Creating Places: A Citizen Observer's Look at Nashville's Built Environment

Writer's Note: William Williams' interest in the manmade environment dates to 1970, at which point the then-young Williams started a collection of postcards of city skylines. The collection now numbers 1,000-plus cards. Among the writer's specific interests are exterior building design, city district planning, demographics, signage, mixed-use development, mass transit and green/sustainable construction and living. Williams began his Creating Places column with The City Paper in February 2005. The column in its original form was discontinued in September 2008 and reinvented via this blog in November 2008. Creating Places can be found on the home page of the website of The City Paper, at which Williams has worked in various capacities since October 2000.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Creating Places: Underrated Southern Design Cities

The architecture, planning and design communities are well established within the South’s four first-tier U.S. cities — Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Miami.

But at closer look, the region’s so-called mid-major cities also are home to thriving architectural communities, many of them defined by a combination of well-established companies handling large-scale work and scrappy boutique firms that deliver eye-catching, functional and “green” creations. Often overlooked nationally, but respected regionally, these companies may not be as high profile, for example, as Thompson Ventulet Stainback & Associates Inc. (Atlanta), Arquitectonica (Miami), FKP Architects (Houston) or Corgan Associates (Dallas). But don’t dismiss their work.

On this theme, consider the following quintet as perhaps the South’s top five most significant second-tier markets (listed alphabetically) for design firms delivering cutting-edge and sustainable work.

Austin: The architectural companies in the Texas capitol might produce more dramatic work than, collectively, all the other firms in the South’s non-first-tier cities. No doubt, Austin’s design community is vibrant. Even the high-profile Nelsen Partners, STG Design and Graeber Simmons & Cowan Inc. — successful companies that could safely opt for a more conventional approach and, as such, more predictable work — push the design envelope.

Sally Ann Fly, executive director of The American Institute of Architects’ Austin chapter, said Austin’s design community is a rising power.

“Based on the number of magazines that have identified Austin as a ‘hot spot’ on the design map, and the strong contemporary architecture design, I’d have to assume that it is positive,” she said of national public perception. “Austin continues to be [architecturally] strong in areas of healthcare and public sector work.”

Maurizio Maso, principal with Orlando-based HuntonBrady Architects, agreed, noting, “Austin is doing some great design work.”

Louisville: Bravura designed the striking Louisville Ballet Studios & Offices, the inviting Waterfront Park Place and the edgy Iron Quarter. JRA Architects delivered the Dr. Tom Haas Medical Office Building; boutique firm De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop shined with the industrial-looking United Mail Corporate Headquarters; and Potter & Associates Architects crafted the almost radical Preston Pointe. Since 2006, AIA Kentucky has recognized each project listed above with some type honor.

“The city the past 10 to 15 years, [Louisville] has made some significant investments, and you’re seeing some top design work being done because of that,” said Manuel Zeitlin, founder of Nashville-based Manuel Zeitlin Architects (MZA).

Jim Walters, Bravura president, said the historic city’s heritage of 19th century buildings has spurred a focus on adaptive re-use projects. Still, he added, some local firms are deploying cutting-edge approaches.

“Louisville is a conservative city in a lot of ways but there is tolerance for new ideas,” Walters said.

Nashville: Music City offers more than Tennessee twang, as boutique stalwarts Allard-Ward, Bonidies, DA|AD, EOA, Hastings, Gilbert|McLaughlin|Casella, Polifilo, Tuck-Hinton, Woodson-Gilchrist and the aforementioned MZA consistently yield 21st century gems.

The city’s larger firms, in particular, have suffered some downsizings during the recent economic slump, but Carol Pedigo, executive director of AIA Middle Tennessee, remains optimistic the momentum built the past 10 years or so will continue.

“In an economic downturn, you retool and re-evaluate,” Pedigo said.

Nashville is somewhat unusual for a second-tier U.S. city in that it is the national headquarters to two “Top 200” (based on revenues) design firms: Gresham, Smith & Partners and Earl Swensson Associates. The city also has the Nashville Civic Design Center, which contributes significant ideas regarding the local built fabric.

A strong example of the type cutting-edge work being produced by Nashville’s design sector is Terrazzo, a mid-rise mixed-use building on which MZA and Hastings collaborated.

Orlando: The heavy hitters in the Magic City deliver strong work. HuntonBrady Architects has crafted numerous gems, with its Community Presbyterian Church in Celebration (done in association with Moore Anderson Architects in Austin) ranking as one of the nation’s most attractive houses of worship designed during the past 10 years or so. Baker Barrios Architects has redefined the Orlando skyline with striking towers, but the firm’s diminutive Eola South, a handsome four-story residential building in the city’s Thornton Park, is an overlooked mini-masterpiece. C.T. Hsu + Associates (the associate architect in charge of exterior design for the Orlando Events Center) is internationally recognized.

Orlando firms are gaining a reputation for their work on buildings in the healthcare and higher education sectors, according to HuntonBrady principal Maurizio Maso.

Maso said Orlando is “transitioning into more of a modern design city, which we haven’t been in the past.”

“We have a really diverse group of firms,” he said. “Even though we compete, we all are on positive terms.”

Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill: Of note, most firms in the Triangle have principals with strong ties (either as graduates or professors) to the North Caroline State University College of Design. On this theme, the 2009 national AIA president was Marvin Malecha, dean at the college. The NCSU College of Design has a roughly 60-year tradition of being founded on modernist principles that are still in place.

David A. Crawford, executive director for AIA North Carolina, said that during the past 12-15 years, the balance of design accolades has shifted from the Charlotte region to the Triangle.

“It’s probably not a coincidence that that’s about the same time period that Charlotte has become a huge center for banking and big business in the country and regionally,” Crawford said. “More medium-size companies have begun locating in the Triangle area, giving the architects in this region a clientele that may have a little more design freedom than the large corporate culture that exists in Charlotte.”

That design freedom has yielded jewels from various firms, including Frank Harmon Architect (generally considered North Carolina’s top design firm for capturing awards), Pearce Brinkley Cease + Lee (known for its government buildings work) and The Freelon Group. The latter has earned national attention with its high-profile African-American museum projects nationwide, including the April 2009 announcement of its collaboration (with Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup) on the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture. Firm principal Phil Freelon was AIA’s 2009 Jefferson Award recipient.

Interestingly, in the 2006 AIA South Atlantic Design Awards, Triangle firms captured nine awards to Atlanta companies’ five.


  1. Triangle Modernist Houses, a nonprofit for the documentation of Modernist residential design, captures the cool houses of many Raleigh/Durham architects at

    Kind regards
    George Smart
    Executive Director

  2. George,

    I just checked the TMH website. Very cool work. Good job.


  3. William Williams,

    Great blog. How do you know so much about other cities?

    Respectfully Impressed,

  4. NB,

    Kind words. I spend a decent bit of time reading about other cities (their demographics, planning, development, design, etc.) Also, I often ask local professionals where to find helpful info about other places. Lastly, I've visited many U.S. cities and have given them fairly thorough looks. I guess it all adds up. I'm no expert but I've got a decent feel for many places in this great nation.

    Thanks for reading,