. The shopping destination was now an attractive place to work for the back-office white collar worker. The speculator/developers seized the opportunities afforded by the highways and inexpensive land to provide comfortable secluded office space. The Perimeter Center as a place to work besides shop became the pivotal ninth step during the 1970s and early 1980s in the new perimeter city.
New higher rise office structures supplemented the low-rise back offices. The office structures required parking structures for the increased numbers of automobiles coursing the roadways leading to the garden towers. Corporations now found a destination for front office corporate officers in shiny new towers with views of the Atlanta countryside.
The tenth and final step in the new perimeter city was the addition of housing within the boundaries made by the beltway and Route 400. The new perimeter city was no longer just a destination but a place to live, shop and work. The houses were convenient to the office workers in Perimeter Center, but also convenient to many other perimeter centre developments and Atlanta. The former woodland, transformed by foot trails and by farming, and again by proximity to the interstate highway, had transformed again from a destination at the fringe of the central city to a contributing perimeter city with a daily population of 30,000.
The Historical Development of Atlanta
From the early 19th century through to the present the City of Atlanta followed five stages of development adapted from the model proposed by the urban geographer, John Adams, in his article 'Residential Structures of Midwestern Cities.' His hypothesis regarding the four stage pattern of development of major metropolitan centres follows a repetitious diagram of circular and star shaped boundaries. The circular boundaries change with the expansion into new properties and infill of the neighbourhoods which then are developed on these properties. Atlanta closely parallels Mr. Adams' four stages, the 'walking horsecar' era, the 'electric streetcar' era, the 'recreational automobile' era, and the 'freeway' era, as the last four stages of development, with our addition of an important first stage, the native American trail-cum-farm-to-market road era.
The combination of early public and private ventures became the model for the expansion of the metropolitan areas surrounding the central city.
The walking/horsecar era of Atlanta resulted in a tight circumferential nucleus of living and working areas interspersed tightly to service localised companies. This period in the Atlanta area began in 1847 and ended in 1880. Atlanta's trolley era, from the late 1880s to 1940, developed in a star shaped pattern following the five old farm-to-market roads which converged on the centre at Five Points. The new public and private developments spurred the creation of new affluent neighbourhoods away from the central city connected by horse drawn trolleys. These new neighborhoods, such as Inman Park and Druid Hill, were fashionable areas of large homes set in park-like settings, separated from the hustle and bustle of the industrial and commercial centre. The trolleys, first powered by horses and then by electrification, made these housing suburbs accessible. An important event which began this second stage of Atlanta's development was marked when Frederick Law Olmsted, the first great American landscape architect, was hired by the creator of the first trolley line in Atlanta, Joel Hurt, to lay out Inman Park. The recreational automobile period in Atlanta began prior to World War II and overlapped the pinnacle of trolley car use. The access afforded by the automobile created another, larger circular boundary of neighborhoods ringing the downtown district, reinforcing the separation of housing areas. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the star shaped pattern re-emerged with the introduction of the interstate highway system. In Atlanta these highways followed earlier patterns of infrastructural development along the five topographical ridges. The earlier native American trails, turned into farm-to-market roads which became the paths of the railroads, which the trolleys paralleled and the improved roads for the early automobile traced, the initial interurban freeways finally overlaid. The final parallel in the developmental model is culminated by the interstate highway ring road, I-285, creating a new circular boundary for the aspiring speculator/developer to infill.
The next question concerns the nature of this new urban form: just what is it that has been unleashed across the American landscape? The Perimeter Center is entirely dependent upon its sustenance and growth from the central city, while in turn, the central city in the late 20th century has thrived on the healthy commercial energy of vibrant perimeter centres to which it is related. In short, the Perimeter Center is definable as a city. But what kind of city? Further, the central city and Perimeter Center can coexist and suggest to us a new structure of metropolitan regional form. But what kind of form?
