Restoring the Archives Building: An Interview with Adam Forrester

Andrew Wasserman, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Published: October 2, 2018

It is difficult to discern just what exactly it is we are watching for much of the first minute of Adam Forrester’s short film Archive (2017). Fast-moving clouds of smoke roll across the screen, revealing an overpass. The rhythmic pulse of helicopter blades or tires of vehicles quickly crossing uneven surfaces, or perhaps both, form much of the soundtrack. The occasional shouts of children – including a countdown – and the clipped phrases of an adult male speaking through a radio – “Step back” – do little to orient us. Another voice, that of the filmmaker, asks, “Is it time?” and confirms our expectation for some revelation still to come. Then more of the landscape comes into focus. Trees appear within the middle ground as the haze travels towards the left. The haze then changes course, or, perhaps more accurately, clarifies its course. It folds in on itself, pulled with a centripetal force towards the center, revealing an otherwise clear early-morning sky with a soft orange corona forming around objects anchored to the horizon. And then, at the 1:20 mark of the film, three blasts sound in rapid succession. As the filmmaker involuntarily utters, “Whoa” is right.

Forrester’s Archive records and revises recent history. What returns at the end of the film is the Georgia Archives and Records Building, the seventeen-story steel-reinforced structure that fell by controlled implosion on Sunday March 5, 2017. The building was built by the Atlanta architectural firm of A. Thomas Bradbury and Associates and dedicated on October 11, 1965.1 Renamed in 1982 the Ben W. Fortson Jr. State Records and Archives Building after the then-recently-deceased former Georgia Secretary of State, the structure held significant civic and popular heft – in function, name, and form. Forrester’s film records with modification the demolition on that spring 2017 morning. The title calls forth its architectural referent and an act of preservation. Rather than watch the building fall, as the film ends we appear to witness a celebration of architecture pulled up out of the ground, reversing the inevitable effects of decay, and arriving on the landscape with a bang. Or several.

For nearly half a century, the Georgia Archives loomed over its lot at 330 Capitol Avenue, SE, in downtown Atlanta. This site could be described, generously, as sandwiched between Capital Gateway Park and the Memorial Drive Greenway or, less generously, isolated by the converging courses of the Downtown Connector and Interstate 20. This was “an Archives for the Jet Age,” declared Carroll Hart, archivist and director of the Department of Archives and History in the late 1960s. In the center of an unevenly-graded site, a two-story colonnaded ground level contained offices, reading rooms, conference rooms, an auditorium, and exhibition hall. These two levels also served as a platform, elevating a narrower tower containing storage vaults. Although the building’s principle purpose was as a container of records, the marble block towering over the Capitol Hill neighborhood quickly became a spectacle as well. The gray marble panels yielded a subtle gridded geometry, the panel edges’ vertical bands echoing the updated classicism of the lower levels.2 When illuminated in the evening, this “brilliant landmark” would attract the attention of not only those speeding along the encircling highways but also those flying overhead, dazzled travelers arriving into and departing from the city.3

Over the last two decades, the building’s disappearance from the urban landscape has become something of an inevitability. A 1998 engineers report cited the vibrations of traffic along these roadways as compromising the building’s foundation.4 Although this problem threatened the building’s stability, causing it to sink into the ground and façade panels to precariously loosen, the cost of structural reinforcement was deemed prohibitive. Demolition following the relocation of almost 260 million items emerged as a solution.5 The state moved the archives to its current building, a nearly $30 million building designed by Paul Woolford of Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum that opened in 2003 in Morrow, Georgia.6 Yet, in the decade that followed, Bradbury’s midcentury modernist building remained standing. Each time a bid was received to demolish the building, the state would not release the approximately $5 million necessary for demolition.7 It is only within the last two years that funding has been secured for removal and an architectural replacement at the site: a new Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals complex, a project motivated by complaints of the insufficiency of the court’s own midcentury building.8

Windowless Walls of Former Georgia Archives Building. Mike. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

