Outside the box

introduction by Tracy Rose

Like a souped-up sugar cube, the hulking white Wachovia Building dominates the triangle surrounding downtown Asheville’s Pritchard Park.

So when the possibility arose that the enormous blockish building might come on the market, we at Xpress began spinning grand scenarios about its future.

Thanks to last fall’s merger of First Union and Wachovia, the new Wachovia Corp. now has two downtown offices within waving distance of each other: First Union (82 Patton Ave.) and Wachovia (just across the park at 1 Haywood St.).

Wachovia must now decide which building will best serve the newly consolidated enterprise when it merges its banking systems, a step slated to take place by May 2003, says Rebekah Lowe, regional president for WNC.

Back in January, company leaders were favoring moving operations to the First Union Building; a decision, however, has not yet been made (the company owns the Wachovia Building and leases the First Union Building).

“We still don’t know which one is going to be the ultimate selection,” Lowe reports.

But why should a little uncertainty hamper anyone’s imagination (or spleen, for that matter)? So our staffers sniffed around for some alternative ideas (both visionary and practical) for the Wachovia Building — and came up with a few of their own, too.

Wild, wonderful Wachovia

Rebekah Lowe seems to have a soft spot in her heart for the cubelike building that houses her corporate employer.

“What I hope that building stands for in this community is for great strength and wisdom and customer care,” offers Lowe. “It’s 100 years this year that Wachovia’s been serving in Asheville. I would hope that should we ever not need that building (and that’s a big if, at this point) … whatever it’s used for would have some kind of dignity and strength in the same way it’s served Wachovia and its customers all these years. We’d love for it to have some active part in the community.”

— Tracy Rose

Putting it to work

Warren Wilson College Dean of Work Ian Robertson sees the Wachovia Building serving the community in a variety of ways. He suggests a day-care center for downtown workers who’d like to be able to eat lunch with their kids; a room full of high-speed computers open to the public; after-school programs; an art space where artists teach their skills and sell their work; and a contra-dance hall equipped with a wooden floor.

“In other words,” explains Robertson, “a community center.”

Hatching businesses

Or how about turning the Wachovia Building into a “business incubator” for fledgling local enterprises? It’s already set up as office space, and it boasts an ideal, high-profile location (not to mention its own underground parking garage). A-B Tech does have a small-business incubator in the works (though it’s been delayed by state budget cuts). But it’s adjacent to the BASF plant in Enka (on property donated by the company) and so won’t be as well suited to businesses needing a more central location.

Helping new businesses survive and grow during the particularly vulnerable start-up period is not simple altruism: Successful enterprises strengthen and diversify the local economy, create jobs, boost tax revenues, and tend to put more of their profits back into the community. And studies show that 70-75 percent of all businesses begun in such incubators succeed.

Funding for the venture could come from several sources, such as local government, grants and investments by banks and individuals. Various nonprofit and governmental consulting agencies — such as the Mountain Microenterprise Fund, SCORE (the Service Corps of Retired Executives), and the Buncombe County Economic Development Commission — could lend their expertise to the project, providing hands-on management assistance, technical support, networking opportunities and even access to financing.

The resident businesses could also keep their costs down by sharing resources such as a secretary, fax machine, copier, printer — and, of course, a good industrial-size coffee maker.

And, eventually — like baby birds being pushed from the nest — new businesses would “graduate” from the incubator to become viable, independent entities.

— Lisa Watters

Don’t come in

Behind the four-story Wachovia Building’s nearly windowless facade (except for a few narrow slits and its two-story atrium) lies about 80,000 square feet of space, as well as 20,000 square feet of underground parking. The 1970 “commercial modern” design features precast aggregate panels over steel framing, explains local architect Bill Moore, whose office overlooks Pritchard Park.

“I never have liked the building,” confesses Moore, who’s marking his 40th year as an architect.

The building, Moore notes, doesn’t fit its surroundings (in appearance or scale); nor does it reflect the character of Pritchard Park or do anything to help make the park a “people place.” He acknowledges, however, that it was built at a time when there wasn’t much emphasis on structures fitting in with their surroundings.

When a bank builds a building, it is “buying prestige,” Moore suggests.

He likens the Wachovia Building to the glitzy Akzona Building (designed by acclaimed architect I.M. Pei), which flanks Pack Square; both, feels Moore, are less than welcoming, telling pedestrians, “Don’t come in.” The Wachovia Building, he says, is “a blank facade, except for the glass lobby.”

