Tennessee is home to two music meccas: Memphis and Nashville. While the latter is the home of country music (and even the Country Music Hall of Fame), Memphis is synonymous with blues, soul and gospel. As Jason Jackson of brg3s architects testifies, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and others moved to Memphis where they got their breaks and changed the course of American music. One of them, Memphis Slim, is the subject of a recently completed "collaboratory" designed by brg3s, who answered a few questions about the project.
North elevation at daytime
Please provide an overview of the project.
Peter Chapman, the famed blues singer and pianist better known as Memphis Slim, drew attention for his punishing performing schedule and unorthodox lifestyle. Extreme poverty characterized much of his life, but also created a personality which was uncommonly resourceful. His life embodied the paradox of his music: hard times and rough experiences were transformed into an upbeat and lively musical energy, the essence of triumph.
Memphis Slim’s boyhood home is typical of many in the low-income neighborhood in which it is located. The original home reflected the character of the individuals in the community: strength, survival against overwhelming odds, and resourcefulness. The collaboratory embraces those qualities, building a space that will inspire future musicians to achieve despite potential setbacks, while simultaneously engaging the community.
Exterior at dusk
The collaboratory design takes elements of the original house and celebrates them.
Carving out sections of the re-built exterior façade reveals the reclaimed wood framing of the structure. The fenestration creates long views through the structure to the interior spaces, opening up to the community. Enlarging the original home’s porch – where Memphis Slim entertained soul legends Rufus Thomas and Isaac Hayes – forms an exterior stage for the collaboratory. The cedar rain screen relates to the original materiality of the home’s lapboard siding, and the use of vernacular materials throughout the project celebrates the neighborhood's character.
Exterior at dusk
What are the main ideas and inspirations influencing the design of the building?
Memphis Slim, and Soulsville
To reflect the character of the orgianl house we rebuilt the two-story portion to the exact dimensions of the original home as well as the interior stair and fireplace. We saved as much of the materials of the house as possible, including the wood framing and bricks for reuse. The wood framing became interior wall cladding and furniture as well as some new framing, the bricks became the new ceremonial fireplace.
Interior at entrance
The cedar plank rainscreen that wraps the two story portion is evocative of the clapboard siding of the original home and even the windows were located and sized to the original dimensions.
The single story recording studio portion that extends to the back is a completely new addition and needed a materiality that was vernacular to the neighborhood but would represent the new nature of the facility; therefore, the corrugated metal. The idea was to interweave these two forms and materials in a dynamic way that would transform the once home of Memphis Slim into this new community oriented collaboratory.
To what extent did the clients and/or future users of the building influence the design and the outcome of the building?
We met with the community early and often. They were a big part of the design process. In fact, at our very first discussion we asked the community for feedback on the most important question: Do we try to re-create the house as it was, or do we make something new? Everyone agreed that because we were turning the house into a community-oriented recording studio, and not preserving the building as a house, that it needed to be designed as something new. However, it was clear to us that the community felt strongly that it was important to reflect the original house in literal and abstract ways.
Interior second-floor multi-purpose room
Were there any significant challenges that arose during the project? If so, how did you respond to them?
The original house had been vacant for quite some time and was in terrible disrepair. A tree had fallen on the house, and the roof and floors were rotted. Initially we thought we could renovate the house. We went through an elaborate surgical process of removing layers of the original house and saving materials until we determined the original house was completely unusable. Having saved all of wood framing and bricks from the original fireplace we were able to reuse these materials in the new construction as interior wall cladding and framing as well as rebuild a ceremonial fireplace in the location of the original fireplace.
Interior stair detail
How does the building relate to contemporary architectural trends, be it sustainability, technology, etc.?
This project is about using small scale creative-oriented projects/buisinesses as a catalyst for revitalizing neighborhoods.
"The project is part of a concept that is about creating a neighborhood with amenities that support music and art, while using those creative endeavors as tools for community engagement and empowerment. It’s about creating a neighborhood where music and art tell stories, activate spaces, reclaim vacant buildings, create interaction, and connect neighbors new and old." – Charlie Santo
Ultimately it is about place making. It is about recognizing the character of the place and what is needed. This community (Soulsville) has a rich history of musicians living and working in the area and is inherently creative.
West elevation detail
How would you describe the architecture of Tennessee and how does the building relate to it?
Tennessee’s geography changes dramatically from east to west. The state consists of three distinct environs. Memphis serves as the urban center for the western-most section. This portion of the state is called the Gulf Coastal region and is considered part of the delta. However, Memphis sits on an outcropping of land called the Tennessee Bottoms, which end in steep bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Memphis's identity derives from its development as the cultural center of this region, which has also contributed greatly to the identity of the American South.
Many renowned musicians and artists moved from the Mississippi Delta to Memphis, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Memphis Slim, the figure around whom this project centers. The architecture of Memphis embodies the resourcefulness and practicality of the delta, juxtaposed with the region's musical heritage. The Memphis Slim Collaboratory reflects the state's cultural and architectural traditions by using vernacular materials and simple traditional building forms that are expressed through a dynamic composition of the materiality.
Email interview conducted by John Hill.
Existing context panorama ( Photo ©: Jason Jackson )
Existing house west elevation ( Photo ©: Jason Jackson )