‘Buildings, even residences, should stand for their period in time'

Sunday, May 3, 2009 at 9:15pm
Brian Tibbs says the Music City Center design team is treating their project as a ‘true five-sided building.’  <i>Jude Ferrara/The City Paper</i>

Brian Tibbs is a partner in the Nashville office of Moody Nolan Inc., the largest African-American-owned architectural firm in the country. A native of Huntsville, Ala., he attended the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he studied architecture.

Tibbs is serving as Moody Nolan’s project manager for the company’s efforts involving the Music City Center convention facility, which also involves Atlanta-based Thompson Ventulett Stainback and Associates and Nashville’s Tuck-Hinton Architects. He recently sat down with City Paper correspondent William Williams to discuss topics involving the design industry.

When did you realize you wanted to be an architect?

I went to college to study electrical engineering at the University of Alabama, but was mostly a music major. I had aspirations to become a classical timpanist; however, I wanted to find a career that would combine my creative and practical interests.

While sitting in the career placement office, I read an article in Time magazine that described architecture as a career that would combine my two interests. I tore the page out and enrolled in architecture school in New Jersey the following year.

What is Moody Nolan’s role in the team working on the Music City Center?

Moody Nolan has dual roles on the project. Our primary role is to serve as the Nashville project manager for the project and to play a part of the construction document preparation. Tuck-Hinton and TVS are concentrating more on the design issues, while we are coordinating the building with the other numerous consultants and Metro agencies such as Metro Codes and the Metro Fire Marshal.

Our local architectural role also includes producing the construction documents of the 350,000-square-foot Exhibition Hall. We will be taking a major role in assisting with the coordination of all of the construction documents and providing construction administration.

There are some citizens who have expressed concern that the preliminary MCC designs suggest the facility might be excessively boxy and not as pedestrian-friendly as is ideal. How do you respond?

From day one, we have investigated how to make the Music City Center pedestrian-friendly and we are continuing to study ways to make the convention center more active for non-convention uses such as adding retail options at street level.

When people imagine the sheer size and shape of a convention center, they automatically picture a boxy building. Even though there have been several public meetings to share information on the convention center design, I think the general public has a hard time understanding the details that contribute to the design process.

Once the public sees the design renderings – the rolling roof, glass and the variety in the building’s elevations – I believe everyone will agree that the design is far from boxy and will meet everyone’s expectations. The Music City Center will be one of the most architecturally significant buildings in downtown once construction is complete.

What will be the main design keys in terms of design and function of the Music City Center? Do you prefer — as many citizens perhaps would — form over function for a “statement civic building?"

The functional design keys are the exhibition space, the ballroom and the meeting rooms. These are probably the three key design components that any convention center is judged on.

In our design, we have put a lot of attention to the Music City Center being a true five-sided building, where the fifth side is the roof. Because we did not want the Music City Center to appear to be another “big box” with a flat roof, we have designed a green roof to resemble the hills of Middle Tennessee. We also have put a lot of thought into the elevations engaging the pedestrian movement along the four streets that surround the center.

It’s important to make sure that each building we design addresses what the building is being used for. Thus, function is always a priority. However, as architects we have to balance form and function and create buildings that add to the fabric of our community.

What is your favorite newer Nashville building not designed by Moody Nolan?

I think the structure that has appealed to me recently is the Student Center by Gilbert | McLaughlin Architects on the Vanderbilt University campus. I have attended programs there, and the space is very well thought out. The simple lines and the use of natural materials work well, and it appears to be appropriately sited on the campus.

What is your take on “replica architecture” for the 21st century?

Replicas are always going to have their proponents and detractors. Most architects fall into the latter category due to the training we go through in school. The most notable replica in Nashville — the Parthenon — has gained quite a following from all of us.

As a member of the Metro Historical Zoning Commission, I have seen that there are many people who do not understand the rationale behind having new architecture that is not a direct copy of historic work. Historic buildings, and even residences, should stand for their period in time. Copying all of a structure’s architectural details would make it difficult to distinguish the era of construction and, in the end, not respect the original work.

You are a board member of the Nashville Civic Design Center. What is your take on the proposed riverfront redevelopment plan, in which the center is actively involved? Many folks would like to see the Riverfront Adventure Park as the first component. Are you with them?

This is a well-deserved upgrade to this area and I’d like to see the Riverfront Adventure Park be built soon. I also think there are pressing economic factors that will be important in determining which projects will be funded and built in the near future.

From a practical standpoint, the adventure park could be an advantageous first step, but it sounds like there are other proposals that include phases that might work better for how the total project is funded and implemented. I am sure that a solution will be reached that will work best for the community and for Metro.

Moody Nolan did the interior redesign of Fisk University masterpiece Cravath Hall. That must have been quite exciting.

The Cravath Hall redesign was an unbelievably rewarding experience for me since I served as project manager. Henry Hibbs, the original Cravath Hall architect, designed some of the most respected Nashville buildings, including Vanderbilt University’s Scarritt-Bennett Center. Dissecting his design and studying how he would have approached this new use for his building in this century was an exciting undertaking.

Finding ways to conceal heating and air conditioning systems that were not part of the original design was challenging. It was as if Hibbs knew what was coming. He left unused shafts between floors that we used to conceal necessary piping and ductwork. The original elevator shaft was used to move systems vertically, and an original fire stair shaft became the new elevator.

