The architects of Modern Atlanta’s Design is Human event talk contemporary design

On modern style and our evolving hometown
Brian Bell
Architect Brian Bell designed this modern structure as an addition to the existing house.

Photograph courtesy of Brian Bell; Retouching by Zach Vitale

Founded in 2007, Modern Atlanta is an internationally respected organization dedicated to championing modern design and architecture. Through events such as home tours, seminars, and design expositions—which are now held across the Southeast and throughout the year—Modern Atlanta has helped energize our city’s contemporary design scene as well as bolster its reputation as a modern-minded metropolis.

MA’s annual Design Is Human event, now in its ninth year and running from May 30 to June 7, includes a two-day tour of outstanding contemporary spaces throughout the city. It offers design enthusiasts an opportunity to see the latest in building technology and innovative materials, as well as a glimpse inside sleek and sometimes cutting-edge dwellings. We talked with a few of the tour’s featured architects to get their perspective on modern design and our evolving hometown. Ticket to all events, $35

Brian Bell
Tall glass panels flood the bathroom with daylight in the Bell-designed home.

Brian BellBrian Bell
Firm: Bldgs
Featured projects: 1417 Benning Place; 1545 Peachtree Street NE, Suite 280

Bell’s career as an architect took shape first in Boston and then in Atlanta, where he worked for the noted firm Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects. In 2006 Bell joined forces with fellow Harvard alum David Yocum to establish their own full-service architecture firm, Bldgs. Additionally, both Bell and Yocum are architecture professors at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

What’s your favorite building in Atlanta? Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam’s house at 64 Wakefield. It is joyful and experimental.
Which city do you consider to be a stronghold of modern architecture? In the U.S., Los Angeles is the strongest of strongholds.
Do you have a favorite new material? Yes, although none that were invented yesterday. We’ve been investigating several, such as Ductal (an ultra-high-performance concrete with steel fiber reinforcing) and translucent concrete.
Who or what inspired you to become an architect? A book in the Boise, Idaho, public library on the Bauhaus, which included a small plan and view of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion.
Brutalism*: Yes or no? In the original sense of the word, absolutely yes.
Who is your favorite modernist design icon and why? Currently it’s Valerio Olgiati, because his work embodies the widest range of tensions. Absolutely rigorous, but distorting and atmospheric—you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing.
What was the biggest challenge of renovating 1417 Benning Place? Old houses are challenging to add on to in a way that lets them exist for what they are, and as a foil for something quite different.
What’s your favorite space in the house? The transition between the old and new houses, and the back deck between the addition and the new yard. That’s two favorite spaces.

*Brutalism—inspired by the French words for raw concrete, béton brut—is a controversial midcentury architectural style that favored unfinished molded concrete over glass and steel. Swiss architect Le Corbusier, along with Atlanta’s John Portman, were major proponents.

William Carpenter
The atrium is Carpenter’s favorite feature.

William CarpenterWilliam Carpenter
Firm: Lightroom
Featured home: 238 Olympic Place, Decatur

A native New Yorker who considers the legendary architect Norman Jaffe a mentor, Carpenter ventured south to pursue both his education and his career as an award-winning architect. In addition to running Lightroom, his Decatur-based architecture and design firm, Carpenter is a tenured professor at Southern Polytechnic State University’s School of Architecture (now part of Kennesaw State University).

Who is your favorite modernist design icon? Charles and Ray Eames, because of their work across disciplines and their interest in a simple, clear idea to unify a project. They were also both gifted photographers.
What’s your favorite piece of iconic modern furniture? Norman Bel Geddes’s lounge chair. It’s comfortable!
Who inspired you to become an architect? Robert Fisher, my sixth-grade teacher at Mattituck High School in Long Island, New York. Without him, I would not have known about architecture.
What’s your favorite building in Atlanta? The Decatur High School Library. I love it because it is a symbol of knowledge, and it reminds me of the Jetsons.
What’s your favorite building in the world? The Rosenbaum House in Florence, Alabama. It’s delicate simplicity.
On a scale of one to 10 (with 10 being the highest), where does Atlanta’s acceptance of modern architecture fall? 2000: one; 2015: seven.
Did your client have any specific requests? Design the best house you have ever done; design the best house in the U.S.

Scott West
Exterior trim includes boards from storm-felled local white oaks.

Scott WestScott West
Firm: West Architecture Studio
Featured Home: 282 Alaska Avenue

After his education at both Georgia Tech and the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, West worked at a number of Atlanta architecture firms before eventually founding his own practice, West Architecture Studio. In addition to residential work, West and his team are responsible for a number of high-profile Atlanta projects, including the Westside Shops at Howell Mill.

