Words by Sara Lee Burd
Photography by Jamie Clayton
The Nashville Civic Design Center (NCDC) featured a noteworthy exhibition which closed this February entitled Letters to the Mayor: Nashville, which gave voice to over 100 Nashville architects through letters addressed to the city’s highest elected official. Mayor Megan Barry oversees the growth and development across Metropolitan Nashville, and these communications provided a platform for expressing the profound effect of design on public life. “The letters I received showed off a beautifully diverse array of voices,” Mayor Barry said. “They expressed a deep love of Nashville and its built environment, and they spoke to the fact that government can’t do it alone.”
The Letters to the Mayor project was launched in New York City by the non-profit organization Storefront for Art and Architecture. Exemplary of the group’s mission, the exhibition provided an “alternative platform for dialogue and collaboration across disciplinary, geographic, and ideological boundaries.” That same concept was approached through subsequent iterations in cities across the world connecting Nashville with other urban centers such as Bogota, Mexico City, Athens, Panama City, Taipei, Mariupol, Madrid, Lisbon, and Buenos Aires. Letters to the Mayor on a global scale indicates the common desire for thoughtful urban design leadership across cultures.Fuller Hanan and Daniel Toner curated the NCDC exhibition, which brought the series back to the United States for the first time since its 2014 NYC debut. NCDC’s CEO, Gary Gaston, spoke of the importance of hosting this exhibition: “A major part of the Nashville Civic Design Center’s mission is to continually push for design excellence and engage community members in the dialogue about architecture, urban planning, and civic design. Our ongoing programming and projects are aimed at doing just that. Letters to the Mayor: Nashville was a wonderful opportunity for us to showcase the voices and vision of architects locally in a beautifully designed exhibition, while also becoming part of a worldwide conceptual art installation.” Opened in December of 2017, the two-month-long presentation provided ample opportunities for the community to experience the show.
Bringing together a variety of perspectives was key in selecting the architects to participate in the exhibition. Hanan explains, “It was critical to have voices from different career stages, professional paths, and personal backgrounds represented. We extended invitations to contribute letters to a group that included 50 licensed men, 50 licensed women, 50 unlicensed men, 50 unlicensed women, as well as individuals who have made notable work here but may not live in Nashville. Ultimately, over 100 letters were submitted.”
That the exhibition addressed some of Nashville’s most pressing urban design issues is clear. As Hanan explains, “As you read the letters, there are consistent themes of identity crisis, pace of development, affordability . . . all things that are not necessarily unique to Nashville, which makes Nashville the perfect city to bring the project back to the United States. Urban Blueprint’s Debbie Frank’s request to “please do away with the tall skinnys” echoes the sentiments of many who have seen their neighborhoods’ cohesive appearances change. Sung Min Cho’s letter poses questions that consider the possibilities of developing Nashville’s character: “As a firm believer that we shape and are shaped by our built environment, I can’t help but wonder—instead of restaurants, bars, or hotels, what would it mean if the city and its citizens invested in museums, civic centers, and cultural amenities?” Architectural designer Daniel Cremin speaks of the responsibility of creating an architectural identity for Nashville: “I call upon you and our fellow members of the community to entrust us, the architects, designers, and urban planners, to continue to explore and establish this. This will come naturally, but the hard part is doing so thoroughly.”Mayor Barry responded to the letters at the exhibition’s opening reception, referencing specific quotations from letters and exploring what they mean for Nashville. “We rely on creative designers, thinkers, and problem-solvers to help us do so much of the work of building an even better city. Thank you to the Nashville Civic Design Center and Storefront for Art and Architecture for bringing this great idea here.”
The elegantly hung exhibition invited people to enter the space and move along the sinuous lines constructed within the glass-walled pop-up gallery space. Suspended at eye level, the letters were aesthetically inviting and easily accessible to read. It was both the mass of 8” x 11” stationery from architects and the poignant words they contained that successfully yielded visual and intellectual impact. The textile designed by Leah Robison provided a dynamic, translucent boundary that enveloped the gallery space, responding to the passersby much like development and government should do to a growing city’s needs. The Mayoral Desk + Architect’s table and the accompanying chairs were a collaboration of developer and artist Kelly Bonadies and self-taught designer and craftsman Emil Congdon. Typically leaning towards leather and metals, Emil explores the possibilities of these ancient materials with refined modernity, seeking to create objects that hold both form and function as equals. Congdon adds, “Everyone sits. I created these pieces with a focus on minimalism and transparency in construction and design. Materials used were chosen for longevity.”
Although the installation has been taken down from the NCDC gallery, a book containing the letters is in the process of being published. These letters document a specific time in Nashville’s growth. As the city continues its trajectory of rapid change, these urgent requests and visions of the future provided by an array of the city’s architects will act as a time capsule. In the future, will they remind us what could have been or, more optimistically, what is?