'Not every building needs to stand out'

Architect Manuel Zeitlin continues to advocate a 21st-century design aesthetic

Manuel Zeitlin is principal of Manuel Zeitlin Architects, has placed its stamp on local contemporary buildings including Mercury View Lofts, the Tennessee Association of Realtors Building and Terrazzo. Zeitlin sat down with Post Managing Editor William Williams to discuss the business of designing buildings.

Your firm likes to push the envelope with its design aesthetic. But it seems many developers — both locally based and not —  doing work in Nashville take a very safe approach with the architecture for their projects. Is Nashville ready for buildings that show a cutting-edge 21st century aesthetic?

I think the real distinction that we’re seeing is between developers who truly care about the quality of the growth of the city and those who are trying to maximize returns as largely and quickly as possible. Luckily, a majority of developers and institutional clients fall into the first category. 

Why is stucco so popular  — other than the fact it is less expensive to use than other materials — with so many developers and architects involved with the city’s recent and current large-scale projects?

Not every building needs to stand out and scream ‘look at me.’ Stucco is a good neutral material and has appropriate uses. Too often, as your question implies, it becomes the material of choice for those in the second category above.

On this theme, what about the under-construction Hyatt Place in SoBro? The amount of stucco, and color of that stucco, is very unattractive, according to many folks I’ve talked to and who know architecture. Your thoughts?

I haven’t seen recently to comment. The renderings seem to indicate that it, at least, was trying to respond to context. My problem with many of the hotels under construction is that they look like they could be anywhere — and that it not good for a city that is enriching its identity. 

Notwithstanding MZA, what are some other local firms that shine with highly contemporary designs?

Tuck Hinton, EOA, DA|AD, Woodson & Gilchrist, Hastings, Bauer Askew, Polifilo and, wonderfully, the list can go on and on. I also want to acknowledge the incredibly important role that urban visionaries like Bill Barkley (president of Gulch-based City Development Co. LLC) and Kim Hawkins (founding principal of Hawkins Partners Inc.) have played in launching the focus on urbanism. It’s equally important to stress that there are a very large number of disenfranchised urban residents who need to be included in the benefits from improved urban neighborhoods — great schools, parks, walkable services, etc. An inclusive city is an even greater city.

What are a few examples of post-2000-constructed local buildings that show some significant and attractive 21st century design qualities? I would think you like the Music City Center convention facility but I could be wrong.

I like MCC for the tremendous impact it is having on the city as a result of its presence. I’m very excited by Tuck Hinton’s addition to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the new bike share program and the green circulator buses. I’m not as interested in futuristic design aesthetics as I am in seeing a real commitment to sustainability and would posit that any design that doesn’t make a significant contribution to improving the environment really isn’t a 21st century design.

I know some folks who are concerned that the MZA-designed building to soon rise in Hillsboro Village (and to be developed by H.G. Hill Realty Co.) will not offer the old-school charm, grit or quirkiness of its predecessor. Can you put their concerns at ease?

Yes. It’s hard to imagine a more sensitively designed contextual response. A variety of materials and massing, one- and two-story scale at street fronts with a variety of balconies and outdoor terraces all will help keep the feel of the Village. And it will, hopefully, be evident that this new design could only be located on this particular site in this particular context. Kim Hawkins set the stage for the design with a concept ringing a green roof over the parking garage with urban apartments. [Local architect] John TeSelle, co-member of the Hillsboro Village UDO committee, had a great suggestion to enable each retail tenant to localize their own storefront. [Hill Realty’s] Jimmy Granbery’s interest in adding over 40 apartments to the mix helps make the Village more of a round-the-clock urban neighborhood. 

Is there a mid-sized city Nashville can look to for post-2000 design cues?

Look at what cities are making significant investments in sustainable infrastructure and energy sources and addressing restoration of wetlands and you’ll see the cities that we need to be learning from. Size doesn’t matter.