I was born in Metz, northeast of France. The house where I grew up has been in the family since 1735 and is located in the heart of the city’s historic center. As is common for any old building still standing, it could be described as:
An early French history textbook: Under the Roman Empire, Metz (Divodurum at the time) was fortified. The remains of the ramparts were demolished in the 18th century when the house was built. What is now the cellar of the house used to be the street along the rampart, as the well-preserved Roman road marker shows.
An anthropometric study: the very low ceilings in the hallways of the first two floors attest of the short height of my ancestors.
A hacking exemplar: hanging hooks to smoke meats are now used for light fixtures; tools from the glass and wood workshops now serve as original art displays. In the past, my grandparents and great-grandparents created ‘secret’ pockets where they hid valuables during the wars, and the front door changed location several times to increase the economic activity coming from the street.
I still wonder about the reason or story behind small details I start noticing when I take the time to find them. And what about these generations of people who lived here before us: what were their conversations about? How did they go about their day? How did they use the house? If only the walls could talk...
When I moved to Atlanta, its rich social and economic history gave me plenty of opportunities to continue my exploration and day-dreaming about the lifestyle of Atlantans at the turn of the century. I quickly became astonished by the abandoned spaces in the heart of a pulsating city. A block from our modern condo and glass skyscrapers rested decayed or deserted buildings, often blanketed in kudzu and vines. The contrast between contemporary and historic architecture was shocking and compelling. The summer of 2007, I became completely fascinated by the mystique of abandoned buildings such as the Craigie House and Ansley Inn in Midtown, the John B Gordon Elementary School in East Atlanta, the Briarcliff Mansion in Druid Hills, or the Atlanta Constitution Building downtown. That was also the summer I devoured novels by southern authors Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Carson McCullers, which fed and probably overamplified my curiosity about the mysterious aura of the South. For a more accurate and less emotional rendition of accounts, I also read about Atlanta’s history, met Atlantans born in the 1920s and 1930s, and asked lots of questions to anybody willing to share their knowledge. While I secretly hoped these buildings would remain untouched and keep the mystery alive, I realized the utopian nature of my aspirations was highly incompatible with builders’ plans to provide more living spaces for people to enjoy Midtown.
Well, maybe not that incompatible. Recently, it has become easier for us to start experiencing historic Atlanta buildings as textbooks, anthropometric studies, and hacking exemplars. Instead of words like ‘demolishing’ and ‘tearing down’, we started hearing about ‘repurposing’ and ‘restoring’: unused railroad tracks turned into the Beltline, City Hall East became Ponce City Market, what was once Murray’s Mill is now The Goat Farm Arts Center. This repurposing of unused spaces gave hundreds of people a chance to finally enter these once enigmatic buildings. The downside is that we are literally talking about hundreds of people occupying these spaces now, which makes daydreaming and drifting slightly more challenging--although still possible. The bricks, the stone, and the wood are still there; the initial architectural style of American Movement, Tudor, or Late Gothic Revival will forever attach people’s visions, values, aesthetics to these buildings and allow us to travel back in time.
I marvel at our unique opportunity to use Atlanta as our textbook and see our LAB ATL students writing the next chapters of the city as they work with it. I hope they will hack, repurpose, reinvigorate, and also marvel, day-dream, and ask lots of questions. My biggest wish is for them to design a new style in the architecture of education for future generations to look at and realize the meaning and importance of legacy for future generations.
Agnès Browning, Lab Atlanta faculty