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Rotary Trail’s Model for Modern Design

rotary trail

We’ve talked before about the Rotary Trail’s value from a real estate perspective, and about its importance to both our civic infrastructure and public memory. So you might well wonder what else we could possibly have to say. But with time to finally explore the trail on foot and soak in its design, we found ourselves continually inspired. What we see now is how the trail carefully balances high design in an existing neighborhood.

Walking Rotary Trail echoes the experience of a rail line — passing through tunnels then emerging topside. The vision, Rotarian Cheryl Morgan told AL.com, was of “a gesture to our history” shifting toward an “opportunity to look at future development.”

We wonder if that isn’t the way to approach any project in an established neighborhood. It’s not that the design should be limited to what’s come before, but that it makes sense to honor a neighborhood’s history.

AL.com reviewed the Rotary Trail’s many visual references: its own prior form, Birmingham’s 20th century emblem, and the city’s most notable design idea today. More impressively, those references all lie in a single, contiguous space along four city blocks. If that’s not multitasking design achievement, we’re not sure what is.

One of our favorite features, the flowing rock formations beneath the viaducts, are both practical and highly conceptual. Architecture firm Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood’s portfolio explains that “the design’s rail-bed-to-river association” highlights “Birmingham’s development around locomotives, as opposed to steamships.” The rocks also function as a stormwater filtration system, according to the firm.

And then there’s the sign. The sign that’s shown up on every Birmingham Instagram feed and seems destined to be part of our city’s revival branding. It calls to mind Birmingham’s former Terminal Station and the underpass below it, without allowing the station’s more ornate style to muddy a modernist sensibility. Plus, its bare framing works with the area’s surviving industrial buildings.

Of course, Rotary Trail’s not alone in the neighborhood for blending modern architecture into an existing landscape. The nearby Pullman Flats are one of our very favorite modern/historical mashups. The Appleseed Workshop-designed Walding Law renovation carved out modern interiors in a historic facade. The Williams Blackstock Architects office streamlined longstanding brick with a flowing marquee awning.

It turns out the trail is a reflection of its corridor, where some of the city’s major architecture firms have set the stage for a restrained modernism. The lesson for other places in the city? To honor the existing landscape, both natural and built. Not recreate it, per se, but keep time with its visual rhythms and repeat motifs that transcend their age.

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