Turning Inwards

Another era

Coming out of the 3-day Green Building Focus conference last week, I thought I’d post a few images of our local convention center, the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, located just north of the I-20/I-59 connector from the CBD. An example of many maxims of 1960’s “urban renewal” thinking, this complex when completed in 1976 after 6 years construction was among the top 20 largest convention centers in the nation, and had a total price tag of almost $400 M in today’s money. Intended as a true “civic center”, with theatre, exhibition, sports, restaurant, and performance arranged around a courtyard, its design–one of 1966’s major national competitions–was pretty well received at the time. Bhamwiki has an excellent history of the competition here.

All pavers point to... a trash can

While the forms themselves may be described as somewhat “brutalist”, with their large, unrelieved masses, lack of human scale, and hostile attitude to the street and any existing fabric, at this point in history one can appreciate the sculptural quality of some of the massing and space-making. The actual concrete panels and other materials feel worn and somewhat cheap, however–and of course the silly retro-lamps and sad little planters recently placed around the courtyard to “soften” things need to be replaced with accessories more appropriate to the scale of the surroundings. The courtyard itself–cut off from the surrounding streets, almost unknown to visitors and citizens alike unless you have occasion to attend an event here–was never truly civic. It is too isolated, too closed from the day-to-day activity of a major city around it. Not to mention the terrible idea to locate the interstate connector between the historic downtown and the complex.

Waiting for a change

As many of us know, there have been major changes suggested for the BJCC in recent years, including the addition of a major domed stadium and an entertainment district, and the submerging of the interstate connector. While the complex would be well served by an expansion and general updating in my opinion, let’s take a little time to appreciate the earnest efforts of Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham, architects (now defunct) from Philadelphia, PA—which have given us a pretty unique urban environment, albeit it one with some serious flaws.  It’s a little bit of Brasilia in Birmingham.

In the meantime, let’s order some new light posts and planters.

14 responses to “Turning Inwards

  1. BJCC was one of many new civic clusters inspired by Lincoln Center. Many questioned at the time the wisdom such aggregation, but there was place-making potential. Lincoln Center did help regenerate a then-troublesome part of Manhattan (the setting for West Side Story!) , but BJCC has not stimulated anything due to the isolation you describe. BJCC has had to build the Sheraton and now plans to try and add supportive urbanity. The only true long-term solution is dropping I 20/59 below grade and making pedestrian/transit links to downtown. There ought to be a truly objective study of BJCC and its long-term relation to the city — one not run by sports interests.

    • So true–we would probably have a nicely renovated BJCC by now if it hadn’t gotten identified with “the dome” back with MAPS in the late 1990’s. Very polarizing. And here we sit, with an outdated facility languishing unloved and under-used. And to think Birmingham stepped out on a limb back over 40 years ago to hold a design competition for such a huge, ambitious project. Where has that confidence in the future gone?

  2. Pingback: The Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Complex: does it work? | The Red Mountain Post

  3. I hated the Civic Center then and I hate it now. I won’t go there unless I’m threatened with a beating. Your observations are, of course, absolutely right. I’m so glad to hear you, and one of your commenters, say that the submerging of the interstate is the best solution to the urban nowhere we have now– along with completely redesigning, or knocking down, the Civic Center itself. I’m afraid the desire to do the right thing with the interstate isn’t strong enough to overcome inertia, however, and the City’s and the public’s interest in other things– like the idea of an “entertainment” district, where we can sit under the lights and listen to the cars and trucks go by. Why is Birmingham always the last place to catch on?

    • With enough resources, I could imagine a totally revamped BJCC, with a submerged interstate covered with pedestrian walks, cross streets, and parks, and rather than an isolated “entertainment district” a really nice urban infill project that’s contextual to the surrounding fabric (once the interstate is submerged, that is). I really think adding to/reformulating the existing buildings could work–rather than tearing it all down. Perhaps I’m too optimistic?

  4. I agree with you on dropping I 20/59. This would definitely bring The Civic Center into the city, and I was very excited to see this proposal in the City Center Master plan, several years ago. My father anticipated the problem of isolation from the city in the early days of planning. He very definitely wanted the Civic Center to be connected to Linn (Woodrow Wilson) Park. In a recent conversation, he spoke of meeting with the highway department to consider moving the interstate north of the then proposed Civic Center site. He was told that unfortunately, the property rights for the proposed Interstate had already been acquired, and that a change at this time would have set the highway project back several years, and was politically not feasible at the time.