Perimeter Center: the Vernacular Realisation of the Modernist Utopia
A well documented tactic in the making of 20th-century art and architecture appropriates vernacular substance, be it a bicycle handlebar or a Greek island village, and transforms its context and hence its substance for high art intention. In a late modern reversal of this process, it is our contention that perimeter centres, in general, and Perimeter Center, Georgia, in particular, may be understood as the transformation of high art aspirations for the modern city into vernacular substance; that the modern city, whether Ebenezer Howard's Garden City, Le Corbusier's Radiant City, or Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City, has indeed come to pass, at least in part, but not simply as a result of central city displacement (Howard), replacement (Le Corbusier), or absorption (Wright). Rather, the dream of the coming city in the garden, the evasive paradise regained so eagerly awaited by those of the modernist persuasion, is here amongst us, unrecognised, in the guise of the perimeter centre. We further contend that this emerging vernacular form may be understood in large part by reference to the utopian visions of Howard, Le Corbusier and Wright.
The Enabling Prophesy
Each of these visionaries has constructed an enabling prophesy that provides initial access to the form, but not the political, social and economic agenda, of the perimeter center. The regional form of Howard's proposition, with the automobile beltway substituted for the circumferential railway, is startlingly prophetic. Furthermore, the concept of the greenbelt as dedicated garden may be reinterpreted as the ubiquitous green landscape veil as we shall demonstrate, the very substance of the new perimeter centre.
Le Corbusier's view of the city as an unending garden, with buildings as viewing platforms for the contemplation of the garden, has also proven prophetic, but with a significant disjunction. Neither buildings nor garden have been realised as object-type universal form. Rather, the uniform, continuous and fully public garden of the Radiant City has dissolved at the Perimeter Center into a diverse landscape of privatised gardens and structures, each deliberately distinct from its neighbours, giving rise to a new form of garden paradise based upon diversity and difference rather than uniformity.
Of the three modernist visionaries we have been examining, Wright has proven the most prophetic of perimeter centre form. His advocacy of dispersal with the city understood as the summation of each citizen's daily destinations, shows the way forward to comprehension of perimeter centre not as conventional building to building, or building to road relationships, but rather as an abstract circuitry of roadways, each isolated from the next by an insulating green landscape veil connecting unseen structures in unseen gardens of commerce and living.
In his insistence on the sanctity of the family home as the only true centre of the coming city, however, Wright's prophesy falls short. It is the automobile, the infamous steel cocoon, that has become the infinitely transportable centre of the new city, with time, specifically driving time, not distance, becoming the measure.
Understanding Perimeter Center and the Composite Regional City
Important to comprehension of the locational and organisational genesis of most urban form is analysis of transportation infrastructure. 18th and 19th-century city locations may be first understood by their obvious relationships to port and rail connections. In the case of Perimeter Center, however, the generative infrastructure is a hierarchical composite of roadways ranging from single lane driveways to 12 lane interstate highways. What is historically disjunctive about this infrastructure occurs at the largest scale - the interstate highway. It is this high speed roadway that provides the enabling mechanism for the reclamation of paradise in the extended American landscape. At the same time, however, it is the interstate highway system that renders most recent modes of urban comprehension mute in attempts to coalesce form from the apparent disarray of Perimeter Center.
Kahn's assertion that the street was the 'room of the city' rendered street-making a pedestrian centred positive act rather than a residual effect. At the same time, however, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown were presenting an altogether different but equally compelling vision of another type of streetscape. While the notion is now familiar to us all, the suggestion that fully automotive accessed streetscape could be comprehended better through signs and symbols, not space, when viewed from a car at 30-45 MPH was profound.
Like a broken kaleidoscope in which the elements fail to coalesce into recognisable patterns, the Perimeter Center figures appear as isolated, wholly internalised fragments, neither figure nor ground. Similarly, Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour's comprehension of the strip as an informational streetscape appears ordered and comprehensible not only as information, but even as space, when compared to Perimeter Center.
If Kahn's poetic definition of the justly famous Nolli plan has become the architect's icon of the traditional city, and Venturi, Scott Brown's strip has assumed a comparable role in our understanding of the mid-speed automotive world, then what is the graphic icon of the high speed Perimeter Center? Neither figure nor information display, we maintain that the graphic icon of this new urban form most closely resembles pneumatic or electronic circuitry, with each line representing an individual automotive path and each nodal point in the diagram corresponding to a building or site destination. The most pervasive room of this new city is the car interior. It is our contention, however, that this circuitry and the garden it occupies can sustain analysis as purposeful - even desirable - vernacular form.
