An Urban Island: Atlantic Station and its Use of the Screen – Derek Merrill & Beau B. Beza

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Typically impenetrable, solid surfaces–barriers, fences, walls–cut space into two distinct parts, an inside and outside. In ancient times, those within the walls of the city, or castle, were protected from barbarians who lived outside the confines of civilized society. Where one stood in relation to the wall determined their identity and safety. In our contemporary moment not much has changed between those inside and outside a wall. Gated communities and privatized spaces are just two examples of how walls literalize the division of people. Surfaces record economic, social, and ideological differences: the rundown house, the newly restored Victorian, and the “Support our Troops” sign on the manicured lawn influence our perception of the environment by dividing the city space into ontologically sound zones. The semiotics of surfaces, therefore, appear to us as screens, screens that shape, influence, and define our experience and perception of our built environment.

Screens divide the city of Atlanta, Georgia, USA, in such ways.1 One can be walking casually among twisted streets and civil war era mansions preserved in the Ansley Park neighborhood and then suddenly find him/herself in an economically and aesthetically challenged part of town a few blocks away in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. What is astonishing is that there are very few physical markers indicating when a person moves out of and arrives into another zone. Sometimes, a simple four lane street is a border between affluence and poverty. When one is in a zone, however, there are clear signs that define who belongs and who does not. Studying the various modes and methods of the screen in these environments such as “Neighborhood Watch” signs, billboards for beer, graffiti, or empty lots would undoubtedly produce interesting results regarding the separation and management of race and class in the United States. However insightful these findings would be, they would reflect a socio-economic reality that tells us about the distribution and concentration of wealth. In this sense then a study of screens would tell us something about the relationship between monopoly capital and social space. It is when we turn our attention to less obvious employments of the screen that we begin to understand how they give shape to a new spatial order to develop under the economic regime of neo-liberalism. Within a global economy, space excludes people not through class differences, but lifestyle.

Atlanta, Georgia, consciously develops its identity. All around, one sees evidence of the New South, a more urbane, cosmopolitan, and professional place than its former self–a place that lost the civil war, a place associated firmly with the Confederacy, and a place mired in racism. The ongoing construction of lofts, condos, and new urban spaces shows the socio-economic prosperity of Atlanta and erases its regional identity. In its quest to reinvent itself, Atlanta quickly overloaded its infrastructure. Distant suburbs sprouted around the city. While these places were solutions for middle class families to live in affordable and spacious neighborhoods outside the city, the long commuting hours and traditionally ordered suburbs posed problems. A recent study found that “From 1990 to 2000, metro Atlanta’s average commute rose from 26 minutes to 31.2 minutes, the largest increase in the nation” (Hart: 2006).

A solution to the plague of long commutes and lifeless suburbs, Atlantic Station is the newest incarnation of Atlanta’s reinvented image. Atlantic Station, a 138 acre community in the middle of metro Atlanta, adheres to the community-friendly design logic of new urbanism. Surprising, its lack of ostentatious screens around or within this space makes it vastly different from the city that surrounds it. Atlantic Station does not demarcate itself by using traditional screens, such as fences, walls, or signs. Instead, this space marks itself off from the surrounding area using what we consider a transformation of the screen. In this instance, the screen morphs from a solid surface into something more like a sieve. A screen, something used to keep people out, becomes screening, fluid, translucent borders that separate spaces. Rather than block something out, a screen in this environment allows things to flow through. A crucial contradiction arises with this new definition of screen, however. On the one hand, the screen-as-sieve blurs the boundary that traditional walls or barriers clearly demarcated. On the other hand, the screen still functions to establish Atlantic Station as different from its surrounding space. The screen’s ambiguous yet definitive presence, we argue, represents a spatial logic much different than what is found in the other parts of Atlanta. Examining central design elements that shape this space, we begin to understand better how the person experiences this new space shaped by a different mode of screens and screening.