    The idea of burying the interstate seemed too expensive at the time, but I have heard that the interstate bridges will have to rebuilt soon, anyway, and that burying actually might be a cost-competitive solution to the bridge problem.

    • Fascinating bit of history–thanks for sharing. And ironic, since due to obstructionist politics, Birmingham’s freeway system actually took many more years than other comparable city systems. In this case I wish they’d gone with your father’s advice–it would’ve been worth the wait!

    • Hi, Neighbor! That WAS a fascinating bit of history, about your father and his misgivings about the interstate— all borne out, it seems. I’ve heard that the story goes: Bull Connor was influential in the route of the highway and got it pulled more southerly through the black neighborhoods because he wanted to knock down a few houses on Dynamite Hill, aka Center Street. He got his way, naturally. Mrs. John Drew told that to Marjorie before she died.

  5. The interstate routing was assumed in all of the competition entries. You can flip through the oversize book of proposals at the Linn-Henley Research Library and see how 277 mostly-less-than-truly-qualified designers all addressed the problem. The one I remember best was one that proposed a large grassy mound which effectively “buried” the interstate and provided grassy slopes as an urban attraction, with the Civic Center spaces buried Hobbit-style around a sunken courtyard. This was not entirely different from the initial schemes for the Railroad Park (before the railroad itself blockaded the execution of that idea).

  6. There was indeed a third-party study commissioned for de-elevating that segment of highway below grade. Like a lot of studies, its just that – a study that sits among other unimplemented planning documents on a shelf. The problem here, as I see it, is political momentum and capital. Much of I-20/59 is also approaching the end of its structural life. In a state where we can’t even finish Corridor X or the Beltline (not that they should have been built in the first place, but that’s another argument), and if Boston’s Big Dig is any indication, we should be very wary of letting ALDOT do anything but pave roads. Conceptually, its a brilliant idea, but de-elevated megaproject highways are no more economically sustainable than the boondoggle Toll road certain highway huggers want to inflict upon 280.
    We’ve squandered what finance capital we had on a beast of a highway system that we now struggle to maintain. However, the RPC has a video featuring a simulation of the de-elevation project: http://www.rpcgb.org/
    Click on “In-Town Transit Partnership Video” in the bottom right corner. The simulation of the de-elevation is about a minute through the video, which also features what potential this city has, including streets that aren’t hostile to pedestrians! Blows my mind.

    • This video alone is worth everyone looking at and, indeed, blowing their minds with the pedestrian-friendly, clean-transit, happy city we could have with a different approach to infrastructure investment.

  7. Pingback: The Heaviest Corner » Blog Archive » The Broken Grid

  8. It is fascinating to watch the rebirth of Birmingham. I have been watching this city from afar (Atlanta) for more than a decade. Now my wife and I am planning to soon move to Birmingham to be closer to my grandkids, of which 5 have been born in Birmingham. The new Railroad Park and the development in the downtown area is paving the way for further development up the NE 1st Ave N area.

    My son, the person who is responsible for our move to Birmingham, saw this dream when he was a student at Samford. He has followed the lead of those who have invested their time and talents in the downtown area and he along with others brave souls are now in the process of transforming Woodlawn.

    He has just finished restoring Historic Event Center , located in the old Masonic Lodge in Woodlawn. This historic building was all but forgotten since its last renovation in the ’70s. He repaired the leaking roof, removed the plywood and replaced broken windows, removed the orange shag carpeting, suspended ceilings and faux oak paneling to reveal tall beamed ceilings, wonderful plaster walls and beautiful century old flooring.

    This banquet hall is now hosting fund raising events, weddings, parties, reunions, banquets and educational seminars! WHAT A TURNAROUND!

    It is amazing to see history literally come to life! To those who live in the “burbs” and have not bothered to actually visit the city they fly into and out of, you should reconsider and spend some of your treasure and time to continue to bring this neglected city back to its place as the Magic City!


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