The Road within the Greenveil
Main Street spatially defines itself by the buildings that line it. The strip gains identity by the signs and objects along its path. The Perimeter Center roadway, by contrast, exists visually independent of buildings. The organising principle for all hierarchies of perimeter centre roads is the 'greenveil,' a uniformly deep band of lawn or ornamental landscape to either side, bounded by a border screen of trees of varying depth. Along the limited access highway a visual building to roadway connection serves no purpose. There is no opportunity to motor directly from the high speed roadway to any adjoining building. Furthermore, the noise and safety concerns generated by high speed traffic have provided an additional engineering justification. The greenveil landscape isolates the roadway visually from buildings and other roads, but it nonetheless provides a new form of connection, the only relevant one at high speeds, the continuous landscape of the highway edge. Further, this greenveil landscape has extended itself into the form of the Perimeter Center itself. Originally conceived in Howard's Garden City as landscape bands separating institutional, mercantile, residential, and industrial uses, the greenveil has also been adopted by the gardener and developer as the model for infrastructural and building to building relationships within Perimeter Center. Unlike the conventional city, or even the strip, in which buildings and roadways define each other and become repetitive fabric. We are, in fact, experiencing with the Perimeter Center the substitution of landscape for building and roadway as the principal ground of the new city.
The Land Bay as Private Garden
The basic cell of the conventional city is the block, consistent with Nolli's image of the figured city as a solid form given comprehensibility by its voids. It is a regular spatial unit that may be subdivided into hundreds of small buildings or spaces, or it may be occupied by a single building or space. The sub-cellular structures that occupy the block are often genetically coded to exhibit conventional relationships to each other and to the sustaining circulatory infrastructure of streets and sidewalks. The cellular unit of the Perimeter Center is not the block but the land bay. The land bay, by contrast to the block, implies a void to be parked upon, ship-like, by a temporary tenant. In that sense, its image is entirely consistent with the high speed driven world of the Perimeter Center.
As historic urban zoning regulations, such as height and setbacks, are the form of the conventional city, the zoning of the Perimeter Center is, in fact, consistent with its intended form. And that desired form is the accessible garden - not the conventional city of streets and buildings. Seen in this way as a codified vernacular, Perimeter Center land platting is able to be interpreted as a deliberate collection of individual land bays developed as private gardens in which one works, markets, resides and defines a collective realm.
The Building in the Private Garden
Within the Perimeter Center land bay, garden-to-building relationships, not building-to-building relationships, are the only formally substantive physical relationships. The buildings themselves may be best analysed as components of garden form not as typologies that may exist independent of landscape.
The understanding of this new city of work in the garden is manifested first in the names of what one might formerly have referred to as a complex of office buildings but, in the case of Perimeter Center, now attains identity by reference to specific gardens. 'Ravinia' at Perimeter Center is a hybrid of two landscape types: 'ravine' and 'arcadia' - or the ravine in arcadia. It is this ravine in a densely treed landscape, that is the dominant image of Ravinia - not the buildings - which are only perceived obliquely through the scrim of this organising landscape.
'Central Park,' also at Perimeter Center, similarly orchestrates its offices and structured parking as components of landscape form as a sequential unfolding discovery of open fields culminating in the object of use - the office building.
For marketing purposes, where distinction from the competition in our late-capitalist, segmented marketplace is highly valued, each such private garden of work is differentiated from its neighbour by its referent garden type, with the component garden landscapes of the entire assemblage separated from each other by the only common element, the ubiquitous greenveil.
The Mall in the Car Park
The regional mall is arguably the most significant new building type of the postwar era. Just as the place of work in Perimeter Center may be understood through reference to landscape, so too may the mall be appropriately interrogated not by reference to Main Street, as has so often been the tactic of recent observers, but rather as a composite landscape/parkingscape/buildingscape. It is not, namely, a public outdoor street accessible to both wheeled vehicles and pedestrians. What the mall is, in fact, is a private, mercantile winter garden, accessible only to pedestrians, centred in a parkingscape encircled by a greenveiled loop road. As such, it is a vernacular reflection of a number of high modern agendas including the separation of vehicular and pedestrian traffic, the climatisation of the garden, and the displacement of the mercantile experience from the street.