Atlantic Station

Atlantic Station’s slogan (i.e. the message) –“Live, Work, Play”–alerts us to its multi-functional use. Within a small community, one can avoid long commutes to work, or having to drive a car for entertainment. Atlantic Station is a choice in lifestyle, one conscious of environmental and community issues. Like a Le Corbusian (1946) dream, Atlantic Station offers a different way to dwell. Indeed, this place provides all the resources for one never to leave. One may wake up, walk to work, then head over to the “downtown” area that includes a supermarket, cinema, cafes, restaurants, and department stores. Because it seems like such a great place to live, one would think Atlantic Station would place huge screens such as security gates to intimidate non-residences from entering, or to announce loudly using large signs when one enters or leaves this place; i.e., “Welcome to Atlantic Station: Your Place for Fun!,” or, “You are Now Leaving Atlantic Station: Come Back and Visit Us Soon!” But the opposite is true: in the traditional sense of the screen there are none to demarcate this space from the rest of the city. In this sense, Atlantic Station is just another part of Atlanta. The “downtown” area is open to everyone, not just people who live there. People from outside this community may enter to consume its space, take part in a different environment, where one can park the car, and accomplish all of one’s shopping or entertainment needs within an aesthetically pleasing space.

Use of Screens

The fluidity of Atlantic Station’s border distances itself from previous urban designs. Unlike earlier urban projects that repel the city, Atlantic Station does not visibly repeat the syntax of postmodern design. Mike Davis’ seminal work on Los Angeles identifies an alarming trend in the grammar of the built environment. In City of Quartz he argues that the design of buildings and limited access to public spaces occurs to protect land value. More so, Davis argues that “urban form is indeed following a repressive function in the political furrows of the Reagan-Bush era” (Davis 1990: 228). Dividing space according to a political and economic understanding is also “the defense of luxury lifestyles… translated into a proliferation of new repressions in space and movement”(Davis 1990: 223). Barrel shaped benches, outdoor sprinklers going off in the park at random hours, and parking garages designed with micro-parks on top of them for white collar workers to eat and enjoy the outdoors, without ever having to expose themselves to the streets outside, are just of the few ways in which space has been privatized. Moreover, Davis points to the architecture of Frank Ghery as exemplifying screening out the public. The Frances Howard Goldwyn Regional Branch Library in Hollywood has “fifteen-foot security walls of stucco covered concrete block, its anti-graffiti barricades covered in ceramic tile, its sunken entrance protected by ten-foot steel stacks, and its stylized sentry boxes perched precariously on each side” (Davis 1990: 239). Davis recognizes screens that shape Los Angeles along class lines. Screens prevent access to previously open spaces and buildings, shield people from crowds and the street, and direct the flow of the public away from privatized spaces. Screens function to naturalize this separation between the poor and middle class.

This dystopian element is absent in Atlantic Station, as too is another trend in planned communities: the assorted neo-architectural housing styles. Consider Celebration, Florida, USA, a corporate community owned by the Disney corporation. This community offers neighborhoods of simulacrums: Colonial Revival, Victorian, Craftsman, and the city loft are just a few styles of living one can choose from. The screen in this community extenuates the flatness, or depthlessness, of its surface by referring to previous eras. In this sense, Celebration is typical of the meaninglessness of postmodern architecture. David Harvey (1990) illuminates this issue of depthlessness in his writings on space. Harvey complains that the lack of depth charts a loss of meaning that was present in the modernist aesthetic: “Attention to surfaces has, of course, always been important to modernist thought and practice (particularly since the cubists), but it has always been paralleled by the kind of question that Raban posed about urban life: how can we build, represent, and attend to these surfaces with the requisite sympathy and seriousness in order to get behind them and identify essential meanings? Postmodernism, with its resignation to bottomless fragmentation and ephemerality, generally refuses to contemplate that question” (Harvey 1990: 58-59). Celebration, in its quoting other periods, tells us nothing about our contemporary experiences. This lack of meaning in reference to Celebration could be read as a retreat from the present and a return to the past. Nostalgia, romanticizing the past, is just one way that the traditional screen may protect one from the complexities of the world.

