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'Arc d'Atlanta' ... or a new bit of kitsch?

Some find the city's new classically designed monument beautiful; others say it reflects a cultural inferiority complex.

By / July 7, 2008

MONUMENTAL DEVELOPMENT: The $20 million, 82-foot-tall Millennium Gate is designed to put Atlanta and its newest megaproject in the international spotlight.

PATRIK JONSSON

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With a 21-gun salute, a $20 million, 82-foot-tall Roman arch became Georgia's biggest roadside monument this weekend, supplanting Marietta's 77-foot-tall "Big Chicken."

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The first classical monument built in the US since the Jefferson Memorial in 1936, the so-called Millennium Gate, dedicated to peace and justice, came a few years late and a bit scaled down, not to its intended resting place in Washington, D.C., but to the capital of the Southeast. Its architectural neighbors include an old steel mill smokestack, an Ikea box store, and cranes erecting modern lofts with art deco facades.

A design inspired by the Arch of Titus in Rome, the Atlanta arch is a giant double-take, a serious statement that risks, against the topsy-turvy backdrop of modern mass development, to become a legacy to 21st-century kitsch.

But for its creator, an urban revivalist named Rodney Cook Jr., the arch isn't just a nod to the influence of Rome, Egypt, and Greece on a modern democracy, but also a bold way marker for a sprawling Southern juggernaut in search of an international identity. It represents, too, an arduous journey for a band of classicists determined to bring not just classical thought, but architecture, back into the public square.

"What we were trying to do with the Millennium Gate is emulate the best of Western architecture," says Mr. Cook, a scion of one of Atlanta's oldest families and a controversial figure in the South's architectural circles. "It's not an ego trip."

As a child, Cook made paper sculptures inspired by the Arch of Titus, which Napoleon also used as the inspiration for the Arc de Triomphe. As a student in Rome, Cook came up with the idea of the Millennium Gate as a way for America to mark "the height of its power" at the turn of the millennium.

With lots of support in Washington, it may have come off as a $50 million version at Barney Square in Washington. "But then the plane hit the Pentagon," Cook says, and a monument to peace was on the outs in Congress.

Enter not just Atlanta's own classical roots – not just of the Confederacy's colonnades, but architectural ideals embodied by the late Atlanta architect Philip Schutze, whose thumbprints are all over the Phoenix City. A massive "new urbanist" development called Atlantic Station was looking for a centerpiece, and with lots of deliberation, the National Monuments Foundation, founded and led by Cook, agreed to revamp the plans and build it in Atlanta.

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