February 09, 2006

“Awww, she’s a brick howwwz…”

Yes, once more that music means it’s time for America’s Most Popular Internet Game, the Axis of Weevil Thursday Three, which is almost like the more aged Friday Five, excepting that it is on a Thursday, and we only have three questions.

LIKE THE ONES WE HAVE TODAY, furnished to us by famed back deck carpenter Jimbo Smith, PhD (Posthole Digger), who decided we should concentrate this week upon the king of the fine arts, the noble craft of architecture, specifically as applied to those structures built by taxpayers.

Each of you put on your hardhat and think about the following questions:

1. In your own hometown, what is the best public building?
2. Again, thinking of where you live, what is the worst public building?
3. And finally, either in your own hometown or just in general, what do you consider the best modern public building? (For the sake of argument, let’s let “modern” mean anything done since 1962, and not necessarily tied to the Modern style. Purely arbitrary, I know.)

Now then, think hard and either leave your answers in the comments below, or leave a link to your answers on your blog. Remember, anyone can play along, even if you don’t pay taxes.

As for my answers…

1) Okay, I suppose I have to choose whether I want to consider where I actually live, or whether to take hometown a bit more liberally and apply it to the whole metro area. Seeing as how all the buildings I think are worth anything are downtown where I work, I suppose you know how this will turn out.

ANYway, I must first point all of you to “Birmingham Design,” Randy Sandford’s excellent site that is chock full of great pictures of Birmingham and its suburbs. Of special note is his page on downtown buildings, which can be found here, and includes four buildings I think are quite noteworthy for their stately presence and architectiness. (The linked pictures are his, by the way, and they are his copyright.)

The first building that popped in my mind when I read the question is the Robert Vance Federal courthouse building over on 5th Avenue. I’ve never been inside of it, but I enjoy the fine old thing’s skin greatly. It looks the way a courthouse should look.

As does the county courthouse, that sits across from where I work. Where the Fed spreads out, the county building piles itself up, but both are quite stern and serious as befits a people who had a stern and serious outlook on the sanctity of law.

Coming in third is a similar hall of government, my own little pile of stone where I work. This place was built in 1950, and for all the abuse it’s had in the intervening 56 years, it still looks pretty good. The annex looks like crap, however, and mainly because it was built when no one cared about buildings lasting for eternity.

Finally, another one across the park that always makes me feel good is the Linn-Henley research library, which was formerly the Birmingham main library. I love that building. Looks, smells, acts, and I suppose tastes the way a library should.

2) Worst? There are so many. Having been to the Social Security building where Stan the Gummint Man works, I would have to say it ranks right up there as a very ungood place. (Sorry, couldn't find a photo.) And just about any post office is a hellhole back behind the customer lobby, and I say this as someone who’s designed a few. The USPS has a thick book of hellhole standards that must be met, and frankly, given the oppressive suspicion attached to anyone and anything that touches the mail, it’s no wonder “postal” entered the lexicon as an adjective, rather than a noun describing the carrying of messages to and fro.

3) Best public building since ‘62, huh? Sorry, I got nuthin’. I suppose there must be something out there, but most large public buildings built in the '60s were too cramped and "functional," the stuff from the '70s was just cheap, from the '80s was too faddish, and from the '90s has been too dependent on the name of the architect.

So, there you go.

Posted by Terry Oglesby at February 9, 2006 08:23 AM

Good heavens, am I first? Everyone must be having a snooze.

Posted by: Diane at February 9, 2006 09:05 AM

I sure wish I was having a snooze...

Posted by: Dr. Possum at February 9, 2006 09:26 AM

I'm playing along for the first time in a long while. Here are my answers.

Posted by: Jordana at February 9, 2006 09:32 AM

My first replying to Thursday Three! (Been reading for a long time - but they've been deep questions... )

1.) Etowah County Federal Building & Courthouse - although here it is listed as the "Post Office" [The current post office is a prime candidate for the second question.]

2.) Winner here has to be the Gadsden Police Department building (though it may be the city administration building). A small picture of this obscenity can be seen in the collage of pictures in the upper right here.

3.) I'm really trying to think about this one. The new "Super" WalMart facility is probably the nicest looking building built recently (and isn't that sad!)

Posted by: Byron Todd at February 9, 2006 10:01 AM

Say, it's bringin' 'em out of the woodwork! So to speak. Good to see Diane has some time from quilting, Jordana has some free time from wrangling her playboy son away from the girls, and that Byron has decided to join the fun!