Moore (whose designs include the Unitarian Universalist Church in north Asheville) thinks improvements such as continuous awnings — or even an arcade — could make the Wachovia Building more pedestrian-friendly. Still, he observes, “It would take a lot of money to change the character of the thing.”

But another Asheville architect, John Rogers, thinks that because the exterior walls are not load-bearing, the building could be given a face-lift fairly easily simply by replacing the concrete panels with glass or recessing the street-level exterior walls to accommodate shops and/or restaurants.

Rogers (whose firm, Rogers Associates, designed the Haywood Park Hotel renovation) fondly recalls his family driving into downtown Asheville from South Carolina in the late ’40s and ’50s to go Christmas shopping. Before the Wachovia Building was erected, he remembers that section of Haywood Street as a continuous string of retail stores.

“The pleasant prospect is that it would be occupied by more varied and active uses,” Rogers muses. “Life on the street is what you’re looking for. … The possibilities are really limitless.”

— Tracy Rose

The eye of the beholder

The Wachovia Building does have its defenders.

It was designed by the late Anthony Lord of the architectural/engineering firm Six Associates, says Marshall Fields, an engineer with the Asheville office of Calloway, Johnson, Moore & West (Six Associates’ successor).

“Six Associates has a good reputation … and we want to maintain that if we can,” offers Fields. “Some people might think it’s ugly, but it’s in the eye of the beholder.”

Fields, however, declined to offer his own opinion of the structure. He did point out that banks were designed to look strong, which is why it didn’t incorporate much glass.

“That was one of the concepts in those days,” he recalls. “Banks should look strong for people to feel confident to put their money in.”

John Rogers (a former Six Associates employee) says that Lord — whose name graces Pack Memorial Library’s Lord Auditorium — was less than pleased with the way the Wachovia Building turned out.

“I know that he was always pretty unhappy with what resulted there,” Rogers reflects. “Sometimes architects control what happens, and sometimes they don’t.”

Interestingly, Six Associates also designed the downtown First Union Building, notes Fields.

— Tracy Rose

You’re getting sleepy…

If no one’s willing to tear it down, why not turn the Wachovia Building into a giant sensory-deprivation tank. Half the work is already done: There’s a depressing lack of windows (note the many references to its College Street facade as “the concrete canyon”). And people seen entering and leaving the place often show the early signs of sensory deprivation — vacant stares, difficulty hearing their names when a friend calls out, talking to themselves as they interact with their hallucinations. Of course, watching too much television can produce similar results: Brain waves in the frontal lobe slow way down, and as the trance deepens, the jaw drops open.

But if that idea’s too costly (or depressing), my roomie Tom suggests we turn it into a new skateboard park — an indoor one that would complement the new outdoor facility on Cherry Street. Skaters could enter through the revolving doors and roll right onto a special rubber escalator that would carry them to the upper levels, where they could jump cubicles, bump down the stairwells and careen off the windowless walls to the flashing of a giant strobe light (or one of those ballroom orbs spinning light).

Just a thought; maybe we should drink less organic coffee.

— Margaret Williams

The word from the top

What should we do with the Wachovia Building? Give it back to the Soviets; they built it (or, at least, it looks that way).

Of course, that’s just my opinion, and it’s not based on any particular facts. I’m a mere scribe, after all, and the sum total of my architectural expertise is the ability to sprinkle tantalizing bits of arcane terminology into cocktail-party conversations. My favorite is “flying buttresses.” Work this one into any chat, and I guarantee that you’ll leave the other partygoers stunned and awestruck. You don’t even have to know what it means — just sound and look authoritative. All you have to do is confidently string together “flying buttresses,” “I.M. Pei” and “form vs. function” in a sentence, nod knowingly at your host, and then head for the bar.

For this story, however, my assignment was to contact an expert and get their take on the building’s fate. Naturally, I sought the advice of Gino the Hotdog Guy. Gino Lopes is the proprietor of the eponymous Gino’s Hotdogs, a shining, stainless steel wiener cart that lives in the shadow of the Wachovia Building. From his Pritchard Park perch, Gino stares at the behemoth day in and day out, while dishing up tube steaks adorned with sauteed peppers and onions. “I’d change the front,” he opined, adding, “It’s just ugly.” Lopes suggested adding some windows, gutting the interior, and converting the bottom floor into a combination supermarket/hardware store. “That way, when I run out of oil or peppers, I don’t have to go all the way to Ingle’s.”

“Ahhh,” I concurred, positing, “The ol’ form vs. function thingy.”

Gino just kind of stared at me; I guess he was awestruck.

