Upon graduation, most students wish to see their work have a tangible impact on the world around them. For the Mississippi State University graduates working at the Manuel Zeitlin Architects firm in Nashville, Tennessee, they have the privilege to see their work shape the Music City skyline.
Chris Riley and Lesley Beeman are two MSU alumni and co-owners of MZA. Both Mississippi natives, Beeman, 54, is from Meridian and graduated in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture a week before his 30th birthday. Riley, 39, is from Columbus and graduated in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. Although they attended MSU during very different times, both Riley and Beeman relate their current creative environment to their time in MSU studios.
“It's keeping that studio environment and that work ethic. It’s a creative field, and what you put out there are your ideas, and you want to get them out into the world as filled-out as possible,” Riley said.
Beeman echoed Riley’s sentiment.
“I think what I enjoyed most (at MSU) and something that I sought out in my professional career is that studio environment, and the camaraderie with the students, and collaborative nature of the work,” Beeman said.
Since its founding by architect Manuel Zeitlin in 1981, MZA has taken on a variety of projects, such as restaurants and hotels, which have become landmarks in the city.
“We do a very broad variety of work here. I'll do a 700 square-foot outbuilding behind somebody’s house, right next to a 26 story hotel. We do such a broad variety of work, from housing to medical to restaurant to office space to condos. Just such a broad range of types and sizes,” Beeman said.
According to Beeman, he has seen firsthand the change Manuel Zeitlin has brought to Nashville. The Gulch area in Nashville, recently popularized by Taylor Swift, was designed by MZA, Beeman said.
“When I first started, I came here in 2005,” Beeman said. “We were wrapping up the Gulch master plan work and starting one of the second buildings built in the Nashville Gulch, and if you’re not familiar with the Gulch, it is a miraculous transformation from what was once a very dead and frightening space into one of the most vibrant centers of the city. Manuel himself was key to making that happen. So, one of the most new and bright spaces in the city is directly attributed to Manuel, in the early 2000s”.
MZA’s innovations in the city start with creative ideas in the workplace. MZA prides itself on having a unique creative environment. The 14 person firm works in an open, collaborative space that encourages communication and teamwork between members. Employees will often be pulled into projects as they go, with architects being able to build off each other’s ideas. For Riley and Beeman, this has set MZA apart from other firms they have worked at.
“Just being able to walk up to someone's desk and share ideas, as well as a lack of perceived hierarchy really makes it special. In other open offices that are supposedly a collaborative environment, there's always someone telling someone else what to do. We don’t have that here, and it's been great,” Riley said.
Not only has the office implemented an innovative strategy for communication, but it also tries to reflect the team’s drive to reveal the symbiotic nature of art and architecture.
“Not only are we an architecture firm, but we are a fully functioning commercial art gallery that shows lots of local and international artwork,” Beeman said. “It’s an amazing creative environment.”
MZA, partnered with Zeitgeist Art Gallery, works in tandem with Zeitgeist to highlight the creative atmosphere that infuses Nashville.
In honor of their Music City home, MZA’s creativity has even expanded beyond architecture to music. Recently, the firm released an album that a lot of people in the office contributed to, Beeman said.
“It is Nashville,” Beeman said. “They give you a guitar when you move here."
In the future, both Beeman and Riley are looking forward to having a hand in the development of the city, especially with projects in the neighborhood of their own office.
As for MZA, they are committed to bringing a holistic architectural view into the development of the city, using the innovations they have made in their office environment to bring magnificent architecture to the Music City.