The National Center for Civil and Human Rights (NCCHR), which opened June 23, will be an important addition to Atlanta’s portfolio of civic institutions. The third and final component of Pemberton Place — home to the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola — it is already a gem of an addition to the burgeoning downtown tourist district.
While its soaring glass atrium and curving side walls acknowledge the forms of its neighbors, it is an object in a field, truly a piece of sculptural architecture. The space is inviting and intimate, with the appropriate amount of formality and expressiveness.
The path to fruition took some twists. In 2009, the Freelon Group — the North Carolina firm behind such civic projects as the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina — was selected through an international competition.
Phil Freelon, its founder and president, said he “wanted the building . . . to be a part of the story.” The proposed structure featured two interlocking wings, representing the interlocked arms of civil rights marchers “coming together for a common cause.”
Due to the recession, the 40,000-square-foot building is roughly half the originally envisioned size. Freelon designed with the ability to expand, while not making the building feel incomplete as built. Less linked arms, the form is now evocative of embracing hands cupping the exhibits.
The smaller building is not any less impressive, and the downsized form fits in more harmoniously with the curvilinear, sculptural presence of its neighbors.
It goes them one better as well. The other buildings ignore the streets surrounding the property; they solely address the plaza and locate their service entries on the urban periphery. The NCCHR presents its best face to the plaza but features an entry from Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard. Additionally, a fountain and plaza opens up the corner of the site to the street and the city beyond.
The site’s topography necessitated the entries to be placed on different levels. Viewed more as an asset than a challenge, the arrangement informed the placement of components of the collection. Partially underground, the first floor suited the needs of the delicate collection of MLK’s papers, allowing for greater control of light and temperature. It’s also symbolically fitting because the papers form the foundation upon which the rest of the Center builds.
The entrance from Ivan Allen will be used by school groups and scholars coming to access the King manuscript archives; the majority of patrons will enter via Pemberton Place plaza. This is fortuitous, as the lower entrance is at best drab and at worst a menacing, hulking cliff face, overwhelming any sense of human scale. The only relief to the relentless brown perforated metal panels comes in the form of a strip of windows on the third floor.
Fortunately, the façade of the rest of the building is executed much more elegantly. For the two walls that wrap around the majority of the building, forming the “cupped hands,” Freelon selected a high-pressure laminate wood-fiber composite material called Trespa. Though there are only two wood hues, the curvature of the walls results in the perception of a wide array of browns and tans as the sun reflects off the panels. The multitones are symbolic of multiracial participants in the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, the summer sun and the reflectivity of the panels can be a bit intense.
The Trespa panels wrap the two sweeping walls and up the terraced hillside, where a fully glassed façade faces Pemberton Place and marks the main entry. The transparent façade, treated with horizontal louvers to mediate the southern sun, allows visitors to Centennial Olympic Park and Pemberton Place a view into the atrium, affording glimpses of the galleries contained on the second and third floors. The two-story lobby space is light-filled and inviting, with colorful and intriguing murals to lure patrons in and up to the third floor gallery.
Entrance security is a reality for many cultural institution these days. Knowing this from the outset, the architects had the opportunity to incorporate security features more seamlessly in the design. Instead, metal detectors mar the otherwise pristine lobby space.
Entering “Rolls Down Like Water: The American Civil Rights Movement,” the visitor passes from the soaring white lobby to a compressed, darkened portal, a threshold that actively alters the mood. At the end of the exhibit, the patron ascends from the dark galleries on the second floor into a light-filled space at the heart of the third floor. An oculus at the center of the oval room washes the curved white walls in light. Also the termination point of the human rights exhibit, this space is the building’s architectural catharsis.
“Spark of Conviction: The Global Human Rights Movement,” housed on the third floor, feels very different from the dark, intimate civil rights galleries. The space is painted white, with high ceilings and daylight. The curvature of the building is exposed, contributing to its dynamic aura.
The distinct identities were deliberate. The design reinforces the exhibit’s exploration of human rights as a pertinent, contemporary issue, always in flux. It also provides the flexibility to change and alter the exhibits easily.
One of the most stunning elements in the museum is the stair, a flowing sculptural element, between the first and second floors. Guests who want to see MLK’s papers descend the sweeping, curvilinear stair along a wall with small, punched, deep-set fenestration. Both the curved monolithic wall and the windows evoke Le Corbusier’s chapel Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France. An apt allusion: the MLK papers are the spiritual underpinnings of the institution.
The gallery devoted to the papers is a simple, understated room paneled with locally sourced hickory planks, which are etched with King’s inspiring words.
For all of the nice detailing in the building, such as the beautifully detailed recessed handrail on the stair, it must be noted that in some instances the workmanship leaves something to be desired. On the exterior, gaps in the Trespa rainscreen reveal the weather membrane, bunched in some places, and meeting the ground in an unresolved manner. The beautiful sweeping stair is marred by an uncomfortable meeting of the gypsum at the risers and treads — perhaps a rushed job in the final days before the opening.
In large measure, though, the building is handsomely designed. It is sure to become an Atlanta icon and a feather in the cap for downtown Atlanta.