On the one hand, it should not be surprising that the 1965 archives building, trumpeted by The American Archivist as “outstanding” and one of the “finest State archival buildings in America,” should fall to the advance of time.9 In our present moment, midcentury modernist structures succumb both to the structural decline of age affecting all buildings and to the tastes of millennial urban redevelopment. But what of those for whom this building is more than a structural or unsightly problem? What of those for whom this was a significant urban landmark, for better or worse? Throughout its history, the building has been called “The White Ice Cube” or simply “The Ice Cube,” and not always with affection. Still, we do not name what we do not notice. For those who see the building as more than an urban eyesore, this evidence of a city willing to implode its material heritage troubles the mind. Even while acknowledging practical necessities that led to the building’s literal downfall and familiar habits of creative destruction, failures of preservation still mean loss.

This “archive” of Forrester’s film is a repository reasserting itself, rising from the dust of construction matter as the building is remade as whole, digitally captured to be watched by viewers after the real building no longer exists. The film significantly departs from amateur documentations of the demolition, which quickly appeared on YouTube and other video sharing sites. Rather than a seamless advance of events, Forrester splits visual and sonic content: the former unspooling backwards while the latter moves forward. The resultant work functions as a digital surrogate in place of the now absent analog marble and steel form. Moreover, the film serves as an archive of attachment: by transforming the original cheer for spectacle removal into cheer for spectacle retention, it suggests a drive to preserve those seemingly impassive objects of our urban past that have been revealed as fleeting in the urban contemporary. Beyond resurrecting a building, Archive records a city unable to preserve its history.

In the interview that follows, Forrester addresses the content of the film and technical decisions he made in creating the work, as well as the relationship between creation and destruction that runs through not only his work but also our cities. Forrester currently lives and works in Atlanta. He received his MFA from the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia and has held faculty positions at Troy University in Troy, Alabama, and Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, Louisiana. Over the last decade, his photographs and films have been shown across the United States and internationally. Archive has recently screened at the Atlanta Film Festival, Digital Graffiti in Alys Beach, Florida and ZOOM – Zbliżenia, International Film Festival in Jelenia Góra, Poland.

To give some biographical information up front: How long have you lived in or around Atlanta? And how does the city strike you as different from other cities? Or perhaps, more specifically, how does Atlanta differ from other southern cities in which you have lived?

My most recent span as a resident of the City of Atlanta has been about two years. During my teaching appointment at Troy University, I divided my time and residence between Montgomery, Alabama, and Atlanta. Before that, I was based in Athens, Georgia, during graduate school at the University of Georgia. In short, I’ve lived in or around Atlanta for a total of about five years.

Atlanta is complicated. Like many cities in the United States, Atlanta is rapidly changing. In the last two years, the city opened two gigantic stadiums, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Sun-Trust Park, and added a city soccer team. During the same time-period of urgent stadium construction, the city also imploded two large buildings, the Georgia Archives and Records Building and another stadium, the Georgia Dome, the former built in 1965, the latter built in 1992. These structures spent a combined seventy-seven years as part of the Atlanta skyline. Apparently, we like erecting new buildings and quickly tearing others down. 

And yet, while southern cities like New Orleans swiftly remove their confederate statues and the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery builds the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, metro Atlanta retains many relics from its past that most of us agree could be removed or rethought. Residing in a DeKalb County suburb of Atlanta, Stone Mountain is home to the largest confederate war memorial in the country and the site of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. There’s even a Georgia law on the books that prevents people from defacing/removing the memorial. That said, the city played a crucial role in the civil rights movement, we are a black-majority city, our Asian and Latinx communities have grown by over 65 percent in the last ten years, and we have the third highest LGBTQ populations per capita in the nation. Hands down, Atlanta is the most diverse and inclusive southern city I’ve lived in or visited, and we are learning to listen to each other more and more each day. I do wish we’d address our history with more sensitivity though.

What is your understanding of the contemporary South in general and southern cities in particular (and Atlanta in the hyper-particular)?

