ArtsATL > Art+Design > Review: Museum of Design opens sleek space in glorious new headquarters with motorcycle show

Review: Museum of Design opens sleek space in glorious new headquarters with motorcycle show

The blocks of Peachtree Street north of 14th Street are the most elegant boulevard our city has. This urbane public space, a grand, sweeping outdoor room, is defined mostly by low and mid-rise buildings set back from generous sidewalks and swaths of landscaping. It demonstrates how critical form and scale are in making a streetscape attractive. The density and mix of uses — offices, apartments, restaurants, churches, arts institutions — the access to both rail and bus transit, and the leafiness all help guarantee a pedestrian presence. That reinforces the appeal, because people like to walk where other people are walking.

This and all MODA photos are by Tom Abraham.

So does the varied and frequently excellent architecture you can enjoy as you stroll by, including the buildings of the High Museum of Art and the First Presbyterian and Christian Science churches. There are unremarkable buildings too, and a few real clunkers. The blocky, top-heavy brick pile grandiosely called The Peachtree, an utterly failed effort to mimic the delicate classicism of the Reid House next door, feels as if it’s going to fall over and squash you. And there’s that matched set of three at the corner of 17th Street: originally clean-lined, mid-century-modernist exercises surfaced in gleaming white and turquoise tile, they were inexplicably redecorated as an ersatz Victorian railroad station for supposedly forward-thinking EarthLink. Go figure.

Still, the scale and the welcome along these blocks are pretty consistent. It’s a pity this urban condition prevails for less than a mile, and that there’s nothing else like it in town. The glorious renovation of one already interesting structure there, and the arrival in it of the Museum of Design Atlanta, which opens March 26, make this an even more precious part of the city.

I always liked 1315 Peachtree, which sits directly across from the High Museum at the corner of 16th Street. It looked like a transplant from the toniest district of some Latin American capital. Designed in the mid-1980s by Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and Associates as headquarters for Invesco, it had bold geometry and blue glassiness and a quirkily charming arrangement for cars. You turned from Peachtree into a circular driveway that brought you to a portal in the facade, flanked by a pair of small lobbies, which led into a parking deck occupying most of the street level. One lobby was for the branch library located on the second floor, and the other for Invesco’s offices on the four above that.

At the time, this was an unusual place to locate a library — now there’s a global trend toward putting libraries in mixed-use rather than stand-alone buildings — and with its views into the treetops of 16th Street, it is a very pleasant little library indeed.

Convenient though that parking formula may have been, however, it was a no-no. Cars driving across the sidewalk are a hazard to pedestrians. And temporary storage of automobiles is hardly the highest-value use for the ground floor of a building in such a prominent location, or anywhere for that matter. Now the former parking deck has been enclosed and transformed into something that could hardly have a higher value: the design museum.

MODA has been awkwardly housed in four disconnected spaces on two lobby levels of a Peachtree Center office tower. Despite the museum’s many worthy and sometimes superb exhibitions over the years, the space worked badly and the downtown location — this is Atlanta, let us not forget — kept the museum perpetually underattended, underloved and underfunded.

All that is now going to change very quickly. In fact, Executive Director Brenda Galina says, “Just because we moved here, my phone doesn’t stop ringing.” Corporate and foundation support is already up. Being across the street from the Woodruff Arts Center will raise the museum’s profile enormously, as will two alterations to the building that can’t help but catch the eye of pedestrians.

The circular driveway has been replaced with a gentle terrace extending the width of the building, from sidewalk to façade. And what used to be that portal to the parking area is now the museum’s all-glass front wall, which Perkins+Will architect Bruce McEvoy likens to a retail window, where pieces from exhibitions can be placed on view.

McEvoy designed MODA as a gift from his firm, which now owns the building and is headquartered upstairs. To help the museum find its footing, Perkins+Will is charging it no rent for the first three years.

The 70-foot-wide building has no interior columns, so it was possible to carve out satisfyingly spacious galleries. They’re much bigger than what a similar ground-floor office-building location just up the street afforded the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia before it moved.