I also sought out the advice of former City Council member Barbara Field, a real live architect. We stood in the rain while she contemplated the building’s design possibilities. “It’s a great space for a museum or a mixed-use facility, with residences, offices and retail.” Field also said some stuff about column/base configuration, clean lines and creating a relationship between the building and the street — but I missed a lot of it, because I kept wondering when she was going to mention flying buttresses. She never did. But she did agree with Gino on the idea of adding more windows. So there you have it, out of the mouths of a pair of experts: The thing needs more flying buttresses.

— Brian Sarzynski

Spray it, don’t say it

Up close, the white quartz chips that pebble the Wachovia Building’s expansive surfaces try their best to suggest an interesting, naturalistic texture. From any distance, however, it resembles a big, awkward vacancy amid downtown Asheville’s colorful architectural mosaic — as if it had just moved here from Charlotte or Raleigh and hadn’t yet learned to dress like the locals.

Maybe its new owners should give it a makeover. Its monotonous, windowless white walls beg to be humanized with a touch of color. And since Asheville is becoming an increasingly world-famous center for folk arts, why not elevate one of America’s most vibrant yet least recognized modern folk-art genres to the gallery status many art aficionados already believe it deserves? Why not hire some of Asheville’s most talented young graffiti artists to paint a mural on the Wachovia Building? Perhaps someone like the local tag artist who styles himself Ishmael could help save us from this great White Whale.

I asked local photographer/graffiti collector Molly Warlick what she thought of the idea.

“It would fit right in there,” she mused enthusiastically after taking a second look at a building she usually tries to ignore. “It would make people look up, instead of looking down on the sidewalks.”

The graffiti creations Warlick and other connoisseurs of hip-hop art collect are not your run-of-the-mill “tagging,” those signatures scrawled in a cryptic arabesque — originally associated with street gangs — that modern cities’ sterile, impersonal architecture seems to attract the way a white carpet invites stains. Nor are they confined to that most time-honored of graffiti traditions, the midnight message of political protest (such as the “No War” tag that’s cropped up all over downtown since Sept. 11 — including on Wachovia’s facade).

“You see a lot of it hidden,” notes Warlick. “It’s not all [about] ruining, defacing other people’s property. A lot of it’s underground, where average people never see it — only hitchhikers or people hanging out under bridges or getting off the beaten path. … They’re the only people that are ever going to find it.” One graffiti artist Warlick met was a UNCA art student who wanted to create paintings that the homeless and penniless could see and enjoy.

— Steve Rasmussen

Notes from underground

UNCA language and literature Professor David Hopes is one who’s strayed from the beaten path and stumbled on what he calls “Asheville’s own Altamira.” In a recent article for the Citizen-Times, Hopes described how he’d followed an obscure trail near his River District studio down which he’d repeatedly seen groups of youths disappear. The trail led to the base of the Smokey Park Bridge, where he discovered a stunning trove of spray-painted art.

I wrote Hopes to ask if he thought more owners of bland urban buildings ought to consider giving artistic but underemployed youths a chance to practice their craft in the open.

“I think that Asheville could be a pioneer in making this sort of outsider art an official part of cultural life,” Hopes replied. “I think that private, business support of inventive hip-hop art would do a lot to heal the rift between the Chamber of Commerce and the Street.”

“Any owner certainly has a creative license” to muralize an empty wall answered Superintendent of Cultural Arts David Mitchell when asked if the city would object. “I’m sure that artists would enjoy such a canvas, where their art that has traditionally been underground would have a wider audience.”

In fact, Mitchell’s not just sitting back and waiting for this to happen. The city’s new arts czar, who’s served as a director of youth art programs in the past, is enthusiastic about Asheville’s underground-art scene. Mosaic Vortex, the youth-artists’ organization, has shown him local hip-hop art that he considers “outstanding, very interpretive, artistically meritorious,” and he wants to “make this underground art … aboveground” so that both residents and visitors to the city can see and appreciate it. (The Vortex is also working with him to help control “misplaced graffiti,” he noted.)

“What I’m hoping to do is establish a program for graffiti artists that would allow them the opportunity to express their artistic talents, statements they want to make. … There’s nothing violent about [this art], there’s nothing threatening about it to me, but I do believe it’s ‘artworthy.'”

Mitchell also believes that an underground edition of the highly popular City Center Art Walks could be a significant boon to the local economy. If Asheville became known as a center for this vibrant new folk art, tourists — bearing cash — would flock here just to see it. He added that the mayor — whom he terms “definitely artist-friendly” — has expressed support for the idea.

“I believe it’s something that would put us on the map in terms of public art,” Mitchell said.

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