Atlantic Station represents a shift in design. It does not fortress itself against the public or retreat from the world. Instead of using screens to wall people out or evoke the past, Atlantic Station utilizes screens already present in the urban fabric, thus appearing naturally placed and open to the public. Even though there are several ways to enter Atlantic Station, two can be considered main entrances that act as fluid screens according to the grammar of this space: to the west runs a four lane avenue passing an Ikea mega store; to the east, Atlantic Station buds up to an eight lane interstate and one must cross over a bridge to enter (image 1). At the end of the bridge, a single sign sitting under a towering Wachovia building indicates one’s location (image 2).  There are a few minor entryways: to the south sits narrow residential roads, and to the north runs a train track. These screens serve in place of security check points, security gates, or security guards checking everyone who enters.

Image 1
Image 1. Screen border. Eight lane interstate, and bridge.

Image 2

Image 2. Only sign: “Atlantic Station”

Even though there are no clearly defined borders, the businesses on the east and west entrances define this space. And traveling from the south, one is eventually welcomed by the sight of a huge Target store. These corporations act as anchors from which the screen originates. From them, the screen figuratively wraps around Atlantic Station. It is for these reasons that screens in the traditional sense–huge welcome signs, tall walls, security gates–are absent inside Atlantic Station. There is no need since the borders and corporations have already defined this space as a site produced by and for multi-national corporations. In fact, if there were screens here this space would lose it most powerful screen, that of the commodity and its fetish.

The fetish, an object that replaces the original object of our desire, of Atlantic Station satisfies the condition of the total saturation of capital in space. The screen around Atlantic Station replaces, or stands in for, a policing entity such as police or security cameras. Since major corporations meet our eyes when entering this space, and since we argue that the presence of these corporations define this space, then we must also think that this space is an extension of them. Living here is like living in a business. Even if one were to miss the huge Ikea when entering Atlantic Station, they would certainly take notice of the aesthetics of this space: everything appears new, and the style and color of buildings do not introduce gaps or inconsistencies in our perception of this place. The lack of traditional screens would clutter this space and would appear as an attempt to “patch up” the worn out spots, if any. The symbolic product of these businesses, Atlantic Station, appears always ready for consumption.

A discussion about the commodity leads to a conversation about value: who makes it and how it is sustained. Davis shows that value and aesthetics are tightly bound concepts ultimately linked to the notion of the commodity. Indeed, the process of utilizing screens to create “clean zones” is much like wrapping a commodity in packaging. Susan Willis (1991) provides the link between value and product packaging. By noting that types of packaging ensure that the product is pure, she brings the notion of “sterility” into the study of screens. Willis proposes that the supermarket symbolizes high standards of hygiene, which is always associated with progress, expected from the First World. In addition, Willis argues that packaging is also linked to security. When a product is sealed by plastic or shrink wrap the consumer knows the product is new, clean, and safe. Similar to commodities wrapped in plastic, the screens used in Atlantic Station produce, preserve, and enhance value. Using screens to preserve land value generates narratives about the type of people who have access to these spaces. One must buy his/her way into them. In this sense, the person mimics the commodity he/she purchases, and by doing so, serves to maintain the screen (see http://www.atlanticstation.com/live.php).

By screening Atlantic Station from Atlanta, it stays new. Indeed, it stands as a new spatial and social relationship to older forms produced under capital. We can argue that from postmodern architecture from the 1980s, to New Urban communities in the 21st century the screen now acts as a sifting device, gently separating itself from the city. But considering this screen “friendlier” misses a crucial symbolic dimension to screens around Atlantic Station. 

Examining Atlantic Station on a map reveals yet another screen (http://www.atlanticstation.com/site.php). Considering how the screen defines Atlantic Station on a large scale, its position to the city, and its design, reference the distant past of moats and islands, of kings and feudal lords. The beltway, Interstate 285, encircles Atlanta for 63 miles (~100km), serving as a moat to Atlantic Station. This screen acts like a first level of demarcation. The second level marking difference is Interstate 75 and 85 that flows like a river next to Atlantic Station, the indirect roads leading to Atlantic Station to the south a bog, the shopping areas to the east and west outposts. This island projects a vision of the future through its utilization of the screen. The mixed message is implicit: all are welcomed, but only consumers truly welcomed.