These design elements and the conservation of the famous Aaron Douglas murals (a part of the building’s original architecture) were some of the project’s highlights. The conservator found murals that had not been seen since the 1960s. Bringing the beautiful oak casework and detailed stonework back to life helped give the building back its original pride.

You’re also involved with MDHA’s Diversity Business Enterprise program. How has that gone?

Moody Nolan has been working with a variety of Metro agencies, including MDHA, for 14 years and has participated in diversity programs with each of them. Through these programs, we have met many other small, female- and minority-owned firms with which we have formed business alliances, and we include these consultants whenever possible on our projects.

We have had many successful projects with these consultants over the years, and we have become a reference for those who may be searching for small, female, or minority-firm assistance.

7 Comments on this post:

By: forlinjd on 5/4/09 at 8:45

Good question about the pedestrian friendliness of the building. Looking at the renderings, one has to examine very closely to find those retail uses. They are so few and far between that they don't comprise a critical mass and the limited tenants will doubtless cater to convention users - not accomplishing the non-convention activity hoped for.

This answer is typical of architects. The "rolling roofs" and "varying elevations" will definitely be stunning from a jet plane, but what about the street level? The world's most active and successful public spaces grow incrementally, are small-scale (human-scale), include a sufficient but cohesive variety of uses and building types, and support local activities. Of course great places also provide monumental structures, but central Nashville has an oversupply of these already for a city our size.

Architects should create buildings that add to the fabric of the community, but this is rarely done in our era. Most buildings - especially significant ones - seem to reflect the notion that architects consider the community to be a mere backdrop for their structure, not something considered more important.

"Replica" is one word to use. Another way to look at it is following centuries of wisdom traditions that create design that complements and uplifts the human experience . . . not stuns it to death.

One last word, don't waste your time trying to reflect surrounding natural or man-made elements. Of course it is important to contextualize a design to fit with the surrounding character, but why do we continue to fall for the old line about incorporating local elements like the rolling hills of Middle Tennessee? Who is ever going to make that connection? Tolstoy said true art is that which standing alone can still be appreciated. Design structures I can see for myself are welcoming and are to be embraced . . . don't try convincing me by waxing eloquent.

If you decide Music City Center can't be built to be consistent with what we know makes for a great public experience, you might be on to something . . .

By: nashbeck on 5/4/09 at 8:57

Forlind I'll disagree with you but on similar sentiment. A lot of attention has been put on the MCC about the roof "with the rolling foothills", etc. but I'm honestly glad you will only be able to see that roof from a plane. I find the roof not that attractive.

On the other hand, what 99% of Nashvillians will see are the 4 sides to the MCC, which I find much more attractive. The incorporation of limestone and the large windows are very aesthetic in my opinion, and I think will look very nice.

What we need surrounding the MCC is a public park with art structures. This could be a location for Nashvillians, and could blend nicely with the MCC.

By: forlinjd on 5/4/09 at 9:57

nashbeck, I don't disagree that all of the limestone, etc. is decent art and will be nice to look at, but do we really need such a gigantic art piece when what the downtown really lacks is more vibrancy? I am hard-pressed to find any truly vital neighborhoods in the entire city as it is, and the addition of such a large limited-use facility catering to flyby out-of-towners seems like a good way to keep the downtown from becoming one.

The park idea is interesting, but I'd be concerned that park space adjacent to such an event-focused venue would create an immense "border vacuum" (Jane Jacobs) which results when too much civic or public use is concentrated without incorporation of a variety of 24-hour active elements.

Of course the convention center would be active with out-of-town convention-goers when a meeting was in town, but this isn't the same as local residents living out their lives in common public spaces. Take, for example, some of Europe's most charming cities . . . the Eiffel tower is fun, but what really makes Paris a delightful place to go, or more appropriately LIVE, are the many lower-profile areas where visitors can rub shoulders with Parisians at a sidewalk cafe or pocket park.

Too much urban open space and civic/convocation uses create dead-zones that locals rarely visit. I believe downtown Nashville already has enough open space for a long time to come, but lacks the diversity of uses that define the walls for and activate those open spaces.

What do you think?

By: Time for Truth on 5/4/09 at 10:54

I think the proof is everywhere that convention centers create dead zones. Walk in any major city near here, including Nashville itself. The effect on streetscape vitality around a convention center is equivalent to a meteor strike.

Nashbeck, great idea. But removing the convention center from the mix altogether is an even better one.

This design would be 'of it's time' if that time were the 1960's. A boxy and ungainly take on Eero Saarinen's much prettier TWA Terminal in New York? Or a square version of Municipal Auditorium perhaps.

And like the TWA terminal, it will be built for a client whose time has come and gone. In this case, the conventioneer.

By: Time for Truth on 5/4/09 at 10:59

To be fair to the architects, such a large and purpose-built facility presents many challenges. I can't think of any architecturally significant convention facilities, including this one if it is built.

By: Kosh III on 5/4/09 at 1:49

"Too much urban open space and civic/convocation uses create dead-zones that locals rarely visit. I believe downtown Nashville already has enough open space for a long time to come, but lacks the diversity of uses that define the walls for and activate those open spaces."

Absolutely. How many people use Legislative Plaza? or the new Courthouse Plaza? They are mostly bare unused spaces. Too many "leaders" think that just making an open area will magically transform downtown into an urban lifestyle resembling Buenos Aires or Rome.

By: JeffF on 5/4/09 at 3:58

Shopping malls and Best Buy spends a lot of architecture money trying to not look like another big box also. Legitimate urban planners would not want to put either in the same place as this convention center but apparently Nashville will.