Tag Archives: Birmingham

We’re back.

I’m excited to announce I’m reopening my design firm based in New York and Birmingham. Please look out for regular posts happening here in a few weeks, follow Erdreich Architecture on Instagram, and check out our updated website. Cheers everyone!
suburban transformation

Design = change

Elevating the social importance of design

July 21-24 will see leaders from AIGA, the national professional association for design, partnering with local designers in Birmingham for a design summit dedicated to the notion that the design community can affect social change. This event is modeled on the Aspen [Co] Design Summit of 2009.

A mix of local and national design team leaders will engage participants on issues such as natural resources and Alabama’s public image.  A public reception will be held at Alagasco downtown (20th Street and Powell Avenue) Friday evening July 22 to showcase initial brainstorming sessions. Check out alabamaengine.org for more information (coming soon!). It’s fantastic that Birmingham, with its wealth of good designers from many disciplines, will be hosting this event.

According to Matt Leavell of Auburn University, one of the organizers, this is part of an effort to “position designers as thought leaders, and to develop solutions to complex problems. Organizations don’t usually have the time themselves, so we’re stepping in to fill the gap.” It will be exciting to see what design solutions come out of this conference.

A respite from urban travails

And with that, the author of this blog is embarking on a honeymoon trip to the Norwegian fjords that will last the bulk of July. We will be back with regular posts the first week in August. Everyone stay cool in the big city until then.

[thanks to rev dan catt for the design pic, and atari123 for the fjord]

Play ball

Building community pride

About 10 years ago Memphis opened a new downtown baseball park and the minor league Redbirds moved in. Since then, over $80 million of development has occurred around the site, and Memphis has a great, family-friendly downtown activity set against the backdrop of the city skyline (seen in photo above).

Could the Birmingham Barons be poised to move to a new park downtown across from Railroad Park? While other locations across the city center could be possible, Railroad Park makes a lot of sense for many reasons, among them:

1. The huge community interest and momentum behind the Railroad Park itself;

2. The proximity to UAB and the ability to easily walk/bike from campus;

3. A large, mainly underdeveloped fabric of one and two-story warehouse type structures between the Park and UAB that could easily be renovated/rebuilt as housing, restaurants, and other amenities;

4. Ease of access from all points northside and southside .

The Birmingham News printed an editorial praising Mayor Bell for leading the effort to bring the Barons back to the City after a long spell out in Hoover at an outdated, isolated, suburban location. Mayor Petelos of Hoover recently stated that if the Barons did indeed move back to Birmingham, he would see it as a win for the region, not a loss for Hoover. This kind of regional thinking has been too infrequent in metro Birmingham; kudos to both mayors for meeting and talking like partners, rather than like competitors.

Field of dreams

The skyline of our own city (above) sure looks great from the new Railroad Park. It would look even better if a new ball park for the Barons was built adjacent, and the crack of the bat and roar of the crowd became as common as a picnic on the new lawns. Fingers crossed.

UPDATE: one of my favorite local blogs, Heaviest Corner, just posted a very detailed piece critical of publicly funded sports projects, which is well worth a read. While on balance, I believe that Birmingham could attain a net benefit from a new downtown ballpark, economically and psychically, there are indeed many variables and potential pitfalls to be mindful of. And it goes without saying that given the choice between a well-funded, well-organized transit system or a ball park—I’d have to take the transit system.

[thanks to theogeo for the Memphis pic and Terry McComb for the Birmingham pic]

Unwelcome news

The report came out today that HKW, the architecture and planning firm founded in Birmingham in 1994, is shutting its doors due to economic circumstances brought on by the recent recession. Many architecture firms not just in Birmingham, but around the country, are in precarious states as the construction and design industries appear to be among the last to benefit from improvements in the economy.

A strong design community depends on lots of competition, constantly raising the bar. HKW will be missed.

[image of Boy Scouts of America Building, which was a 2005 winner of the American Institute of Architects Merit Award; photo taken by Timothy Hursey]

4-Alarm Shock

An architectural gem

Just when we had our hands full with a proposed drive-through Chick-Fil-A in Five Points, along comes this punch in the jaw at Design Review this morning: the historic Fire Station No. 22, recently vacated, is on the table for demolition. It would be replaced with a Walgreen’s drugstore and parking lot. And a drive-through. On yet another important, gateway corner (Clairmont Avenue and 32nd Street).

Except this time the owner isn’t proposing tearing down a Ruby Tuesday’s built in the 1990s, but a wonderful Spanish-style fire station built in the 1920s. And the owner just happens to be the City of Birmingham, which is perhaps the most shocking part of this. Hasn’t this City learned enough about tearing down historic structures and what that does to a neighborhood fabric? And to a sense of place?

A dismal idea

To their credit, the Design Review Committee refused to approve this conceptual site plan, and insisted Walgreen’s return with exterior elevations suitable for an urban environment, including pedestrian-friendly storefront and sidewalk entries (no exteriors were presented today). Alison Glascock, Highland Park neighborhood president, stood to commend the Committee for its stance.

City of Birmingham–you need to be actively seeking creative redevelopment of the historic fire station, not tearing down another piece of our history to replace with banal, suburban-style architecture! And if you need an architect to help figure that out, I know where to find one.

(thanks to Birmingham Firefighters Local 117 for the historic photo, and to LAI engineering for the Walgreen’s plan)

UPDATE: INSPIRATIONS

Not that there is one right way to go here, but I feel strongly about the historic structure and the accessible nature of its scale.  Just a few pieces of eye candy to get the creative juices flowing here:

Let’s think outdoor seating — bridging Lakeview and Forest Park:

stopping in for pizza...

Love this restaurant concept in an old fire house in LA:

Firehouse themed restaurant!

