By Thomas Bailey Jr. of The Commercial Appeal
A new grid of steel beams towers over a corner of Overton Square.
Still unfinished, the imposing structure rises so close to the traffic along Madison and Cooper that it nearly transforms the streets into long rooms.
The imposing structure will be a see-through facade for the 38,000-square-foot Ballet Memphis headquarters under construction and scheduled to be completed next year.
"OPD (Office of Planning & Development) termed it an 'art wall','' said architect Todd Walker of archimania, which designed the $12.6 million building. "I like that name.''
Passersby likely believe that construction contractor Grinder, Taber & Grinder will eventually connect the edifice to a roof and other walls to form the building's shell. That is not going to happen.
The art wall will remain eight feet in front of the building in most places, and 30 feet in some.
"You don't often see just a steel wall built without a roof deck or horizontal steel,'' Walker said.
The city may never have seen such architecture before.
"To my knowledge, this is the first art wall in Memphis,'' said Josh Whitehead, the Memphis and Shelby County planning director.
"However, you could argue this is a modern interpretation of brise-soleil which was popular in Memphis in the 1950s and 1960s.''
That architectural device — pronounced breeze-sew-LAY — is traditionally used to screen a building from direct or excessive sunlight. The Shelby County Office Building at Poplar and Third had one, and the Century Building at 3294 Poplar still does, said Whitehead, who researches the history of Memphis buildings and urban design as a hobby.
However, Whitehead added, "using brise-soleil to create a more urban streetscape is very unique.''
Construction workers eventually will cover the steel beams with perforated copper. The intended effect is to "blur the public and private domain,'' Walker said.
The wall will have openings at the sidewalks that invite the public to walk inside to pavilions and courtyards. From there, the public can watch through the building's glass walls.
In the largest pavilion at the corner of Madison and Cooper, onlookers will be able to see professional dancers rehearsing in the largest (5,000 square feet) and tallest (45 feet) of five studios. Or down Madison, passersby will be able to step through the art wall to a smaller courtyard and watch costumes being made in the costume shop.
Behind the art wall, the ballet building will be bigger and taller than the art wall in places. "But (the wall) gives you a space ...," he said. "You would sort of walk down the sidewalk in a serpentine pattern, in and out of this wall. If you wanted to look into a studio, you could.
"The wall also defines that edge.''
During the day, the hole-punched copper will dapple or soften the sunlight that reaches the building, Walker said. At night, the same art wall will allow the building's light to shine out toward the street.
The old French Quarter Inn that once stood on the same 1.7 acres was separated from the sidewalk by a fence and a parking lot. "So it was as disconnected as a building can be'' in an urban setting like Midtown, Walker said.
By contrast, the Ballet Memphis design adds transparency and connects the building to the street.
"I think the building is going to change Midtown, not just Overton Square,'' Walker said. "It's going to offer a new, defining element in Midtown that's substantial in its size. To me, it offers a new excitement and activity.''
Construction of the building, which will also house the Ballet Memphis School and Pilates Centre classes, is on schedule and on budget, he said.