Perspectives in Architecture: History inspires bold design at MLK Jr. Recreation Center

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Architects create building designs inspired by factors such as the project site, environment, construction budget, building users, and historical references. In 1927, Oliver Vinour of the architectural firm, Marye, Alger, and Vinour, evoked the heritage of the Shriners of Atlanta with his romantic interpretation of the historical Islamic architecture for the design of the organization’s headquarters. To offset the anticipated financial burden of this new building with sweeping domes and ornamentation, the Shriners leased the auditorium to movie theater mogul William Fox. The businessman and future building owner declared bankruptcy in 1932, yet the Fox Theatre, the opulent concert and event venue bearing his name, thrives today with large audiences.

For the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation and Aquatic Center in the Old Fourth Ward, global architecture and design firm Perkins+Will, in partnership with KAI Architects, celebrates civil rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights history with their inventive building design. Perkins+Will Design Principal Kenneth Luker describes the center as “an example of the good we can accomplish working together.” Observing the surrounding community, the architect orients the main entrance and the portrait of Dr. King on the exterior skin toward the nearby King Memorial MARTA Station rather than the distant downtown skyline. This orientation offers the most visibility and public exposure for this noteworthy portion of the building.

As visitors approach the entrance, they are immediately drawn to the glass exterior wall with a view of the enormous public pool inside. An amenity once used to promote racial segregation, the transparency of the pool area represents the civil right progress achieved by King and countless leaders through public access to pools, places, and institutions. The lobby runs parallel to the street thereby expressing the center as an expansion of the street life of the city and the civic fabric of the local community. This light-filled corridor with poignant images of the King family provides easy access to a multi-use gymnasium, an indoor track, a climbing wall area, classrooms, and other interior spaces.

With his provocative references to history and playful use of aluminum siding and glass on the exterior, Luker generates a bold building design that animates the relevance of Martin Luther King Jr. and his civil rights work fifty years after his death. The local community has enthusiastically supported this center since the October 2017 completion. A recreational, historical, and architectural gem, the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation and Aquatic Center, in the hands of an inspired designer, abounds in inspiration for all.

Melody L. Harclerode, AIA, promotes significant historical, cultural, and natural sites as an organizational leader, architect and writer.

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