The sense of space and volume — and motion — is felt the minute you step inside. You’re in a brilliantly white lobby decorated with supergraphics in MODA’s signature fire-engine red. Banks of engagingly kinetic video displays include a statement of the museum’s mission, shout-outs to patrons, and promos for upcoming shows.

A wide linear gallery leads straight ahead, through the length of the building, to a gallery that runs across the back. That room is 26 feet high, and completely glass-walled for its top half, so light just surges in. From the library, whose back wall is also glass, you now look down into it, and that porousness is a metaphor for why planners like to put libraries into buildings where other things are happening.

“The museum hopes to build a relationship with the library,” says McEvoy, who chairs MODA’s board. “Could we make it a design-centric library?”

Natural synergies such as design education programs are no-brainers. How about an exhibition on the technology of book design? Or on the architecture of new libraries?

Either of which, I regret to say, would have made a more appropriate inaugural show than “Passione Italiana: Design of the Italian Motorcycle,” which runs through June 13. I can’t call it lackluster, because these machines shine intensely bright, with their metallic works and plastic fairings (the name for the sculpted wind deflectors) that make them look like slightly menacing animals. Funnily enough, their predominant color is also bright red — a tradition in Italian motorsport — so maybe MODA’s signature hue should actually be referred to henceforth as Italian racing red. (Photo courtesy of the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.)

The bikes do look great in these spaces — although there’s little that wouldn’t — and the show is very handsomely installed by its curator, Joe Remling, a principal in Atlanta’s architectural firm of the moment, ai3. A nice touch is the little forest of branchless but real birch trees surrounding the two motorcycles in the front window, meant to evoke the winding rural landscapes through which a person might dream of flying on one of these hot Italian numbers.

When the High announced its 2010 show “The Allure of the Automobile,” I was one of those who rolled his eyes and made extremely snarky comments. Pandering to NASCAR dads, I muttered. Anything to get bodies into the building. “High Reaches New Low!” But that turned out to be an absolutely ravishing show, and I hereby publicly eat my hat. I was hoping to get the same comeuppance at MODA, but I’m afraid this is an exhibition I can barely connect with.

I think it’s because most of these motorbikes look so much alike. Of course there are many differences among them, and the show’s wall text provides lots of minutiae about all that, and if you’re a gearhead or a Hell’s Angel, you may be able to grasp the subtle distinctions and innovations, and care.

I can’t argue with the rationale for the show. “As with cars and so much else,” Remling explains, “the Italians originate the design trends and then everybody copies them.” And for me the most interesting part is a timeline that places the motorcycles into the broader context of Italian design brilliance.

I expect the upcoming shows on MODA’s calendar to have more appeal. “Water Dream: Experience the Bathroom Like Never Before,” coming this summer, is meant to explore how bathrooms have become such luxurious and exalted parts of the home. This subject may not seem all that, either, but at least bathtubs and vanity cabinets look different from one another, and there are a lot of stunningly beautiful ones being produced these days.

A pair of sure bets will follow in the fall: “Graphic Intervention: 25 Years of International AIDS Posters” and “The Opulent Object in Wood, Metal and Fiber,” showcasing the exquisite work of local artists and craftsmen Richard Mafong, John Eric Riis and Mike Harrison.

MODA apart, 1315 Peachtree is now itself a sort of exhibition piece. In making it over, Perkins+Will sought to use and demonstrate the most up-to-date sustainability strategies, and they hope to win LEED Platinum certification for it. For example, the plaza out front is mostly pervious, and part of a stormwater filtration system. Rainwater captured from the roof is routed for use in flushing toilets. A second ventilation system kicks in when software monitoring carbon dioxidelevels senses the presence of more people than the first one is designed for.

Don’t be surprised when technology tours of the place are offered, and even if your interest is more in the look of the place than how it works, go on one. It’s flat-out gorgeous, with vast floor-through workspaces punctuated by groupings of iconic modernist lounge furniture.

At the top and front of the building is a two-story atrium that opens onto a deck with a spectacular view. If I ever get married, I want to have the reception there. Alas, that will happen only if the Defense of Marriage Act is repealed. Maybe in the meantime they’ll give me a job, so I can go there every day.

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