I’ve lived in the southern United States for most of my life, and my work often takes me further into the hidden and forgotten corners of the region, but I must admit, I am a reluctant reflection of a place I still struggle to call home. This region has a history of being represented by our loudest and/or most extreme inhabitants, many of whom end up perpetuating the stereotype that we’re all bigots here. I think that’s changing, but it will take time. The distinction, I believe, between the contemporary South and the old South is that, now more than ever, the contemporary South seems to be pulling all of the skeletons out of our closets. It seems like contemporary southerners are ready to own our haunted past. On a more positive note, I am excited when I think about the possibility of Georgia being the first state in the country to elect an African American woman to its governor’s seat, and I think Atlanta has played a pivotal role in Stacey Abrams becoming the state’s Democratic nominee for governor.

Back to the South in general though, I think southerners are sort of prepped for a slightly slower pace than the rest of the country. This has sometimes been frustrating for me but most of the time, the slightly slower pace here encourages me to just have a little more patience and relax. Finally, many of us still feel misunderstood and/or overlooked, often. This happens in many southern cities but speaking about Atlanta in particular, a few Atlanta residents started an online storytelling platform called The Bitter Southerner in the spirit of resisting that narrative of being overlooked. I realize that it’s probably unhealthy and mostly inaccurate to think this way but the whole New-York-City-sewage-train-in-a-rural-Alabama-town debacle reiterates, in some ways, how disposable our landscape and our people may still appear to others. To me, the culture of this region seems to be interested in doing the right thing, but also has some deep flaws. We’ve still got some work to do.

What compelled you to create a film about the Georgia Archives?

Since I can remember, that white cube has been planted there along the interstate. Traveling to and from my most recent home in Atlanta often leads me down I-20 to the Downtown Connector Ramp, and the white monolith always marked my arrival home. So the building itself was somewhat sentimental to me, and I quickly associated it with the notion of home. The building was also at the forefront of my mind in early 2017 because, a few weeks before the implosion, the building was used in political protest when the word “RESIST” was projected onto the marble façade in late February of that year. All of these factors collided when I heard the cube would soon be no more. I had to find a way to pay homage to the image of this building that I considered to be a bizarre, mythical work of art, silently watching over downtown Atlanta. This film began as a response to that sentiment.

RESIST, 2017, by Evereman and Protect Awesome. Presented by Dashboard U.S.

What of the building’s history did you know prior to making the film?

As much as I adored the building’s outward appearance, I never set foot inside. I knew that it’d been used as a film studio and filming location for a number of years after it was officially closed. I knew, or had heard, rather, that it had many levels underground. I was also aware that the windowless face of the building was there for a specific reason: to protect the precious archival materials from the detrimental UV rays beaming down from our sun. But I sort of saw the building as this monolith in the city that just seemed to always be there, and, true to its role as icon, the building invited a hypnotized gaze at every opportunity. I was always happy to oblige.

Can you describe the experience of being in the public viewing area the morning of the building’s implosion? Can you speak to the general tenor of the crowd gathered to watch the building fall and their enthusiasm once the explosive charges go off?

I had never attended an implosion in Atlanta, or anywhere else for that matter. I was completely unaware of the spectacle these kinds of demolitions have become. When I stood there in awe at seeing such a symbolic structure be demolished, I was immediately taken aback to hear the cheers erupt at the loss of this object that I looked upon with such longing. I looked around to see that not many others saw this act as somber and tragic as I did. I had no idea that this was essentially a firework show for many spectators.10 After that experience I knew that making a film about this building and Atlanta’s complex relationship to its skyline would be a way for me to express my confusion and discomfort in witnessing this celebrated demolition.

When did you decide on the structure of the film, i.e. the decision to separate the visual and audio components?

