Out with the old, in with the…

Pop go the gas bubbles

This morning at Design Review Committee saw approval for the renovation of the downtown Alagasco building, one of iconic local architect Fritz Woehle‘s few commercial projects (above). The building is also one of Birmingham’s unique examples of Pop Architecture [you can read a good essay on the Pop movement here]. An older building was reconfigured by Woehle–I assume in the late 1960’s–with a smooth stucco skin punctuated by playful, circular windows. These suggest gas bubbles, and present a singular, unique image for the gas company. [Update: I’m now told the building was originally conceived by Woehle for a bank, which makes the circles pure geometric play rather than symbolic of gas bubbles. Although perhaps the allusion drew the gas company to purchase the building?] Urbanistically it has its faults  (a massive drive through at the corner of 20th Street North and Powell Avenue; dark-tinted windows do not engage with the street; there is no real pedestrian scale)—but the Committee paused before approving the renovation.

A measured critique

The main concerns came from committee member Cheryl Morgan (pictured above seated at the left during the presentation), who objected to the vaguely classicizing style of the proposed synthetic stucco detailing (pilasters with capitals, cornices, etc.). While the architect (Alan Tichansky of Williams Blackstock) argued that the new design was more stylistically in keeping with the smaller, attached building which is part of the campus, Morgan felt the smaller historic building would be more respected if the new design were simpler, not so overtly “historicist”, and had closer attention paid to proportions and details. In the end, the committee voted to approve as long as the architect just tweaked the capital details.

In the same vein

While we were not able to obtain renderings for this post, the proposed architecture is vaguely similar to that found right up the street at Adamson Ford (above): big stucco-type cornices, and elements that recall original Birmingham commercial architecture from the 1910’s without replicating the proportional relationships seen in those buildings. A palette of taupes and browns will be the paint scheme.

Many probably have mixed feelings about the Alagasco building; regardless it’s about to be altered beyond recognition, and will go from unusual to conventional. Good? Bad? Indifferent? Discuss.

[thanks to Adamson Ford for the pic of their downtown dealership]

21 responses to “Out with the old, in with the…

  1. Thanks as always Jeremy for the updates. Personally, I think the current facade of the Alagasco building is hideous. I am looking forward to almost anything different than it’s current state.

  2. I am mad as HELL. Just a few days ago I was thinking how much I love this square building with these odd round windows. It reminds me of lollipops. It is refreshing to see circle motifs to oppose all the squares and retangles that are the basic shapes of an entire city built on a grid. It would be nice if the glass were bright blue and lit at night. That drive thru is better than it used to be. I am sad to read this. Just one more Birmingham oddity gone over to the bland side!

  3. Here goes Birmingham razing another part of our heritage for a bland more” modern” opportunity for architects and builders and the authorties that be gain some cash. Does no one remember the what happened to the train depot a few decades ago? I adore this building for being EXACTLY what it is: a gem and a period design of local significance both for iits symbolism and being designed by a well known and appreciated local citizen.

    • While I tend to prefer more traditional architecture over more modern aesthetics, it is because historic commercial buildings always reflected good urban design. Context is king. If a modern design makes urban sense—addresses the street, maintains pedestrian scale, acknowledges its neighbors, etc.—style is not important. I quite enjoy modern architecture when it is selfless enough, however rare that is, to fit in the urban environment just right. This building almost did that…drive-through on the corner is the biggest and most unforgivable failure.

      I have mixed feelings about this building as others might. The playfulness of the round windows is contradicted by the regularity of their placement, the bland box shape, and lack of color that would have otherwise notched up that playfulness. Nonetheless, those round windows were enough to set it apart.

      So, I will always remember it, not because I feel it is very good or very bad, but because it is just odd enough to have engrained itself in my visual memories of Downtown Birmingham. Like a song that you don’t particularly like or dislike but that gets stuck in your head anyway.

      As for the proposed renovation, we’ll see. And, please do not compare a facelift to this building to the razing of the train depot. C’mon.