The Home in the Garden
The typical Perimeter Center home is most often single family or attached multi-family with occasional apartment complexes interspersed. It is the most extended component of the new city and may be located anywhere within an hour's drive of Perimeter Center. In this regard Wright's Broadacre proposal, with its even dispersal of homes stretched across the continent, has proven prophetic. The individual home of the Perimeter Center citizens, like the office building, sits in a private, bounded garden. While it was Wright's Usonian intention that this garden would be agriculturally developed, most domestic Perimeter Center gardens are ornamental - only for symbolic contemplation - or recreational.
The Regional Form of Paradise
The structural pattern represented so insistently at Perimeter Center can be understood on the one hand as vernacular form. On the other hand, one can interpret what has transpired at Perimeter Center as the vindication of the modernist vision of the city in the garden. The city in the garden did not happen, as Le Corbusier and Wright hoped, but rather has come to pass at a new peripheral Eden. One is struck by the analogy between the famous terrace top view of the inhabitant of Corbusier's Radiant City and the gardener/developer's vision of life on the terrace above the garden ground plan at North Park. In short, the vision of the city in the garden has come to pass, but displaced to the urban perimeter with a significant twist: the uniform landscape topography of both the Radiant City and Broadacre has given way at Perimeter Center to specificity of landscape type. Rather than a single public garden, the new city is a collection of private gardens, each with a referent landscape intended to distinguish it from its competing neighbours, each separated from its neighbours by a greenveil and by patterns of automobile access that stress discontinuity. A composite of the modern vision of Eden has indeed returned: at Perimeter Center, the garden exists first and, along with the hierarchy of roadways it lines, the garden is the substance of the new Perimeter Center.
The Perimeter Center Citizen
To round out our comprehension of the form of the new Perimeter Center, one must have a clear image of its typical citizen. Belief in the typical citizen is of course a substantial myth in its own right. In fact, much of the apparent disarray of the Perimeter Center exists by comparison, either real or imagined, to actual 19th-century cities that were often based on a factually homogenous populace, or conversely, to utopian 20th-century visions predicated on a supposed generic balanced citizen of newfound health and vigorous intellect.
The perimeter city citizen is collectively everything urban reformers hoped we would not become. Based upon the physical evidence of the Perimeter Center, an anthropologist would have to assume its citizens like to work, to drive and to shop. Further, our anthropologist would be forced to conclude that the citizens of the Perimeter Center, as personified in The Little House, like to live in privatised space, both outdoor and indoor. Otherwise, how could one explain the absence of contact with public space as one moves back and forth from private yard to private office or mall, all within the privatised realm of the automobile, communicating by telephone or facsimile and using the water cooler at the office as the primary means of social contact?
Trouble in Paradise
Unlike many who are obsessively focused on the evils of the automobile and its attendant dispersal of the American city throughout the landscape, it is our contention that the central issue lies not with the form of the Perimeter Center, which is an extension of a tradition of dispersal and isolation in the landscape, but rather with the social and political construction and its relationship to the central city. This relationship, unfortunately, also often follows the lead of high modern theory and advocates the abolition of the centre rather than regional economic and formal integration.
The 21st-century American metropolitan region should be based upon symbiotic rather than mutually consumptive relationships between the central city and its perimeter centres. The central city needs perimeter cities and conversely, perimeter centres need the central city. Each cannot define itself without the other.
Perimeter Center, unlike the intended prophesy of Broadacre, will not consume Atlanta where it stands. Nor will Le Corbusier's radiant city replace the historic core.
We argue, however, that the perimeter city offers substantial lessons for the central city. We are asking that we allow the central city to live by natural selection, rather than suffer death by history. Through the accommodation of certain aspects of the contemporary social and technological programme made manifest in the Perimeter Center, we believe the central city can correct itself, respond to the perimeter and in turn by inclusion of certain aspects of the social and economic agenda of the central city, the perimeter can accommodate the central city without political, economic or social hegemony.
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Credits and Captions from Original Article
photo legends: From above: The Spruill Farm, Perimeter Center Georgia, 1990; composite plan of King of Prussia scheme over Center City street plan of Philadelphia; From left to right: View of Atlanta, c1910; aerial view of I-285/I-85 interchange, 1990; From left to right: Aerial view of Cumberland mall, Georgia, 1991; aerial view of Atlanta, from north, c1990; Ravinia, Roche-Dinkeloo Architects, Gerald Hines Inc, 1990; North Park Town Center, terrace top view, Perimeter Center, Georgia, 1990