Memphis architecture is making a dynamic comeback
Our architectural love letter from Memphis explores the American South city’s dynamic built environment scene
Memphis is a city that shows its scars. This once vibrant Tennessee hub fell on hard times, following the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King here in 1968 and the subsequent unrest. A mass exodus of businesses hollowed out the heart of its downtown, where for decades, haunting sweeps of the city became a ghost town. But time is gradually healing the wounds and it’s the revival of Memphis’ neglected buildings that’s proving particularly therapeutic. Derelict shells are being reimagined as cultural and community cores. A historically significant church is rising from the ashes as a pivotal civil rights site. And this Memphis architecture renaissance is attracting world famous names to the table, including Herzog & de Meuron and Studio Gang. This iconic music city is finally singing a new song, or at least adding some new riffs to its storied landscape.
New and upcoming Memphis architecture
Memphis Brooks Art Museum, by Herzog & de Meuron and Archimania
Offering a serious boost to Memphis’ regeneration efforts, Herzog & de Meuron and Memphis-based architects Archimania have unveiled their vision for the city’s new art complex, located in the downtown area overlooking the Mississippi River. Due to open in 2026, the structure will include a 175-seat glass box theatre overlooking a wooden-clad courtyard, exhibition spaces on the upper floor and a roof deck offering panoramic views of Memphis.
Tom Lee Park, Studio Gang and Scape
Forming part of a larger regeneration of six miles of its waterfront, Tom Lee Park will transform a largely barren strip of land into a network of community spaces for year-round use, with an adventure park, kinetic boardwalk and river-edge pavilions, due to open in 2023. The park also commemorates Tom Lee, an African American man who rescued 32 people from drowning, and aims to create a historic walking loop with the nearby National Civil Rights Museum.
Historic Clayborn Temple, by Self + Tucker
As a rallying point for the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968, this Romanesque Revival church played a crucial role in the civil rights movement but was later left vacant for a decade. Its rehabilitation is spearheaded by local architects Self + Tucker, who are major players in Memphis’ revival, alongside cultural strategist Anasa Troutman. She says: ‘Memphis could be a pilot for the future of America. There’s an opportunity here to get race and class right, so we all have communities that feel joyful and abundant.’ Work is currently underway to transform Historic Clayborn Temple into a community space and a key site on the civil rights trail, opening 2024.
Crosstown Concourse, Looney Ricks Kiss in association with Dialog
This former Sears distribution centre sat abandoned for 20 years, narrowly missing a visit from the wrecking ball. Its saviour was a tenacious local historian named Todd Richardson, who championed its metamorphosis into Crosstown Concourse: an ambitious 1.3-million-sq-ft vertical urban village deeply rooted in the arts, education and healthcare. ‘Everyone thought it was impossible,’ says Tony Pellicciotti, architect and principal at Looney Ricks Kiss (LRK), who recalls site visits involving wading through knee-high stagnant water. ‘But Memphis is an entrepreneurial, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of place, so happen it did.’
Carbon Neutral Corridors, by Archimania
Ticking both the zero-carbon and zero-energy boxes, this high-performance build took two unloved, corporate offices in the residential Cooper Young district and upcycled them into a mixed-use micro village. Using a combination of solar panels and a geothermal system in the ground, the project now generates seven per cent more energy than it consumes. ‘This is a model for how to take an existing site that’s very ordinary, and make it extraordinary,’ says Archimania’s senior associate Jacob Davis, who hopes that this radical recycling of existing buildings will be rolled out throughout the US.
Orange Mound Tower
This abandoned United Equipment tower rises above the Orange Mound skyline: the first neighbourhood in the US built solely by and for African Americans. Taking on the herculean task of revitalising the derelict concrete tower into a beacon of hope, artist Victoria Jones and music producer James Dukes purchased the site to transform it into a mixed-use development, including a creative incubator featuring galleries and performance spaces. With the development expected to contain 100,000 sq ft of space, Looney Ricks Kiss and Aaron Patrick Architects have completed the master plan. Jones and Dukes are currently seeking a lead architect to bring their vision to life, with construction planned for 2023.
Central Station Hotel, by Bounds & Gillespie Architects in association with Looney Ricks Kiss
Memphis’ South Main Arts District is an area on the up, bolstered by the 2019 opening of Central Station Hotel in a renovated train station. Completion was no small feat, with the project needing to preserve the character of the 105-year-old building and incorporate a still functioning Amtrak ticket office, alongside operating as a hotel, restaurant and bustling lobby bar. The thread that weaves throughout is Memphis’ legendary music scene, from the high-tech EgglestonWorks listening lounge to the original train platform, reborn as a stage for local bands.