Originally, I wanted this to take shape as a more traditional documentary about the logistics of how and why buildings seem to continuously tumble down in Atlanta. When I decided to make a film about the loss of this building, I set out with all sorts of goals in mind. I conducted crowd interviews the day of the implosion, and I had planned on interviewing architects, designers, and city planners. I was in the midst of scheduling interviews when I decided to look at the footage of the implosion. I hadn’t realized it on the morning of the implosion, but after viewing multiple other video accounts uploaded online and looking critically at the images I captured I realized just how beautiful the morning light was passing through the debris, and how lucky I was to stumble upon the precise spot I chose to set up my camera. In listening to the event over and over in post-production, I recognized the slow whirl of the helicopters as strangely comforting and meditative. I even found the officer’s voice on the bullhorn to be unusually calm. There were all these elements that occurred in the background that morning, and they seemed to be just as meaningful to the larger narrative as the one moment I thought I had come there to film. After listening to all of the interactions and cheers off camera I wondered if there would be a way to utilize that excitement for destruction as something more positive and meaningful. I started moving around the diegetic sound from the original recording and the moving images immediately began to become imbued with a completely different meaning. I asked myself, “what if the cheering happened while the building was still standing, like somewhat of an honorific?” Once I saw how powerful it was to shift the sound of cheering to occur while the building was still standing, I then thought about how to take the piece one step further from a record of reality. At the end of my footage there was this glorious billowing cloud of debris moving toward the camera, I knew I had to begin there and work my way back to the upright building. Digitally rebuilding the now vanished building seemed almost too rudimentary at first, but once the sound of cheering fell into place, the resurrected white cube was now praised and would go on to live another day.

What do you see as the relation between the gathering for destruction and championing the return of the building? In the film this is cast as a celebratory moment. What is being celebrated? And what is being lost?

Yes, this is precisely what I’m interested in, these two seemingly opposed notions of construction and destruction. In my mind, I thought I’d be attending something akin to a funeral that morning, a contemplation or reflection upon where we’ve been, where we are headed, and why we’ve come to this point. I created this work to propose a celebration of the rebirth of this structure, even if the rebirth exists only in moving pixels. I wanted audiences to perhaps consider the possibilities of thinking critically about what we lose when we make room for progress in ways that look like this. Atlanta itself is marked with destruction and rebirth many times throughout its history. General Sherman’s men sang, in celebration no doubt, Glory, Glory, Hallelujah as they watched the city of Atlanta go up in flames one November morning 1864. Just over fifty years later, Atlanta was covered in ashes again with the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917. On the flip side of this coin we can point to the Atlanta city seal with a phoenix rising from the ashes of its predecessor. This relationship that Atlanta has to both destruction and the act of building, or re-building, is something that is quintessential to this city’s identity. In some ways I see this moment of the return of the building as a microcosm of Atlanta’s larger narrative of continuously being reborn.

This relation between creation and destruction runs through some of you work, i.e. the act of building something only to then knock it down, or to watch it burn as is the case in a film like The Stranger (2013). Or to destroy something only to then repair it, as in The Collapse of Order (2012). What is there about showing these cycles occurring within a human-influenced object world?

I think with these cycles of creation and destruction, I’m most interested in our own impermanence. It seems as though some components of US culture lead us into this problematic viewpoint that we are all that matters, and that we will ultimately prevail, over what I’m not quite sure. For a long time, I’ve been fascinated with the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of the Sand Mandala, in which Buddhist monks meticulously create a mandala, or a geometric pattern representing the universe, using colored grains of sand. After the ceremony is completed, the monks then destroy their own beautifully made work by scraping the sand into a jar and pouring it into a river. This final act of ritualistic destruction emphasizes how ephemeral our lives are and how impermanent the world itself is. This philosophy shows up in my work again and again. Pair that philosophy with that slowness and patience that comes with living in this region I mentioned before, and you’ve got a perfect soup for the kind of meditative considerations of a life cycle that my process tends to produce.

While on the topic of not just relating works but actually related works, your documentary Eat White Dirt (2016) can be understood as another story about attachments to objects, places, and objects in places. For some of the film’s subjects, geophagy – or clay eating – becomes a choice, or a geographic or cultural preference, but never really a compulsion. On the other side, there are those who scorn this behavior, either on medical grounds or racial grounds. Yet the film also reveals strong relationships with local materials and local object cultures. Did this occur to you before deciding to embark on that project? Did it reveal itself over time?