Interpretation of the Screen

It has been argued that Atlantic Station allows some people in and keeps others out–done through the use of the screen. A planned development from its conception Atlantic Station employs a Foucaultian articulated strategy of design discipline and perfection to regulate movement through space (Foucault 2007). This screen, however, has been claimed not to need a physical ‘entity’ to convey its message, such as a billboard inviting some people in and telling others to stay out. Rather the ‘message’ the screen conveys is presented through a spatial logic that makes use of object, form and perception. These three elements work together to establish an ‘architectural’ screen which creates an aesthetic that then encourages some people to enter and others to stay out of Atlantic Station. This message is similar to that of an aesthetic which of itself employs physical space to empower or subjugate individuals (Eagleton 1990).

Parallels can be drawn between philosophical discussions on aesthetics, and in particular those revolving around beauty, and the articulation of ‘message’ presented (i.e. in one’s argument) through proposition, terms and content (Sparshott 1998). This latter example depicts a linear conveyance of the message. However, a message conveyed through the architectural screen is not necessarily a linear progression and the message being conveyed depends on one’s point of beginning as designer, consumer or community member (Image 3).

Image 3

Image 3. Object, form and perception’s influence on the conveyance of the message.

For example, Atlantic Station conveys the message that it:

is the national model for smart growth and sustainable development. Picture a community with unsurpassed architectural quality, a fusion of functionality and finesse that combines an attractive mix of affordable, middle-income, and up-scale housing with world-class restaurants, theaters, and retailers. 2

In this example the message is being implanted in the consumer mind and attempts to establish Atlantic Station as ‘place’.3 Objects are then selected, arranged in a particular way (by a designer) to give space form and to match that implanted perception and therefore reinforce the message.

Yet, regardless of one’s point of beginning, the message is still present: objects are features such as buildings, roads, street furniture, pilasters, planting, signage and so on. Form is the arrangement of these objects to define space such as through the establishment of a district, neighborhood, park, entry feature and so on. Perception is one’s interpretation of the message created (or reinforced) through the interaction of object and form, which is the architectural screen.

To frame further discussion of the architectural screen we will reference two established disciplines, mainly:

  1. the artistic ‘line’ 4 , and
  2. Perception; Illusion and knowledge 5

The Screen and the Artistic line

The architectural scene is not physically there but it is still present. It is an abstract extension of the line which of itself helps define a space and, in the context of this paper, may appropriately be referred to as the outlying blurred junction that creates distinction between features (Ruskin 1887) (e.g. the line separating affluence from poverty). The line may also be thought of as the point at which a threshold is reached where distinction between space(s) and place(s) is created (Lynch 1960). This distinction, however, is not limited solely to influences of the physical world and is exacerbated through the large multinational corporation establishing centers of interconnected activity (e.g. Ikea in Atlantic Station connected to Ikea in Melbourne, Australia) that freely move between ‘digital and actual space’ (Sassen 2001: 204), where space itself becomes the line (Sassen 2001). 

In terms of Atlantic Station a number of distinct architectural screens exist: The residential screen, the commercial screen, the infrastructural screen, the corporate screen and the public screen. 6 However, do not suppose that this list of screens is exhaustive or clear demarcation can be drawn to surround them, this is not the point of this paper. One must imagine a ‘fuzzy set’ of principles where through degrees of association objects and form are permitted to move rationally between screens allowing perception(s) to be realized (Image 4). 7

For example, in design terms, one’s perception of form is realized through an ‘edge’ or ‘edges’ (Lynch 1960). However appropriate, edges, in the sense of helping to evoke an architectural screen, are seamless or blurred. The message is both clear and ambiguous. One perceives and experiences a distinct space, but cannot identify a sharp line dividing its inside and outside.

Image 4

Image 4. Example of three architectural screens in Atlantic Station.

  • Perception, Illusion and knowledge
    Fortunately, the Architectural screen does not allow ambiguity in object and form to establish a base of analysis in the derivation of perception. Nothing is ambiguous about the design and intent of Atlantic station, each space contained within it presents a message:

    The residential screen: Neighborhood8 and community;
    The commercial screen: variety;
    The infrastructural screen: exclusion and reclusion;
    The corporate screen: produced by and for the multi-national corporation, commodity and power; and
    The public screen: community “focal point”9 ;

Perception, in this instance and for ease of argument, realized through object and form may10 result from two different psychological processes: Illusion or knowledge (Image 5)–where illusionary perception is stimulus based and knowledge perception is conceptual/education based (Rock 1958).