Posted by: Dr. Possum at February 9, 2006 10:03 AM

I’m UP. I still have the plague and don’t feel well but thought I needed to support my local [in a net sense] possum.

Posted by: jim at February 9, 2006 10:23 AM

I always thought the city buildings were terrible. I sort of liked what they were doing to the additions and renovations to the hospital—Holy Name I think. However I don’t think we have been back but a couple of times since the 90’s.

Posted by: jim at February 9, 2006 10:30 AM

I'm out regarding this town. May I cross the river to Natchez?

That might take a day or two though, and I don't care to take the time.

Posted by: Janis at February 9, 2006 10:34 AM

Certainly, Janis--you choose whatever you want to.

Posted by: Dr. Possum at February 9, 2006 10:42 AM

What building is towering over the federal courthouse? It looks interesting. Not the glass walled thing off to the right—well OK what is that one too?

Posted by: jim at February 9, 2006 11:01 AM

Well, first of all--OOOPS for continuing to use my "Dr. Possum" moniker outside of the normal "Ask Dr. Possum" venue. That having now been corrected, the tall building to the left is the AmSouth-Harbert building (which houses the food court I visit occasionally) and the other to the right is what used to be called the First National-Southern Natural Building, which was later called the AmSouth Sonat building, which is now just the AmSouth headquarters building.

Posted by: Terry Oglesby at February 9, 2006 11:07 AM


Just my opinion, but I've always thought that "modern" architecture just doesn't age well. So all the new stuff done to the Holy Name - which is now Riverview Regional Medical Center - has not impressed me.

On the other hand, I really like what Auburn University has done in most of their recent renovations - removing most of what was 70s modern and replacing with what I think of as Classic architecture (not being an architecture student - I really have no idea what to call it...)

Posted by: Byron Todd at February 9, 2006 11:24 AM

What is the Harbert building like—it looks intriguing.

Posted by: jim at February 9, 2006 11:25 AM

Jim, here are a couple more pages of photos from Emporis that give alternative views.

I think the building is attractive, and there is no doubt the materials and detailing are top notch. But I could have done without the glowing balls on top; and despite the use of punched window openings instead of sheer glazing, the windows don't have enough sense of depth; and the overall height-to-mass proportions are just too squatty for my taste.

Posted by: Terry Oglesby at February 9, 2006 11:54 AM

That AmSouth Building looks a lot like our BellSouth Tower (aka The Bat Building) to me.

Posted by: Jordana at February 9, 2006 11:57 AM

The lower floors, yes, but I think you've got us beat with the big ol' goalpost on top.

Posted by: Terry Oglesby at February 9, 2006 12:02 PM

I think I agree Terry. The building needs to be taller or slimmer or most probably both.
What were people thinking with the twin spires?

And Byron-- from the pictures i still like the hospital. it is such an improvement over what i remember from years ago.

Posted by: jim at February 9, 2006 12:17 PM

Taller or slimmer, either one. It's a function of the close proximity of the airport--buildings in downtown are height-regulated to keep from interfering with the glide path to the runway. So newer buildings, with their larger floor plates (for the sake of economy) never really have enough height on them to look proportional. The various facets and insets on the building help a bit, but when you see it as a simple mass, it looks too thickish. The old skyscrapers in town are much more elegant. Although uneconomically smaller in floor area.

Posted by: Terry Oglesby at February 9, 2006 12:24 PM

And here I am, with pictures!

Posted by: Sarah G. at February 9, 2006 02:43 PM

I'm up. Late, but up.

Posted by: skinnydan at February 9, 2006 03:22 PM

Well, probably no one at SSA would really argue with you, as our building was built in the 70's and is now 30 years old. It should be noted that our new building will be quite different.

I guess if I could pick the best "public space" in Birmingham (and it might depend on how one defines "public space") I might pick the Beeson Divinity School Chapel at Samford University. It is quite a pretty building, particularly on the inside. I don't really have candidates for the other two questions.

Posted by: Stan at February 9, 2006 03:57 PM

HAH! I knew I could get Stan to decloak for a bit!

The new SSA building will certainly be quite a step up, and it is a marvel of green design. I'm still not quite enamored of the blast-radius-design-criteria that keeps it from being a better streetscape building, but it's understandable. And at least it is downtown.

Posted by: Terry Oglesby at February 9, 2006 04:07 PM

I'll be up soon.

Posted by: Tony von Krag at February 9, 2006 07:14 PM