Credit: Jeffrey Jacobs
Credit: Jeffrey Jacobs
Credit: Jeffrey Jacobs
Alex Haley is known for his rise to fame from humble beginnings. The award-winning journalist started as a cook in the U.S. Coast Guard and eventually rose through the ranks to become the Coast Guard’s first chief journalist. Although best known for writing Roots: The Saga of an American Family and The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, he also interviewed Martin Luther King Jr., Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr., Cassius Clay and jazz legend Miles Davis during his career.
Haley’s life and work are memorialized in his boyhood hometown of Henning, Tenn., at the new Alex Haley Interpretive Center, this year’s first-place winner in the Roofs category of metalmag’s Architectural Awards. Designed by Bob Land, AIA, LEED AP; Louis Pounders, FAIA; and Bill Ferguson, AIA, partner of Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects, Memphis, Tenn., the center is a modern structure that complements Haley’s neighboring wood-bungalow homestead. Although the center celebrates a historical figure, the architects decided to design a modern building with metal as the primary building material. “One of the discussions when you have a building that has historical significance is whether it is appropriate to build something that looks like the historical style or whether you want to make it different,” Ferguson says. “If you make it different, you do it clearly different. We made the center very modern but used a palette of materials that relate to this area.”
One of the biggest challenges of the project was understanding the shapes in the roof. The building is 1 story in height to maintain scale with surrounding structures, and the roof’s slope changes from 6:12 (27 degrees) on the main roof to 2:12 (9 degrees) on the lower slope. “There weren’t a lot of right angles,” Ferguson recalls. “It’s hard to grasp the geometry of the metal roof. We took a piece of paper, cut it out and folded it in shapes so the installers understood. They did a great job putting it together.”
All the walls and columns come up to meet the roof, which runs as one continuous surface up the north wall, sloping as it goes up and tapering at the ends. “The corners and ends are not linear,” Ferguson explains. “It’s growing in two directions as it goes up and widens. Then it turns back down on the south side, stopping short of the concrete block exhibit wing to create a glass clerestory into the lobby.”
“The triangular design confused a lot of people at the beginning. It’s something you have to see; you can’t look at it on paper,” recalls Patrick Norman, president of John D. Norman Co., Memphis, the roofing contracting company on the project. “There was a lot of transition detail where the panel had a pitch change, and that detail took a lot of work. You have to walk around the building two or three times to really understand what’s going on.”
The panels were field-fabricated in custom lengths. According to Norman, panels on the back wall ranged from 11 to 28 feet (3 to 8.5 m) because of the slope. “They grew as they went across the roof,” he says. It took a crew of four about three weeks to complete the installation.
Peter David Greaves, AIA, LEED AP, principal of Weber Thompson, Seattle, and one of the judges in metalmag’s Architectural Awards, was impressed with the roof. “This big origami roof that makes the roof and one wall is a really simple, elegant solution to the design problem,” he says. “It’s quiet and withdrawn from the historical house, so it does its job without mimicking the homestead. The Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines for dealing with historic structures usually ask that the new be the new and the historic building be allowed to be itself. I think this did a good job of creating a calm dialogue between the two pieces.”
Tennessee is rich in farming, and many agricultural buildings surround Henning. “That’s why metal was chosen,” Ferguson says. “We wanted materials that related to agriculture and were normal for the community but could be arranged in a clearly modern way. The metal makes a strong connection to the community and the farming that supports the community’s economy.”
The architects liked the look of the metal, so the Galvalume roof has a clear finish. Its durability; minimal required maintenance; and environmental properties, such as its cool-roof properties, recycled content and recyclability, also appealed to the designers. Metal graces other areas of the center, too. The columns are galvanized steel and a pedestrian bridge to the residence uses galvanized steel and metal cables. The storefront is constructed of clear anodized aluminum. Light fixtures sport exposed metal, as does the reception desk in the lobby.
A Strong Presence
Three sectors comprise the building—the administrative wing; lobby, which is shaped by the change in the roof; and exhibit space. The lobby highlights Haley’s homestead; there is a glass wall at the end that opens to showcase the home and surrounding land.
The Alex Haley Interpretive Center is about 6,400 square feet (595 m2). “That was one of the challenges, too,” Ferguson says. “When you have something that has only a limited number of square feet, how do you give it a stronger presence? That’s another thing the roof did for the design.
“When you drive up and look at it, it all ties together. It’s a structure with a wonderful wardrobe,” he continues. “It looks like a unified building and it belongs in this setting. We really look forward to showcasing Alex Haley’s life.”