When I set out to make a film about the act of geophagy, I knew that there was a great deal of ignorance surrounding this practice, and that nearly all of the loudest voices were ones that chose to denigrate the act of eating earth. You’re right, critics shun this practice on medical grounds, but many also malign the practice purely on racial grounds. This seems to be a pretty consistent theme, especially here in the United States. We often struggle to look beyond our subtle differences and our own lack of understanding to learn from one another. This is precisely why I was thrilled to include Dr. Sera Young’s research in the film, in which she collects data about this practice happening in contemporary life on every inhabited continent. We also have written accounts of human beings eating earth dating back to Hippocrates’ time, and many scholars argue that the practice dates back long before the fifth century BCE. So, not only does the practice span across different times, it spans across different races, and even different species, as Young points out. In some ways, it seems almost innate to be an inhabitant on the earth and at least have some understanding of this incredibly intimate relationship with the ground we walk on.

When I began to understand that this kind of relationship with the earth is embedded into who we are, I went looking for other ways in which this material affected lives. Those other strong relationships with local materials and local object cultures you mention revealed themselves over time in talking with so many local people. I knew the material was used in manufacturing household products like toothpaste, paints, cosmetics, and magazines. But the use of kaolin as a component in whitewash or even as a home remedy was not on my radar. I had no idea there was a Kaolin Festival, or a Kaolin Capital of the World, or that there were churches in Sandersville named after this clay. This white clay was at one time so valuable that its nickname was white gold. I have the feeling that we’ve yet to discover all the uses of this material that’s been under our feet this whole time.

Archive is about something both intimately experienced and personally important yet still belonging to an everyday world able to be collectively encountered. Can you maybe say more about this relationship between the single person for whom these objects or materials become important? And how the individual becomes part of a greater community through these similar or shared relationships?

I think the majority of my work stems from these intimate encounters that I have with the kinds of objects or ideas that are, as you mentioned, deeply meaningful and most often publicly accessible. In the case of Archive, the crowd’s audible cheers and their reaction was markedly different than the responses I collected from individual interviews on that day. In speaking with people one on one, I discovered that my feeling of loss and my desire to fully understand why demolition was the Archive Building’s fate were all part of each person’s response. It appears that the collective applause and praise that occurred as the structure tumbled to the ground was more of an impulse than a deep-rooted ideology. In recognizing and examining these acutely personal encounters the crowd had with this building, a more complicated understanding of our own impulses begins to emerge. I suppose that’s why I gravitate toward making moving image work. For me, cinema is one of the best examples of this phenomenon: inside a dark room full of strangers, everyone hears the same sounds and watches the same series of images projected in sequence, and as an audience, we are moved almost in unison. In addition, each audience member typically leaves the theater having experienced something uniquely personal. I want Archive to point to that relationship between an individual and, in this case, a public building. Was this structure a venerated monolith that will be greatly missed, an eyesore that needed to be dealt with, or something in-between?

What has the reception of Archive been? What conversations do you want it to contribute to?

I think the film has been well received in the southeastern part of the United States, particularly in Atlanta. People immediately recognize the event, the building, and the sensibility of the piece in Atlanta. Archive, as well as the other films you mentioned about creation and destruction (The Stranger and The Collapse of Order), have been really well received in eastern Europe. The piece recently screened in Florida at Alys Beach for this year’s Digital Graffiti, and I overheard one viewer say, “This piece should be titled Patience,” which I found amusing. Even though the viewer was frustrated by the slow two-minute build up to the building’s resurrection, she revealed one key component that I’d hoped viewers would glean from viewing the work: if we’re not willing to engage in thoughtful dialogue about growth and development in cities, then I guess the only option is to continue moving at the same rate as always. The work itself does beckon the viewer to slow down, to be slightly uncomfortable, to wonder what on earth is behind the plume of smoke and why can’t it be seen yet, to have a moment of curiosity.

I hope Archive’s slow and steady pace will produce thoughtful conversation about the rapidly changing landscape of US cities, and I hope it conjures up inquiries regarding the kind of legacy we are leaving in the name of progress.