Image 5

Image 5. Processes of architectural screen in perception.

In terms of knowledge perception the conceptual/educational base can be derived in many different ways. For example, the designer may establish a knowledge base through formal tertiary education and the consumer and community member through ‘life’ experience. In this latter example, through experience an imprint of a scene is left in one’s mind and recalled when needed to provide recognition of parallel landscapes (Marr 1976). However, transforming one’s ‘life’ learned experience into a process of recognition relies on legibility (i.e. understanding) of object and form (Lynch 1960). The New Urbanist principle of ‘clearly’ defined and articulated space helps reinforce legibility and Atlantic Station’s installation of spaces of this type assists in articulation of their message (Image 6).11

Image 6

Image 6. Clearly defined space(s) in Atlantic Station.

Illusionary perception (perception created by stimuli) is corollary to an unspoken urban language–a language of built form. At its best, this language is reflected in a total system of rigorous design consideration (Lynch 1990). Unfortunately, it is not understood by many and the stimuli of horizontal and vertical objects act only as cues to persuade an unawares public (Beza 2005). Derived perception from viewing these objects is meaningless, if only to identify that basic emotion is what under lays one’s response to stimuli being observed. In these terms beauty and ugliness along with their resulting emotions should then frame this discussion.

Beauty, perceived from viewing objects in the natural environment, reflect objects that are small, smooth and polished, proportional and subdued, understandable, and light and delicate (Bacon 1932; Burke 1987). In the urban environment beauty revolves around objects that relate to a human scale12 : an Architect’s doorway [~2m(h) X 750mm(w)]; a Landscape Architect’s seat-wall [~450mm tall]; or a planner’s footpath/sidewalk [~1.5m – 3m(w)]. Ultimately, the resulting emotion(s) from viewing objects of beauty are a peace of mind and calming pleasure (Bacon 1932; Burke 1987).

Ugliness in the natural landscape might be seen to refer to deviations from a benchmark of what one imagines the land ought to be (Bishop 1989). Thus, ugliness in the landscape may be represented by objects considered to be uncharacteristic, misfits and hazardous. 13 14 Objects such as these could be graffiti, megascaled features and derelict buildings, respectively. 15 Deviations from the imagined landscape, may be less valued and evoke emotions of disappointment, indifference and fear (Appleton 1975).

The blurred border between Atlantic Station and Atlanta lends a naturalness, and therefore beauty, to its separation. Inside Atlantic Station, the spatial design influences social practices that would enjoy and preserve the aesthetic unity of Atlantic Station. Open borders yet distinctly closed to non-consumers, Atlantic Station’s Janus face looks to the past to project a future where island cities of a consumerist utopia tangentially connect to one another. In the grey zone between these screened islands resides the old city once dignified by the solid surfaces of barriers, fences, and walls.

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Beza, B. (2005, February). Volunteering in landscape architecture. Landscape Australia, 105, 26(1): 56–57.

Bishop, P. (1989). The myth of Shangri-La: Tibet, travel writing and the western creation of sacred landscapes. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Burke, E. (1987). A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful (J. T. Boulton, Ed.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell. (Original work published 1757).

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Davis, M. (1990). City of quartz. New York: Vintage.

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Foucault, M. (2007). Security, territory, population; Lectures at the College De France, 1977 – 78. Ed. Francois Ewald & Alessandro Fontana. English Ed. Arnold I. Davidson. Trans. Graham Burchell. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

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Notes

1. By using Atlanta as our example, we are not arguing that the city is unique among others in the US or Australia in its design.

2. (Atlantic Station http://www.atlanticstation.com/concept.php) Atlantic Station. Atlantic Station, Location.

3. Place is used here to distinguish between ‘space’; an occupied environment void of human connection see Tony Hiss. The experience of place. (New York: Vintage Books (Random House), 1990) and Yi-Fu Tuan. Space and place: The perspective of experience. (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1977). 

4. The ‘line’ is part of an art and design discourse highlighted by Ruskin in his teaching. For a detailed discussion of the artistic line see: Ruskin, John. 1887. Lectures on art. Kent: Geaorge Allen.

