ArtsATL > Art+Design > Architects Brian Bell and David Yocum revel in reinventing what’s overlooked and forgotten

Architects Brian Bell and David Yocum revel in reinventing what’s overlooked and forgotten

Sanctuary of Or-Hadesh Synagogue. (Photo by Jim Roof)
Brian Bell and David Yokum (Photo by Lucinda Bunnen)
Brian Bell and David Yocum at the Florian-Hart residence in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. (Photo by Lucinda Bunnen)

Ask the directors of Atlanta-based bldgs what local architecture most intrigues them, and they’ll say it’s the accidents: the dilapidated industrial complex, the decaying filling station, the stone wall rebuffing flirtatious kudzu. In other words, they like to see the antithesis of what they build, which are testaments to crisp precision. Touring a bldgs project quickly verifies that nothing is left to happenstance.

Exhibit A: the firm’s most recent project, a former bare-bones paint and repair shop that served a nearby Chevrolet dealership, buried among the labyrinthine streets of Sandy Springs. With a strict budget of $2.8 million, the firm transformed the space into a gorgeous modern synagogue that has aroused bafflement and then huzzahs from the 400-family congregation.

“The lighting, the shape of it, the sound is just unique to any synagogue that [congregants] have ever been to,” said Rabbi Mario Karpuj of Congregation Or Hadash, marveling at the cavernous, minimalist social hall one recent afternoon. “It’s amazing how people got used to the different feeling.”

Sanctuary of Or-Hadesh Synagogue. (Photo by Jim Roof)
The sanctuary of Congregation Or Hadash. (Photo by Jim Roof)

Founders Brian Bell, 46, and David Yocum, 43, head the small bldgs team, of five employees at most. The unassuming, bespectacled gentlemen, both architecture professors at Georgia Tech, met at Harvard in the early 1990s while completing master of architecture degrees. They came to Atlanta in 1997 to work for Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects.

Bell and Yocum squirm when asked to categorize their work. Suffice it to say that they’re inspired by making the forgotten, if not the downright forsaken, usable again. But the transformations are so extreme in some cases that a bland industry term such as “adaptive reuse” seems inept. It’s more like creative reinvention, and their approach makes bldgs both architects and opportunists.

“There are always givens, and there’s always context, even with a new building,” Yocum explains. “There are conditions and problems that predate what you’re doing.”

Bell interjects to agree: “We tell our Georgia Tech students that part of good architecture is creating good problems for yourself.”

Exhibit B: “Villa de Murph.”

Bell and Yocum attracted substantial media attention, including a profile in The New York Times, for their unusual choice of a firm headquarters: a nondescript former auto parts business in a hardscrabble neighborhood near the West End, which they discovered when Yocum was scouting potential locations for their own firm in 2000. “I was looking for things that looked overlooked,” he says.

Villa de Murph, bldgs' office in West End., (Photo by Dwight Eschliman)
“Villa de Murph,” bldgs’ office in the West End. (Photo by Dwight Eschliman)

The roof of the building, on Murphy Avenue, had collapsed and it was pocked with pry-bar scars from would-be burglars. But Yocum loved it. He spent three months tracking down the owners and paid only the tax value of the property, $40,000.

Following intensive renovations, which also morphed an adjoining repair shop into an industrial-chic courtyard, “the Murph” took home the 2008 Atlanta Urban Design Commission Award for adaptive reuse. To this day it remains purposely inconspicuous, with a rusted awning out front and minimal signage, in a successful effort to thwart theft.

But the Murph’s recognition could soon be small potatoes, because the Sandy Springs synagogue is up for an international accolade. A London-based jury has short-listed the project in the religious category at the World Architecture Festival, an annual competition to be held in Singapore in October. The Or Hadash project joins 10 other religious structures on the list and is the only religious project in the United States on it. Bell’s and Yocum’s attendance at the festival is mandatory, and they’re giddy about hearing the world-class speakers on tap.

Other award-winning bldgs projects dot metro Atlanta, from Whitespace gallery on Edgewood Avenue to the remarkable Glass House, a circa-1910, cedar-shingled home in Ansley Park with a modern addition so full of glass that it’s nearly transparent.

Rendering of future John A. and Joyce K. Caddell Building, School of Building Construction, Georgia Institute of Technology.
A rendering of the future School of Building Construction at Georgia Tech.

Two bldgs projects are in the works at Georgia Tech, including a full renovation and expansion of the 20-year-old Ferst Center for the Arts, which is in the fund-raising phase. This fall, construction should begin on a reuse project in the center of the campus, where bldgs will transform an 11,000-square-foot garage structure into the School of Building Construction, part of the School of Architecture.

In the nearer future, Bell and Yocum expect to wrap up their “surgical” renovation of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center in September. The $500,000 makeover will enhance the visitor experience and shore up the 40-year-old center by realigning walls, infusing natural light and building a dedicated lecture hall. Bell and Yocum know the space very well; in 2008, they wrote a 500-page assessment of the early-20th-century structure, which was built by Standard Oil of Kentucky as a repair shop for its vehicles. (We’re sensing a theme here.)

Back at the synagogue, the architects lead a tour. While it’s clear that they’re proud of the finished product, Bell says that not enough time has passed for them to fully understand what they’ve done.

The drive-in car bays of yesteryear now house offices. Gone are the painting stalls for Chevrolets and any sense that the building is an island in an asphalt sea; a serene courtyard and strategic window arrangements accomplish that. In the sanctuary, a tent-like, multi-plane ceiling symbolizes Torah passages and allows for pin-drop acoustics. From the ceiling hangs a collection of pendant lights, like a hundred candles. Two white columns are the only artifacts of the building’s previous life, and while nodding to the past they give the entire space a sense of buoyancy.

Congregation Or Hadash courtyard
The synagogue courtyard. (Photo by Fredrik Brauer)

If you assume some clever symbolism, or a nod to minimalism, in the capitalization-averse name “bldgs,” consider yourself disappointed. It’s nothing but the official abbreviation for “buildings,” and it’s often mispronounced as “blogs” and even “bulldogs.” Nothing highfalutin about it. Says Bell, perhaps reaching to accommodate a lame question: “I think it’s interesting to us that it’s an abbreviation.”

“That’s the trade we ply,” Yocum adds. “It’s what we do. We had to pick a name.”

Click here to view more photos of bldgs’ work. 

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