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Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects brings design panache back home

Completed in 1989, the Ida Williams branch library in Buckhead won Georgia AIA's Test of Time Award in 2014. (Photo by Timothy Hursley)
Completed in 1989, the Ida Williams branch library in Buckhead won Georgia AIA’s Test of Time Award in 2014. (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

At the heart of Buckhead Atlanta sits the Ida Williams branch of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library. In stark contrast to the feigned classicism of the new development, the distinctive library, completed in 1989, is as contemporary as they come, featuring a black metal frame angularly protruding from the facade of slate tiles that resemble the scales of a fish.

Interior of Ida Williams branch library
Interior of Ida Williams branch library

Designed by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects (MSMEA), the building stands as witness to the transformation of Buckhead Village and a testament to the much-decorated Atlanta-grown firm. Apart from a handful of residences, it is also the most recent building designed by the firm (founded in 1984 as Parker and Scogin and reorganized as Scogin Elam & Bray), in the city where its principals were educated (at Georgia Tech) and forged their careers.

No longer: with two major projects on the horizon, MSMEA will again put its stamp on its hometown.

Atlanta architects Merrill Elam and Mack Scogin
Atlanta architects Merrill Elam and Mack Scogin

I met with Mack and Merrill, as everyone calls them, in their downtown office. I spent a summer working in their office during the height of the recession. Those were the dark days when they had been forced to cut their staff to just a few. Now, things are different; with almost 20 employees the office was abuzz with activity.

We sat down in the large conference room, part of the showroom of the former car dealership they converted into an office. The space is minimalist, with white walls and concrete floor, and it retains much of the industrial character of its former incarnation: it is very “them.”

Mack sipped tea, fidgeting with the tea bag. Merrill sat next to him, wearing thick black-framed round glasses and a loose, flowing dark top, a staple in her wardrobe. Partners, in practice and in life, for many decades, they finish each other’s thoughts and carry on a banter throughout the entire conversation.

The Beginning

“We’ve done our best work here,” says Mack, a native Atlantan.

Of their 12 American Institute of Architecture (AIA) awards, eight are for their early works in Atlanta, including two in the early 1990s for the Buckhead library. It followed on the wild success of libraries in Clayton County, but this time the process was contentious. Avant-garde architecture wasn’t popular in the provincial Atlanta of the late 1980s; city council members and other stakeholders did not like the ultramodern design. But the praise outlasted the loathing: the library has won five awards, including the Test of Time Award from the Georgia AIA in 2014.

Clayton County library (Photo by Timothy Hursley)
Clayton County Headquarters Library, 1988.  (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

Mack and Merrill weren’t afraid to be bold, but there was a downside. “The people here saw what we could do . . . and decided not to hire us,” Mack quipped.

Not an isolated trend, says David Hamilton, a principal at local firm Praxis3 and friend of the duo. He recalls a time in the 1980s when “locals like [art dealer] Jeff Kipnis, Mack and Merrill, [architect] Tony Ames, [architect] Kemp Mooney and others were making national waves — it seemed like the beginning of something.”

The promise faded, he says, by the Olympics. From the 1990s onward, Mack and Merrill worked out of town. They carved out a niche market in institutions of higher learning; their distinctive approach to design can be found on campuses across the country.

Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects: Knowlton Hall, Ohio State University, 2004
Knowlton Hall, Ohio State University, 2004. (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

Completed in 2004, Knowlton Hall, home to the School of Architecture of the Ohio State University, stands out as a manifestation of the pair’s innovative spirit. The donor, inspired by the Lincoln Memorial, stipulated that the building should be built of white Georgia marble. Mack and Merrill accepted the requirement but turned the notion of a stone building on its head: instead of heavy blocks, they clad the curving building in shingle-like sheets of marble, breaking in places for soaring glass volumes to allow light into the heart of the building.

Knowlton Hall
Knowlton Hall. (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

The fusion of sinuous forms with brick and stonework, again seemingly incongruous attributes, is evident at the Yale Health Center, completed in 2010. Executed in distinctively shaped black brick, the flowing curvature lends a fabric-esque quality to the masonry.