  4. I believe it was the architecture of Robert Venturi that Woehle used as a model for the Pop renovation in, I think, the early 70’s. I still have my copy of his seminal 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. The proposed alterations will make it work better in urbanistic terms, so I support the changes. Tichansky did the Harbert Center and ASFA, both good at responding to quite different contexts.

  5. Funny… I was looking at that building Saturday, and thinking how wonderful those funky round windows are, and the overall simplicity of the design. I liked the fact that here was something bonafide unique in Birmingham, and not some banal putty-toned Colonial tart.

    While companies and architects are on this dumbing-down bandwagon, maybe AT&T will decide to add a cupola and Corinthian columns onto their masterpiece by Der Scutt (I’m guessing at the lead architect of the time), and ditch the banded window motif by applying rectangular cut-outs instead, a la the Wells Fargo Tower (I call them “Chicklet windows”).


  6. I don’t understand their purpose in doing this. If they want to refresh it, they could replace the stucco with something crisp and shiny and the gray tints with some snazzier color.

    Here’s a 5-minute photoshop sketch: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dystopos/5711736977/in/photostream/lightbox/

    • Wow–thanks for the great 5-minute rendering. I agree it’s puzzling, especially after Alagasco spent a lot of time and effort renovating the old train shed behind this property into a fairly sophisticated conference and test kitchen facility, with no evidence of “faux historicism”; I do feel like another direction could have been pursued here–accepting the strengths of the Woehle design, and enhancing them. Clearly that’s not what the client ordered in this case…

  7. I have always liked the round windows, and I wonder if they are not good for the employees too. Does the Design Review Committee consult people who work in a building? That would be interesting to know about. I am sorry it is becoming more conventional in style. The only benefit would be if it were to become more pedestrian-friendly and human in scale – I appreciate your attention to this consideration. I am not sure why the renovations are being undertaken, since that wasn’t stated. Is the building no longer functional?

    • Good question–the reason stated for the renovation was that the owner/occupant desired the building to feel more “compatible” with its historic, smaller neighbor (they are joined and are part of the same complex). The drive-through will remain; and while the rectangular storefront proposed on the ground floor–with clear glass–is undoubtedly more human in scale and more urban-appropriate, how much transparency/activity is actually generated by the new design was probably not really a factor. I think they just wanted the building to “match”.

    • One more point–Design Review is not really able to consult owners, etc. That’s the architect’s job, and all Design Review can do is comment on the presentation before them. They do not act as consultants on design work (although sometimes that could surely benefit the end product!).

  8. I was a bit puzzled by this case as well. While the bubble building was like the neighborhood dog that is so ugly he’s cute, the proposed facade is bizarre. It’s one thing to have regimented column and cornice approach to a building, but it’s another thing all together to lick and stick EFIS columns and cornice to a building. I wish architects would return to the notion that the only thing Styrofoam is good for is keeping coffee hot and beer cold.

  9. Very disappointing. Something truly unique is about to be blunted into dullness.

  10. Melinda Shelton

    This building has always brought back memories for me. I stood outside this building with my family to watch President Nixon ride by in his motorcade. Sad that I will no longer be reminded of that memory when I drive past.

  11. I feel like alagasco should find another location and build “their” building. a multitude of locations in town This design is one of a kind. Seriously….have you ever seen a building like this! Its ionic. My friend’s father had a huge hand in desiging this beauty. Let this building have another life as something funky and cool with several small changes(i’m working on them as you read). To the design review folk….say no!

  12. I’m sorry to see those circles go. It was a recognizable landmark, and sort of cute and funky. I wish they would have changed the adjacent building to look more like the first one.

  13. I see nothing unique, important, special or beautiful about the smaller adjacent building.- other than it’s boring and looks like half a dozen other City Center structures. I would rather see Alagasco use the “Bubble Building” as its corporate brand/logo (the way Transamerica did with their pyramid) instead of dumbing it down. Imagine a child in Jasper or West Blocton seeing an add with that structure in it, then perhaps getting excited about a visit to Birmingham, with the chance to view it in person. We don’t have that many iconic “set pieces” as it is.

  14. Pingback: Preservation/sanitization | Bhamarchitect's Blog

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