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ATLANTA — Rodney M. Cook is a man on a difficult, if not impossible, mission.
He’s out to restore gentility and classicism to Atlanta, a city that long ago shed its thin veneer of Southern charm to become a modern mecca known for mind-boggling traffic and urban sprawl.
As president of the American Urban Design Foundation, an organization founded to promote classicism in architecture, Cook might be the one man for the job. A staunch advocate of not only preserving, but also creating, history through buildings, monuments and green spaces, Cook has both the reputation and connections to bring a frisson of classicism to Atlanta’s modernist image.
Through his firm PolitesCook Architects, with partner Peter Polites, Cook has designed and restored museums, monuments, public spaces and hotels worldwide, and created some of Atlanta’s most beautiful homes. As an architect, he has earned the respect of the world’s leadings in that field, from Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, to Leon Krier, who designed Poundbury, the new “city” for Prince Charles in Dorchester, England. Prince Charles himself, Britain’s foremost admirer of anti-modernist architecture, has lauded and sponsored Cook’s projects.
Cook and his wife, Emily Robinson, daughter of James Robinson III, the former chairman of American Express, are also well-known Atlanta philanthropists and preservationists. For his family residence, Cook is building a 6,000-square-foot mansion, on 60 acres of land in Buckhead, where the distant drone of cars is the only foil to the illusion of a pastoral English country manor. A renovated, turreted barn, resembling something out of “Dr. Zhivago,” is Cook’s temporary home and office.
Among his local accomplishments, Cook spearheaded a campaign to save the Fox Theatre from the wrecking ball in the late Seventies. The Moorish-inspired Twenties landmark, on Peachtree Street, is the city’s showcase entertainment venue. Cook also designed the Newington-Cropsey Museum, which opened in 1994, in Hastings on Hudson, N.Y., that through his aides first attracted the attention of Prince Charles.
Cook, who grew up idolizing architect Phillip Trammell Shutze, who designed houses for old-money Atlantans, has always had friends in high places. The late John F. Kennedy Jr. and wife Carolyn Bessette often visited Cook in Atlanta, where they would frequent a nearby Starbucks, incognito, under baseball caps. Cook was instrumental in introducing the couple to Cumberland Island, Ga., where they married. He spoke at J.F.K. Jr.’s funeral and later memorialized him with a small, elegant monument on the Buckhead estate.
When Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympic Games, Cook designed the Atlanta World Athletes monument, a 55-foot tall, round statue with bronze nudes holding up a globe. Popularly known as the Prince Charles Monument, the structure, at Pershing Point on Peachtree, was built with the financial support of the Prince. When Princess Diana died in 1997, 20,000 people, along with CNN news crews, gathered at the site, which became an impromptu memorial.
“Monuments are tangible, they strike a chord and commemorate significant moments,” Cook said. “We’ve lost this sense of their importance in the U.S., and especially in Atlanta.”
But among residents and the city’s establishment there’s a subtle movement toward softening Atlanta’s image as an antiseptic boomtown. Downtown Atlanta, once so crime-ridden that residents wouldn’t venture there after dark, has become more welcoming since the Olympics, when Centennial Park and subsequent renewal efforts have added parks and walking spaces.
The Georgia Aquarium, a $200 million gift from Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus, will open near the park in 2005, adding to the downtown buzz. The aquarium was originally planned to be near Atlantic Station, a massive retail, residential and office complex planned for midtown, a few miles north of downtown. When the aquarium plans were relocated, Cook saw an opportunity to leave his mark on Atlantic Station, a project planners hope will revitalize the entire city.
Atlantic Station’s 1.2 million square feet of high-end retail will be anchored by Dillard’s, the first downtown department store since Macy’s closed earlier this year. Residential space — 4,000 apartments, condos and lofts — along with 6.2 million square feet of office space will open over the next two years. The project is planned to be completed by 2005.
Cook has proposed a millennial monument to be constructed on the lake near Atlantic Station. In addition to an arched, 60-to-70-foot-tall monument, in the classical style, there will be a sculpture gallery and exhibition space that celebrates American achievement, with historical artifacts and artwork, and public spaces for events.
The Atlanta monument, though unconnected in design, is related in spirit to Cook’s plans for a Millennium Monument, proposed for Washington, D.C., that has been designed, but delayed, through the District of Columbia agency that is helping to implement it. Cook conceived the Washington project in the late Nineties, as millennium fever gripped the world and the European capitals sought ways to celebrate and memorialize the year 2000, although red tape has pushed its potential realization well after the fact.
“The U.S. was more concerned with Y2K’s effect on our computers than on commemorating the event,” Cook said.
With the blessing of Prince Charles’ foundation, Cook choreographed a design competition for the Washington monument through the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, a bastion of classicism in architectural academia, which was judged by Krier, Stern and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, of the Miami firm Duany Plater-Zyberk, which designed the town of Seaside, Fla.
With the caveat that the design be classic in style, a team of 10 architects was selected from thousands of entries. The resulting $50 million Millennial Monument, planned for Commodore Barney Circle near the capitol, is an arched structure that includes a museum. An adjunct project includes the restoration of the nearby Congressional Cemetery, where former presidents, first ladies, John Philip Sousa and famous Native Americans are buried.
The same 10 architects reconvened to design the Atlanta monument, which, tweaked in February, is moving faster than the Washington one. Though arched and inclusive of exhibition space, the Atlanta monument differs from the Washington plan.
“You can’t just transfer monuments from city to city; they have to blend with the area,” Cook said.
He is encouraged by the support from both the Atlantic Station developers, Jacoby Development Inc., and the city of Atlanta. The Atlanta monument should be under construction and in place within the next year.
Cook appreciates the mixture of historic and natural preservation, with a commercial venture like Atlantic Station, the sort of development that makes Atlanta tick.
“I want to show people you can be a [preservationist], leave a legacy for the city and still make money,” he said.