A Nashville, Tenn., native, David M. Powell, FAIA, has helped shaped the Music City’s urban fabric. Powell, a musician himself, is a co-owner and principal of Hastings Architecture, where he pulls constant inspiration from the music-making process. His work—which includes the celebrated Bellevue Library—complements Nashville’s existing built environment and its unmistakable character.
What is your greatest professional achievement?
I am always honored by the recognition I receive from my fellow architects, such as this year’s AIA Award for Excellence in Public Architecture, my elevation to the College of Fellows, and the design awards we receive for our firm’s projects. However, I am most proud of the work our firm does in and for the community. It is such a privilege to design public projects, serve on boards and committees, volunteer for various events, and donate time and resources to a wide range of non-profits in Nashville. I find it to be my greatest professional achievement to be leading, along with my partners, a firm that is so deeply passionate about our community, and constantly searching for ways to create meaningful change and lasting impact.
What is the most memorable moment of your career?
When I look back on my career thus far, relationships are what really stand out to me. My career has allowed me to get to know some truly amazing people. From the people I have worked with at Hastings and previous firms, to clients, consultants, city administrators, community leaders, and professional peers across the country, my life is rich with relationships with people from a vast range of backgrounds. As architects, we are inherently hopelessly curious, and getting to know so many different people has been a fantastic way to satisfy that desire to learn and grow both personally and professionally.
What was your most rewarding collaboration?
My greatest collaboration is with my wife Kerri, raising my two wild and beautifully unpredictable kids!
What inspired your interest in public design?
Early in my career, I was working on projects all across the country, making it difficult for me to experience the true impact each project had on its community. Simultaneously, Nashville was in the early stages of a season of growth that quickly evolved into the extraordinary transformation the city is now experiencing. These two factors inspired me to refocus my efforts on my own community. Now, although I practice in both the public and private sectors, my design approach is for all projects to be mindful of their place in the urban fabric, contemplating their true impact beyond the boundaries of their own site. I am inspired by our unique responsibility as architects to provide thoughtful contributions to our communities with projects that go beyond themselves, envisioning how each project can be mindful of more than just itself.
What influence has Nashville had on your practice?
Although Nashville has an outward brand as “Music City USA” that caters to country music and tourism, I lean into the idea that the real backbeat of our city is the rich cultural vernacular of creativity radiating from the storytelling legacy of Nashville’s songwriters. As someone who has always had a deep connection with music, I approach design like writing a song—I search for the “hook,” establish the story the architecture is attempting to tell, then develop the story and how it unfolds. In many cases it is similar to the structure of most modern music, starting with an intro (approach), a riff that caries that tune (motif/partii), verses to establish the situation and recognize the tension (context/sequence/progression), the bridge to transition between sections (thresholds), and choruses to provide the relief (resolution). The goal being to provide unique solutions that tell a story specific to each site and set of conditions that express the values inherent in each project—designs developed through a process inspired by Nashville.
What role should architects play in the planning and design of our public buildings and spaces?
Without question, architects should be leading the design of all public buildings and spaces. However, we must be open to input from the public and facilitating the often complicated community engagement process. This does not mean the process is so democratic that the designs are compromised in an attempt to be all things to all people. The designs must have a strong concept with clear convictions and purpose. Yet, architects must be open to public input and skilled at navigating the process to establish community buy-in.
How has music influenced your practice?
In addition to the previous answer, I am fascinated by the foundation of all music, which is the physics of sound. This is likely the direct result of growing up with a mother who was a musician and father who was a physicist! I have spent a lot of time thinking about how the universal laws of the physics of sound establishes the basis for music. A single note is defined by frequency and duration. Multiple notes create harmony, dissonance, and rhythm. In western music, we graphically convey those rules through the grand staff, the 12-note scale, time signatures, key signatures, notes and rests, dynamics, and so on. But that isn’t music, per se. Music is the human intervention with the physics of sound. It’s what we do with those rules that brings it to life. It’s humanizing the science.
Architecture is the same for me. As architects we must have a basic understanding of the scientific principles that influence buildings. For example, we must comprehend the physics of gravity, light, and acoustics, the chemical composition of different materials, the geology of the site, and the biological and social behaviors of humans, plants and animals. But that can’t be all—that is just knowledge, not architecture. Recalling Vitruvius’s Firmitas Utilitas Venustas (Firmness, Commodity, and Delight), the first two can create “buildings”, but capital “A” Architecture requires all three. Venustas, the delight, comes from an artistic approach and unique problem solving born out of human creativity. Like music, we can’t change the rules of science, but being creative with how we interact with these rules is what makes compelling architecture. Again, it’s humanizing science.
What’s the greatest challenge facing architects today, and how should architects respond?
I just returned from the AIA Committee on Design Conference in New Orleans and there was a great deal of discussion about the incredible advances in Artificial Intelligence that will impact many fields, including architecture. The possibilities are frightening and could cause radical change in the practice of architecture that isn’t all good. I fear that instead of addressing critically important issues that we really need to continue focusing on such as climate change and social justice, we are now going to be grappling with AI related issues such design authenticity, process, sense of place, plagiarism, and even the value placed on creativity as seen by our clients. This could very quickly turn from a fun digital toy into a serious threat to our livelihood and the true art of architecture that has existed for millennia. (either that or am I starting to sound like an old man threatened by new technology!!!!).
What are your ambitions for the coming five years?
I believe that in the next five years I will mostly continue on the path I am on now, with the exception that I will likely spend more of my time teaching and mentoring younger architects in my firm and within the community of Nashville.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
I would like to be remembered for caring—caring about my family, friends, clients, co-workers, and community; caring about creating memorable, impactful, thoughtful architecture; and caring about the value of the arts and how it can help bring our world together in more meaningful ways
What’s the one question you wished we had asked (and the answer to that question)?
I always like this question: Who do you admire most and why?
I like to refer to Björk as my Spirit Animal. Her fearless creativity, constant reinvention, multi-media curiosity, exploratory sense of fashion, unclassifiable genre-bending creations, and passion for the health of our planet makes her an endless source of inspiration for me.
Which book(s) are you currently reading and/or what songs are currently on your playlist?
I just finished The Jazz of Physics by Stephon Alexander, which is essentially the book my mother (musician), father (physicist) and I (lover of jazz and the creative process) would write it if we were to do a family collab. The three of us have already had some interesting debates about this fascinating book!
As for music, I always have Coltrane, Björk, Bowie, Radiohead, and The Beatles in rotation. But my current obsession is with modern European Jazz, especially Scandinavian artists like Esbjorn Svensson, Todd Gustavsen, and Espen Eriksen. And for good measure, I have a heavy dose of Hiatus Kaiyote, A Tribe Called Quest, and Robert Glasper in the mix.
What does it mean to win the Award for Excellence in Public Architecture?
This recognition from my peers is incredibly meaningful to me. It is a validation of my belief that our projects are not just opportunities, they are responsibilities. Additionally, this award is much more than a moment in time to celebrate progress, it also creates a platform to promote the important ongoing work of designing projects that benefit the greater public, be they public or private projects. My desire is to leverage this award to encourage others to join and contribute to a growing community of designers who care about more than just designing beautiful buildings. Architecture is a magnificent medium for change - we can and should design buildings that are not only striking compositions, but also provocative, impactful, and transformative for their communities.
This article appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.