Who is your favorite modernist design icon? The honeybee. No distractions or concerns about trend.
Brutalism: Yes or no? Sure, why not? It beats Atlanta’s strip-shopping-center chic.
On a scale of one to 10, where does Atlanta’s acceptance of modern architecture fall? A few years ago, I would’ve said one or two, but today we could be approaching a four.
Which city do you consider to be a stronghold of modern architecture? Austin, Texas, is currently undergoing a sort of architectural golden age in terms of contemporary single-family-home architecture.
Who or what inspired you to become an architect? Alphabetically, it came after aerospace engineering in the college catalog. I’ve always had a fascination with flying things, but decent jobs in aerospace seemed to be on the wane.
What is your favorite space in this house? Either the light-filled second-floor den space that opens to the rooftop deck or the dining room.

Jordan Williams
The owners of the home above wanted a dramatic entertaining environment focused around the pool courtyard.

Jordan WilliamsJordan Williams
Firm: Plexus R+D
Featured Home: 229 Little John Trail

A principal of Plexus R+D , Williams has more than 20 years of experience in architecture, interiors, and master planning projects of varying types and sizes. Past projects include commercial, educational, institutional, retail, entertainment, and residential facilities. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Florida and received his Master of Architecture degree from Princeton University. Williams has taught design studios at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Boston Architectural Center, and Southern Polytechnic State University, and also received a Visiting Artists Fellowship to the American Academy in Rome.

Who is your favorite modernist design icon? I have great respect for classic modern designers like Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, based on their roles in transforming the nature of the discipline of architecture.
What is your favorite building in Atlanta? Though the interior certainly seems a bit dated, I feel the Atlanta Central Library, designed by Marcel Breuer, is a beautifully sited and composed building.
Brutalism: Yes or no? Of course! Brutalism is the punk rock or metalcore of architecture. It is bold, technically impeccable, and incredibly honest about itself and its construction.
On a scale of one to 10, where does Atlanta’s acceptance of modern architecture fall? Architecturally speaking, I feel Atlanta is in the process of a cultural awakening. A five seems to be a fair ranking, with the understanding that the score has been consistently improving over the past decade.
What is your favorite piece of iconic modern furniture? The molded fiberglass rocker by Charles and Ray Eames. It still feels as fresh as the day it was created.

Lori Bork Newcomer
An entry bridge allows front door access over a sunken garden that provides daylight to the basement.

Lori Bork NewcomerLori Bork Newcomer
Firm: Bork Design
Featured Homes: 115 Autumnwood Avenue, Athens; 582 Pulaski Street, Athens; 175 Pulaski Heights, Athens

Having once worked for famed architect Cesar Pelli, Newcomer is the founder of Bork Design, a full-service architecture firm located in Athens. An advocate for sustainable design, Newcomer is a founding member of the Athens chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. The architect has three featured projects on this year’s tour.

What is your favorite building in Atlanta? I don’t know that I can say I have a favorite, but I appreciate the High Museum and the Fox Theatre.
On a scale of one to 10, where does Atlanta’s acceptance of modern architecture fall? Perhaps a five.
What is your favorite piece of iconic modern furniture? There are many I love, but if I had to pick one, it would probably be the Eames Molded Plywood Chair for Herman Miller. I love the way the design of the chair turns an everyday material like plywood into something elegant and sophisticated.
Who or what inspired you to become an architect? I combined my love of art and geometry and came up with the idea of studying architecture. It was the perfect match for me, and I haven’t regretted it.
What is your favorite space in the 582 Pulaski Street house (shown above)? I’m pleased with the sunken front courtyard space, which brings natural light into the walk-out basement and feels like an intimate patio space—even though it is right along the street in the front yard.

Bryan Russell
Russell likes the indoor-outdoor quality of this house.

Bryan RussellBryan Russell
Firm: Dencity
Featured Home: 1148 North Highland Avenue

A graduate of Mississippi State University, Russell began his career in California before eventually settling in Atlanta, where he teamed up with fellow architect Staffan Svenson to form the architecture practice Dencity in 2000. The firm’s projects range from commercial to residential.

What is your favorite building in Atlanta? The Atlanta Federal Center by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. The mixture of complex forms with minimal materials is quite stunning. It will still be relevant 50 years from now.
What is your favorite building in the world? The Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe. Because of the rigor and restraint of the design in this project and the honesty of structure and form, I can’t imagine I would ever get tired of looking at this house or visiting it.
Brutalism: Yes or no? Overall, I would say no. I believe architecture should be created for people and not just abstract art. Brutalism for me tends to forget the human’s need for interaction with a space and a form.
Which city do you consider to be a stronghold of modern architecture? I find Vienna, Austria, fascinating. The constant juxtaposition of old and new architecture is breathtaking.
Did your client have any specific requests? They wanted a modern interpretation of a Frank Lloyd Wright prairie-style house.
What was the biggest challenge of this project? The site is very narrow and tight. Trying to fit all the programmatic needs and still let this house breathe was difficult and a fun challenge.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.