To Build a City: A Nashville Architect And His Quest
“I cry at movies. It’s terrible,” says Manuel Zeitlin, who has been one of Nashville’s most celebrated architects for over 35 years. “Like ‘The Holiday,’ even. I’ll be just bawling.” Back in the early ‘80s, before he founded Manuel Zeitlin Architects, he was studying at Boston Architectural College when one film in particular incited a pang of homesickness. “I saw ‘Hide in Plain Sight.’ I never thought I’d move back home to Nashville, but I was on a plane 20 minutes later. The only thing I had was the book I had been reading on the subway. I ended up staying there for three weeks.” He moved back to his hometown for good just a few months later, in the wintery December of 1980.
A storied firm isn’t built overnight, and is often helped by an unlikely turn of events or two. Such is the case with this architect. In the time since Zeitlin took on his very first project, he has built a firm with 15 architects and a space in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood of Nashville, which doubles as an art gallery. The firm’s projects include a number of running themes, including homages to intuitive design and the beauty of imperfection. “I love a certain rawness. Almost like Native American blankets, how there’s always something imperfect about them that keeps them from being completely finished,” he says.
This specific design sensibility has informed the firm’s creation of modern luxury homes and apartments, elegant restaurants, charter schools and university buildings. Zeitlin has also designed structures of vital importance to Nashville, including a 79-unit apartment community in the city’s 12 South District, which is currently under construction, the Nashville Holocaust Memorial, and the original master plan for The Gulch neighborhood, one of the city’s thriving cultural centers. A LEED-certified Green Neighborhood, The Gulch has transformed into one of the city’s trendiest locales, home to boutique loft apartments, edgy retail hotspots, music venues and fine dining, which couldn’t have been further from what it was when the architect first encountered it 18 years ago. “It was 37 acres of vacant land at the time. We worked on it for almost a year, sketching ideas. Our vision for it was a lot more raw than what it has become,” he says.
Zeitlin’s mission-focused projects often concern themselves with sustainability, mixed-income housing and urban farming. “A common thread in our work is creative projects with very low budgets. We’ve very rarely had a client say, ‘Here, spend all our money.’ It’s usually, ‘We have an impossibly low budget,’” he says, laughing. Despite these predilections, Zeitlin is emphatic that he and his team not fall into a rut. “We’re constantly pushing boundaries, instead of doing one thing and being comfortable. Right now it’s really important to make a difference. If we don’t solve climate change, if we don’t deal with equality—equity, rather—if we don’t deal with these issues, buildings aren’t going to matter a whole lot. Our office is really committed to that kind of involvement,” he says.
One of Zeitlin’s first projects in The Gulch was designing the Mercury View Lofts, which was once a two-story brick warehouse building. “Most developers would have torn that down,” he says woefully. “We had the idea of building those lofts and letting the brick come through. Much of what has been done in cities like Nashville over the last four years has been wiping out something old to create something new, instead of keeping those buildings that give the city its fabric.” The building now hosts 32 residential units, a bakery, an art gallery and a music hall. The architect believes part of what has contributed to the success of The Gulch are its elements of character, which were there before the area underwent revitalization. “Urban experience in that part of town didn’t exist. The idea that you’d go down there for entertainment was beyond everyone’s wildest dreams.”
One might suppose that the kind of innovation required to transform 37 acres of blank space into a bustling urban center would entail thinking outside the box. “I don’t even know what the box is,” says Zeitlin. Admittedly, his process is unique—the way he works isn’t for everyone. He once told a potential client, “If you’re looking for something really slick, that’s not us,” and the client hired someone else. He also had an architect quit a project because they were 80% finished with working drawings for Vanderbilt University’s Hillel Center, and Zeitlin had some additional changes. “I was looking at the drawings one day and said, ‘This seems really unapproachable, the way this wall is. Let’s open this up and make it more open to students.’ [The architect] threw up his hands and said, ‘I quit. We’re never going to make any money if you keep changing things.’ I was like, ‘It’s on paper, man. Now’s the time to change!’” says Zeitlin, laughing about it now.