Yale University Health Center (Photo by Timothy Hursley)
Yale University Health Center. (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

They competed in a number of invitational international design competitions — the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, Poland, and the Kaohsiung Maritime Cultural & Popular Music Center in Taiwan among them — and fielded commissions for grand projects such as a township in India. Their designs for these projects, however, were unrealized, scuttled by the 2008 recession or awarded to other firms.

As projects were canceled or put on hold, they, like many firms, were forced to retrench. MSMEA remained afloat with small commissions. One was the renovation of the lobby at One Midtown Plaza in Midtown, owned by Tishman Speyer, the client for the India project.

MSMEA renovated the lobby of sssss in ssss
Lobby of One Midtown Plaza. (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

At 6,000 square feet, the project was many orders smaller than the pre-recession work but was executed with the same care and methodology. The result, quintessential Mack and Merrill, is a large white volume featuring a chandelier made of hundreds of white sticks, as if the contents of a box of toothpicks had been thrown up and frozen in the air. Mack and Merrill dub the fixture, more an art installation, C78 and describe it as “an intergalactic vector array.”

Their blending of artistic expression and architecture highlights their engagement with the arts community of the city. Even as their architectural work took them elsewhere, the two assisted in the creation and reinvention of arts spaces of Atlanta throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

They designed the Clark Atlanta University galleries in its historic building, worked with museum curators to create an unusual thematic display of the High Museum’s permanent collection and, more recently, designed a stage set for the dance group Lucky Penny.

The Trip Full Circle

Emerging from the recession, Atlanta has been building again. Projects that had been postponed are being retooled and scaled-back to meet the altered economic landscape of the city. But unlike the earlier days of high design in Atlanta, clients aren’t looking toward outside architects, but instead at local firms with national and international reputations. Stanley Beaman & Sears executed Kennesaw State University’s Zuckerman Museum. Cooper Carry was behind the much talked-about transformation of an old office tower into the new North Atlanta High School.

A rendering of Alliance
A rendering of  MSMEA’s design for Alliance Center in Buckhead.

Mack and Merrill have come home with two high-profile projects. They have designed a 30-story, 500,000-square-foot office tower for Tishman Speyer’s Alliance Center, near the corner of Lenox and Peachtree roads. The project, MSMEA’s first realized large-scale commercial endeavor, will feature a faceted glass wall system whose angular geometries will catch and refract light, giving the building a shimmering appearance: the first instance of such a system being used in Atlanta, according to Tishman Speyer. Designed to achieve LEED Gold Certification, the tower will be a distinctive addition to the Buckhead skyline and visible from Peachtree Road and Georgia Highway 400 when completed in mid-2016.

One Museum Place, a five-story condominium across the street from the High Museum, is the second. Before the recession, the site had been slated for a 23-story building designed by noted London-based architect David Chipperfield. Its developer, John Wieland, has re-envisioned it as an intimate community.

Rednering for One Museum Place, a condominum on Peachtree Street
Rendering for One Museum Place, a condominium on Peachtree Street.

Mack and Merrill chose to recognize the scale by articulating each unit as an individual entity within the larger community. Through the use of slate, sand-colored brick and metal panels, the facade is highly articulated, differentiating each unit. The fenestration patterns coupled with subtle recesses and bump-outs give each “home” its own character both inside and out, even as it exists as a piece of the whole building.

Alan Balfour, former dean of the Georgia Tech College of Architecture, hopes the return is “the beginning of a new period in which their work will again enrich the culture of the city.”

For their part, Mack and Merrill are elated to be working back in Atlanta. Merrill appreciates the chance to really get to know the site and the client. “It’s good to go a couple of miles down the road to meet with a client and not have to get on a plane,” she says.

When asked why they would choose to stay in Atlanta through the years, even as their work took them elsewhere, Mack doesn’t hesitate.

“There is so much potential — its distinction is its still making itself. It’s a great, vibrant, messy place; if we ever felt it was made we wouldn’t stay.”

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