5. For example, see Rock, Irvin. “Perception and knowledge”. Acta Psychologica, 59 (1985):3 -22.

6. One can view the layout of Atlantic Station and isolate the architectural screen(s) at: http://www.atlanticstation.com/site.php

7. For example, see Kacprzyk, Janusz. and Nurmi, Hannu. 1998. “Group decision making under fuzziness”. In Fuzzy sets in decision analysis, operations research and statistics, ed. Roman Stowiński, 103 – 136. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers; Klir, George. J. 2006. Uncertainty and information. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; Klir, Geaorge. J., St.Clair, Ute. H. and Yuan, Bo. 1997. Fuzzy set theory: Foundations and applications. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall PTR.

8. A description of Atlantic Station’s ‘Neighborhood’ is at: http://www.atlanticstation.com/live.php

9. (Atlantic Station http://www.atlanticstation.com/site.php) Atlantic Station. Atlantic Station, Location.

10. A limitation to this argument is that the term ‘may’ must be used as substantial in-depth quantitative and/or qualitative studies should be undertaken to validate or reject this claim.

11. See Katz, Peter. 1994. The new urbanism: Toward an architecture of community. New York: McGraw-Hill.

12. For a description of the ‘human scale’ see: Moughtin, Cliff. 1992. Urban design: Street and square. Oxford: Butterworth Architecture.

13. For a description of ‘misfits’ see: Kates, Robert. The pursuit of beauty in the environment. Landscape, Winter Issue, (1966): 21–25; Meining, Donald. W. 1973. Visual blight: academic neglect. In Visual blight in America (Resource Paper No. 23), ed. Peirce. F. Lewis, David Lowenthal & Yi-Fu Tuan, 45–46. Washington, DC, USA: Commission on Collage Geography, Association of American Geographers.

14. For a description and further discussion of items that one may consider ‘hazardous’ see: Appleton, Jay. 1975. The experience of the landscape. London: John Wiley and Sons; Furuseth, Owen. J. Community sensitivity to a hazardous waste facility. Landscape and Urban Planning, 17 (1989): 357–370.

15. For a description of ‘megascaled’ urban features see: Moughtin, Cliff. 1992. Urban design: Street and square. Oxford: Butterworth Architecture.

Author Bios:

Derek Merrill’s research examines representations of waste in American culture and literature. He is particularly interested in the economic, spatial, and social relations that produce materials as useless. He is currently a Brittain Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A. where he teaches in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture. Email: derek.merrill@lcc.gatech.edu

Beau B. Beza leads the urban design subjects and is the Postgraduate Course Manager in the Environment and Planning Program at RMIT University. His research is focused on human perception and revolves around the way in which people derive meaning from and interpret natural and urban environments. This research and his professional design experience have led him to work on projects in The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Australia, Norway, Nepal, Bosnia-Herzegovina and The United States of America. He is also a founding director of Architects Without Frontiers, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to assisting communities in need irrespective of their race, religion, gender or political affiliation. In conjunction with this latter experience Beau leads the organisation’s project works in Nepal and, along with Sherpa community members, builds waste facilities and helps to organise environment education programs along the Mt. Everest Trek. Email: beau.beza@rmit.edu.au

Comments

  1. Glenn Weiss says:

    Screens. I read the article twice and the screen is a poor choice of words to assist with the anaylsis. A forced metaphor regarding the spatial conception. I visit as many new urbanist places as possible to understand them. The designers concieve these development as a series of territorial types which at set next to each other. Each territory has an aesthetic heart (round, linear or grid) that is defined with building facades. Once leaving the hearts, transitions between territories are very awkward and rely on the road to rudely connect them. The locations of the screens are the empty car zones of garages, parking lots, alleys or highways. The resident and visitor is suposed to mentally ignore these places like the toilet in the mansion. The leftover space is just that. The key to the spatial failure is the unrelently demand for tiny heart after tiny heart. Each territory is not provided enough space to establish the venacular repetition and controled variation that we understand as a neighborhood or city. Without enough territory for natural repetition, control will be the psychological sense of the place. And control is the generator of discomfort for the some and the source of security for others. (For the record, I have visited Atlantic Station. See Florida examples at http://picasaweb.google.com/AestheticGrounds)