About the Author:

Andrew Wasserman is a visiting assistant professor in the School of Art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His writing has appeared in American Art, Journal of Urban History, Public, Public Art Dialogue, and Visual Resources.

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Notes   [ + ]

1. This was in fact the third site of the state archives, which were established in 1918. They were first housed in the Georgia State Capitol, then, in Rhodes Hall, to where they moved in 1929, and finally the 1965 Capitol Avenue building. For this early history, see David W. Carmichael, “Building on the Past: Construction of the New Georgia Archives,” Provenance, Journal of the Society of Georgia Archivists 23, no. 1 (January 2005): 5–20.
2. Beyond constructing an urban landmark, A. Thomas Bradbury and Associates worked with archivists to design a spatial plan balancing daily operations and long-term controlled storage. Robert A. Schoenberner, an architect at the film who oversaw the planning and construction of the building, advocated for these kinds of informed collaborations with stakeholders in designing purpose-driven buildings. See: Robert A. Schoenberner, “What the Architect Needs to Know About Archives,” The American Archivist 27, no. 4 (October 1964): 491–93.
3. Carroll Hart quoted in “Editorial Note” in Kenneth W. Richards, “Features of Three New Archives Building” in Reader for Archives and Records Center Buildings, edited by Victor Gondos Jr., (Washington, DC: Committee on Archival Buildings and Equipment, The Society of American Archivists, 1970), 39.
4. Robinson Associations, Final Report: Structural Condition Survey Archives Building Parking Deck (1998) cited in Cherie Long, “Developing and Implementing a Master of Archival Studies Program: A Collaborative Effort of a State University, a State Archives, and the National Archives and Records Administration,” Journal of Education for Library and Information Science (Spring 2011), 111.
5. In addition to the tens of thousands of books and periodicals, the archives’ holdings include 10,000 state and county maps, 1.5 million land grants and property maps, 80,000 microfilm rolls, and 100,000 photographs. During the ten-week shuttling of 300,000 containers of records, a paring of the collection also took place. An additional several thousand items were sent to the Capitol Museum, with choices motivated by issues related to institutional mandate and preservation responsibility. Kevin Duffy, “Georgia’s Diary Has a New Home,” The Atlanta Constitution, December 2, 2003, B1.
6. Gary Hendricks, “State’s Archives to Leave Atlanta,” The Atlanta Constitution, August 8, 2001, B5; Gary Hendricks, “Georgia’s Old Records Have a New Home,” The Atlanta Constitution, May 6, 2003, D1.
7. Leon Stafford, “State-Owned Buildings Idle Amid Slump,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 18, 2011, A15; James Salzer and Kristina Torres, “A Piecemeal Approach to Saving History?” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 21, 2013, A1.
8. In an echo of the past, when it cost about $6.5 million to build the original structure in 1965, the allowance for demolition to commence included borrowing $6.5 million from the $115 million budget for the new judicial complex, moneys allocated for “site preparation.” James Salzer, “Court Building May Be Among Costliest,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 19, 2014, A1; James Salzer, “State to Raze Old Georgia Archives,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 6, 2016, B1.
9. Victor Gondos, Jr., “Report of the Committee on Archival Buildings and Equipment,” The American Archivist 30, no. 1 (January 1967), 220.
10. For the demolition, the city set up a public viewing along Memorial Drive and Martin Street, allowing enthusiasts of architecture and local history (and of public acts destruction) to watch. Traffic was staggered along the highway, while local traffic was halted entirely along Capital Avenue and Memorial Drive for the full duration of the public ceremony that took place. At 6:45 that morning, a warning bell sounded. Ten minutes later, another warning sounded. Beyond serving as a five-minute alert, this second bell also announced the start of Governor Nathan Deal’s opening address, delivered from a parking lot behind Liberty Plaza, a single roadway removed from the Capitol Building yet an entire multilane course of interstate traffic removed from the archives building. Just before 7:00, a third warning sounded: a one-minute alert. A countdown started as a five-year-old child, previously selected, advanced towards a plunger. When the countdown reached “0,” he pushed the plunger, starting the implosion.