LoftLife Looks For Collage Credit
LoftLife has been always been interested in the BeltLine project, so we were anxious to hear from one of the design firms collaborating on the project, Urban Collage, a small (they boast only 12 people) company focused on being unique. We spoke to UC’s Dennis Maddsen about their “it’s never ‘the same old same old’” design philosophy.
LoftLife: On a personal level, as a designer, what triggered your passion for design? A memory, a specific space/building, etc.?
Urban Collage: My most vivid memories come from growing up in a suburban development. On one hand, I loved exploring all the half-built houses throughout the neighborhood, and trying to envision what they’d look like when they were completed. On the other hand, I felt an incredible sense of isolation living in the suburbs, especially as a child.
It made cities all that more fascinating to me. On the occasions we’d visit Chicago or Boston or Minneapolis, I remember how captivated I was by the hum, the movement, the vibration, and the mystery. The combination of all the different people with different stories, and they were all moving through the same place and sharing a point in time. It was incredibly exciting to me as a child, and it still is today.
LL: How would you describe the mission and the philosophy behind Urban Collage?
UC: I’m glad you used the word “philosophy,” because I think that’s more appropriate than something like “dogma” or “principles.” Our philosophy is that every project, every place, every client, is unique. Certain lessons and tactics may work in certain cases, and in others we might have to reinvent the wheel. We know that there are some basic goals, like making a place that improves the quality of life for those who inhabit it, but the means to achieving those goals can be myriad. Many of the cues and clues come from the place itself: its history, its character, its people, and its issues. I guess one of the ways this shows is if you look through some of our products. While they all have an Urban Collage “feel,” they are all very different in appearance and content. We let the project guide the solution.
LL: Why does Atlanta make sense to base and grow your company in?
UC: Historically speaking, the two founders did their grad work here (at Georgia Tech) and worked for Corporation for Olympic Development (pre-Olympics), so that provided the initial impetus for being based in Atlanta. But in practical terms, the Atlanta region is a truly amazing laboratory for urban design. There are so many elements that provide a fertile field for planning.
First and foremost, it’s a growth region. Atlanta’s population has exploded and will only continue to expand. Related to that is the issue of transportation. As the automotive network suffers under increasing strain, more and more communities will be (and already have been) looking for design solutions.
Another facet is the diversity. There is an incredible range of communities in and around Atlanta. Not just in terms of demographic make-up, but also in terms of local history, context, attitudes toward growth, relationships to transit, amounts of development opportunities. We’ve never felt, going into a project around here, like we were ‘doing something all over again.’ Around here, it’s NEVER “the same old same old.”
LL: Urban Collage is playing a significant role in the BeltLine project, but what specific ideas and concepts has your company brought to the project?
UC: We’ve been lucky not just to be a part of the project, but to be a part of the multiple stages of the project. We started out on the feasibility phase (the very first look at asking “Could this really work?”) in a partnership with several other local firms. From there, we worked on the Redevelopment Plan, the nitty-gritty of how land use might change, what the transportation projections are, how the parks and trails would work, etc. Now we’re consulting with ABI on the actual implementation. From a specific standpoint, Urban Collage has brought a continuity of vision. By being involved, deeply involved, in the project from the first phase to the current standing, we’ve provided a level of “institutional memory” for the effort. Planning isn’t confined to maps on paper. It is often also the laying out of a process, and with a project as big and complex as the BeltLine , we’ve ended up serving a role almost like a shepherd.
LL: What are some Urban Collage elements that separate and make you unique from other design firms?
UC: One thing is our size. Another thing is our composition. Though we’re only a dozen folks, almost all of us have a design background. We can handle a lot of projects, and a lot of large projects, because we can all back each other up. It also makes for a very collaborative atmosphere. Mostly, I think what sets us apart, especially in this field, is that we are a pure “urban design firm.” We aren’t engineers or landscape folks who also happen to do planning.
LL: Your company works on many projects throughout Atlanta (as well as other cities), so what have been some of the most challenging and the most rewarding project you have worked on over the past 11 years?
UC: Well, if you ask each of us, you’ll get 12 different answers. Our higher profile projects, like the BeltLine and Peachtree Streetcar, obviously are very rewarding, but for me personally it’s been some of the less heralded work, especially in the suburbs. In the urban design arena, the intown revitalization is considered very sexy – redoing warehouse buildings as lofts and creating funky districts – and the exurban greenfields get a lot of the press – Seaside Institute and all its brethren – but I think some of the most compelling work in the future will come in areas that are most often overlooked.
America has spent 50+ years building the suburbs, and a move to “New Urbanism” or similar trends is not going to completely undo that. There are millions of houses and miles and miles of strip centers that aren’t simply going to be abandoned. We often joke, we need to have a branch office called “Suburban Collage.”
LL: What have you noticed as one of the biggest changes in landscape and/or design over the past 11 years in Atlanta?
UC: The biggest change I think we’ve seen has been the general embrace of progressive design principles, especially (again) in areas outside the urban core. People no longer fear the “D” word (Density) and transit is no longer a foreign concept (Have you seen how many commuter buses come into town from the surrounding counties?). For some, it’s simply an acknowledgement of the economic realities. More people are coming, and we have to plan for them, and plan intelligently. For others, it’s a part of the “green” movement. A sprawling, unplanned metro area wastes resources and harms the environment.
LL: What do you hope to see in the future for Atlanta’s urban landscape?
UC: I always say that being an urban designer is not for those who have trouble with delayed gratification. It can take years, or even decades to see the results of your handiwork. That said, I think we’re already starting to see visions of the future of Atlanta. The BeltLine is starting to take shape (even if the line itself hasn’t yet been implemented, it’s amazing to see how many new projects have gone up just based on where the BeltLine will be), the move towards green building and LEED practices has been growing in strength, and walkable, sustainable communities are popping up both inside the perimeter and outside the perimeter, from places like Midtown to Suwanee. It’s not going to happen overnight, but I think the actual fabric of metro Atlanta’s neighborhoods is changing, and it’s really going to have a positive effect on how all of us live our lives.
Posted by Kyra Shapurji