The architect has accepted this potential for collateral damage as part of the journey to artistic truth. On the other hand, this morning before our conversation he had spoken with the proprietors of The Turnip Truck, a modern grocery store he designed in East Nashville, to see if the project needed any tweaks. “You don’t just create these objects and throw them out there. For me, it’s really about relationships and building community,” he says. This philosophy isn’t compartmentalized within him. He and his wife, Janice Zeitlin, have been married for 32 years. She serves as vice president of The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, and also runs the art gallery that houses Zeitlin’s firm. “We were both a little older when we met, so we weren’t looking at the other person to fill voids in ourselves. We were our own people.”
It was in his early undergraduate days at Washington University in St. Louis that he began to develop his signature working philosophy. He worked under architect Richard Claybour, who was in the process of designing single-family alternatives to public housing in St. Louis’ JeffVanderLou neighborhood, which was full of abandoned homes at the time. Zeitlin spent a year of his early days as an architect measuring empty houses and stumbling upon hidden treasures. Many of the homes were built in the 1880’s and had been abandoned, yet remained full of rich historical artifacts and personal documents. In one home he found the floor covered in almost an inch of old horseracing forms. “This guy that lived there was probably from a relatively wealthy family, and he’d go to the horse races, wasting all their money.”
Upon returning home to Nashville from Boston in 1980, well before he started his own firm, Zeitlin got a job waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant while working on his final thesis project, which he had yet to finish. “Coming out of architecture school, you’re socially inept. Really. You go to a party and stand next to another architecture student talking about some detail of the room—like, ‘Look at that window.’ Waiting tables, I learned how to talk to people about real stuff. That absolutely helped me with my firm,” he says. One day as he was walking into work, he spotted a man inspecting one of the buildings in the neighborhood and asked if he was preparing to purchase it. A plastic surgeon, he hired Zeitlin to design the renovation of the building. He ended up using the attic as a work space for two years, free of charge.
“My dad was like, ‘You ought to work for a big firm,’” Zeitlin remembers of the time. “But the architects I admired didn’t necessarily work for big firms. They started out young and learned from their mistakes. When students email me and they want to get a job at an architecture firm over the summer or something, I tell them, ‘Get a job waiting tables, or in retail. Travel. Go on an archaeological dig. Don’t sit at an architecture firm. You don’t know enough yet. Get out and live life.”
As many of Zeitlin’s projects have a strong mission underlying them, like solving climate change and creating mixed-income housing options, he has braced himself for the potential impact of the current presidential administration. The 2016 election results left Zeitlin aghast. “I think this incoming administration represents the worst of humanity, and I hope we can get beyond it,” he says, unwavering. He was in Denver on the evening the election results came in, where he’d been with a few colleagues to see examples of charter schools as inspiration for a new project. Logically, they began drinking heavily. “When Hillary [Clinton] hit 48% of the votes, we ordered a drink in a giant ceramic fish with three straws. The next day we went to a charter school with the kids and they were talking about what they were feeling. They wanted to express their hopes, and their care for each other.” It is Zeitlin’s belief that working on schools and educational institutions is a way of enacting positive change in a world with no shortage of reasons to fear it. “Any peace anywhere comes from children,” he says. “When you’re wiping out Iraq and destroying the lives of children, there are going to be generations of people there who hate us. Peace comes from making children’s lives better. Our small way of doing that is working on schools.”
There’s an Anne Frank quote that keeps Zeitlin going in the moments he is awakened by tragedy and injustice. “One of the quotes from her book is, ‘In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.’” He marvels at how the young girl, who arguably experienced the worst that humanity can offer, still believed in its inherent good. “When she says that, it keeps you going: that belief that it is possible to solve things. Also, having two children [Anna, 30, and Nate, 28]—I don’t have an alternative,” the architect says, laughing ruefully. “You have to care, to try and make things better for them.”
Photography by Attilio D’Agostino