And this is just for fun but to live in a firehouse!!

note the fire pole hole!

(thanks to Engine Co. No. 28, insidetheperimeter, and designpublic for the above images)

UPDATE #2: BOGUE”S RESTAURANT TO BE DEMOLISHED UNDER THIS PLAN

The Walgreen’s plan would not just take out the neighboring service station, but also Bogue’s Restaurant, an historic fixture on Birmingham’s Southside for many decades.

The end of an era?

Dine Out for Life!

Tempted?

Next Thursday April 29, Birmingham joins major cities across the US for a really cool event–Dining Out for Life, where participating local restaurants donate at least 25% of your lunch or dinner bill to AIDS related charities, in our case AIDS Alabama, a fantastic non-profit at the forefront of combatting AIDS in Alabama. Please consider having lunch or dinner (or both) that day at one of the participating eateries around town! It’s an easy and fun way to help a very important cause.

[thanks to ralph and jenny for the pic of the cheesecake pancakes at Avo, one of the many local restaurants participating!)

Skin-deep Beauty

The good, the bad and the ugly

Last night at dinner, my friend K was ranting that she wished we could tear down all of downtown’s “bombed out” buildings…a heated argument ensued, but I get the gist.  The empty old buildings weigh more on your eyes than the renovated ones, the new ones.  So if we filled all these empty buildings with ground floor activities, that would go a long way to fixing her (and others’) perceptions — if all the buildings were fixed up, but still empty — that would look good, but not get to the goal.

A building in an urban setting serves multiple purposes: it shelters its inhabitants; it welcomes visitors; it facilitates commerce; and it defines the public space outside. It is this last item which concerns a building’s skin: where the surface of a building meets public space. You could argue that a building with an ugly skin could still have a positive effect on public space if this skin is permeable enough–both physically and visually–to encourage lots of human activity at the street (like this rather grim building above in Manchester, UK that nonetheless has continuous retail and restaurant storefronts at the street–thanks to deltrem for the pic). But if a building also has beauty, then it raises the public perception, and instills satisfaction within the viewer. Of course a building that neither encourages human activity, nor provides the casual viewer with a happy feeling–well, that building has problems — and that is what K and a lot of others see all too often.

Take for example the building at the corner of 20th Street and 2nd Avenue North downtown, the Webb Building (originally constructed 1871–and among the first brick 3-story buildings in the city).

Cri de coeur

Owned for years by Southtrust Bank, it has been vacant for a while, and is now privately owned after Southtrust’s successors sold both it and the entire half block it sits in. You would be hard-pressed to find such a prominent corner on the most prominent north-south street in town looking so darn tawdry. Although very small in size, the corner position of this forlorn building magnifies a message to those passing by: no one cares about this corner. Although nearby large office buildings may have occupancy rates averaging over 90%, often that occupancy is invisible, occurring on the inside. What’s visible is this peeling facade, desperate for renovation. This small building ends up speaking louder than an office tower that’s 90% full just a couple blocks away. It’s all about the bad skin.

Pizitiz selling with good graphics

Just a block down 2nd Avenue is the Pizitz Building, another distressed building that would radio the same depressing message, except for one fact: it’s entire skin, intricate terra cotta and masonry, is slated to be meticulously restored to the standards of the National Park Service in an imminent restoration (more on this project soon). Assuming this project goes through, we’ll get the best of all worlds–both a beautiful skin and lots of human activity in the form of retail and restaurant tenants at street level. People exiting the McWane Center or IMAX Theatre will no longer confront a major symbol of urban blight, but instead a thing of beauty.

And again, beauty makes people happy. Leaves ’em with a smile on their face. That’s what great urban environments do.

Phoenix Building pre-renovation

All of that facade restoration is often quite expensive, when you’re dealing with old buildings–especially those that have lots of decorative elements in disrepair. When we renovated the Phoenix Building, we were not required to restore the terra-cotta detailing, or remove the paint from the original copper transom frames. The federal Historic Tax Credit program let’s you choose to leave such things alone. But we just couldn’t imagine renovating the building without making it beautiful on the outside again. In the street shot taken before renovation, you can see the copper transom frames painted over, and dirty, chipping terra-cotta details. The detail  pic shows how artisans remolded shapes to match the original terra-cotta that had chipped off long ago, and a sample of the copper being burnished and restored.

Old skin on the left -- new on the right.

Back on 20th Street, the Watts Tower was renovated just 10 years ago into apartments, but the skin…not so much. This building, an Art Deco tower designed by local firm Warren Knight and Davis in 1927 (replacing a charming Commercial Second Empire style 1888 building of the same name), derived much of its original, streamlined, simple beauty through the contrast of its vertical brick spandrel/window stripes with terra-cotta at the corners. In 1977, the whole facade was “modernized” by painting everything a bland cream color. When the renovation occurred in 1999, this unfortunate situation was unremedied. Almost worse, certain windows were boarded up on each floor and ugly exhaust vents were unceremoniously stuck in their place.

sad skin

Add in the lack of a building standard for window treatments, and the lack of anything graphic telling you there’s something new in the building (except for some very off-the rack “for rent” and “for sale” signs)—-and you end up with a very sad looking skin. If I were a visitor looking up at this building, I would guess it was a low-rent apartment building redeveloped in the 1970s, not a high-rent condo building redeveloped just 10 years ago.

Watts Tower in better times, before the paint and the neglect--and the window vents

K can be tentative about her relationship to an urban environment. Sort of like a residential neighborhood where you see one house abandoned with windows out–it makes K want to keep driving to a better neighborhood. And when K sees one building downtown with bad skin, or several running down a street–this doesn’t make her want to linger. It makes her search for another, happier neighborhood.

OK K.  We will get right on it.  Better skin in Aisle 2.