Intern Architect Jeff Hellings was inspired by his own imagination as a child, teachers in his high school days and, the world around him as he attended college.
Hear from the Fondren resident about his beginnings, his techniques, his favorite projects and his advice for future creatives.
What is your background?
My parents moved around a lot during my school years. We made a loop from where I was born – New Orleans – to Houston to Colorado, back to Houston, then back to Mandeville, north of New Orleans for my high school years. I graduated from Mississippi State in ‘94, and I have been working with Canizaro Cawthon Davis ever since. I was never planning to stay in Mississippi after college, but I learned to love it here because of the culture, the pace and most of all the people. It’s a good fit for me, because, I imagine I’m a big fish in a small stream if you know what I mean. I have always said that the reason so much talent spawns from Mississippi is we have nothing better to do here than develop those talents.
What inspired you to go into architecture?
It has always been intuitive for me as I grew up making structures I could get inside of – a giant nest of pine straw I could hide in. When we moved to Colorado, I made houses and buildings out of the leftover moving boxes in the basement. There is also enjoyed carving forts and tunnels out of the snow drifts that piled up. Model railroading as a kid got me into creating little cities and structures. I was also fortunate to have many inspirational art teachers, my favorite being Mrs. McGoey at Mandeville High School. She challenged the class to draw with sticks dipped in ink on butcher paper to break us from our timid drawing techniques. I learned that you have to do things differently if you want to make something phenomenal. My daily inspirations are music, cooking, smelling (yes, smelling is remembering), car design and daydreaming.
What is your process when designing?
After studying a project’s site and trying to understand a client’s expectations, I like to start small. Drawing quick thumbnail scenes, like an artist planning out a large painting, I like to sketch out ideas with no inhibitions. My sketches are not precious, but spontaneous and intuitive. Architects call them “cocktail napkin sketches.” After numerous sketches, because I am a firm believer in quantity produces quality, I evaluate what is valid about each. I like to evaluate based on potential perspectives and perceptions, how the sunlight will shape the surfaces and spaces throughout the day/season, how it might function, how comfortable the spaces might feel. You know, all the stuff that makes people enjoy a good building. I select the best ideas, which 90 percent of the time is in the first few, and run with it. Then I test the geometries in the computer (CAD) with real dimensions, and tweak the design to make it work in the real world. I like to follow through with the design to make sure the original architectural ideas make it all the way into the details.
Are there any unique or signature features in your designs?
I try to avoid style, but strive to design buildings that delight. I hope each building that I have worked on affects people in some positive way. Every design is unique and grows from its circumstances. I will say each design learns from the successes and challenges of all of the previous.
What are some of your favorite projects to date? Anything you are really proud of?
I am proud of just about all of them, but the Mill Street Viaducts Project in downtown Jackson, which connects to Union Station, is a good one. First I had to learn what the work “viaduct” even means. The broad scope of this development was to revitalize the infrastructure of several city blocks in the CBD along the railroad tracks. When it was completed back in 2007, the King Edward was still in shambles, but the new infrastructure created great potential for a strong urban center that is finally coming to fruition today. Most people don’t know this, but we designed a huge space under the railroad bridge to function as a downtown market right on Capitol Street. In the past, this space was interestingly used as a miniature golf course, and later a rental car lot. The space now is secured with about 15 steel garage doors and is ready to open when the time is right for an urban market modeled after the French Market in New Orleans.
Another favorite is the Net Auto dealership on Highway 49 in Richland, which takes cues from automotive design. The client was looking for an eye-catching building image to sell high end used trucks and cars.
My first prominent project was the restoration of the Alamo Theater, which is one of the three projects I worked on in the Farish Street Historic District. The other two being the JPD Substation and the law office Tatum and Wade. After seeing old photos of how vibrant that area was in the past I am still rooting for the district to make a comeback.
The Lower Mississippi River Museum in Vicksburg is also a gem in my mind. Besides it being a beautiful building, the Corp of Engineers agreed to move a massive five-story ship right next to it along Washington Street.
Other notables are the B.B. King Museum and his future grave site memorial, The MAX (Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience Museum) that is being built in Meridian right now, the MDOT Laboratory on Woodrow Wilson in Jackson, the Corp of Engineer’s Information and Technology Laboratory in Vicksburg that houses the biggest super computer I will ever see, and of course my humble house in Fondren which will never be complete in my mind.
If you could design your perfect building, what would it look like?
I will have to tell you later because, after more than 25 years, I have not made that one up yet. I love that what I imagine, or make up from virtually nothing can become a reality that deeply affects people. I think of it as silent fame. I don’t get to sign my name on any of the designs, but I take great pride knowing that I was a part of having a positive effect on our culture.
I would like to compare this to my passion for cooking. What would be a perfect meal? Perhaps the simplicity of a crisp piece of bacon with a tall glass of orange juice, or maybe seared tuna on cheese grits, followed by homemade vanilla ice cream topped with hot butter toasted almonds? The difference is the perfect building should not be consumable in one sitting. Good architecture should welcome you back to the table day after day.
What would you tell up-and-coming architects?
First, get a strong understanding of geometry and physics, or nothing will stand up. Don’t be timid, but draw recklessly what you think things should be like. But be aware that you might be responsible for ideas that can move massive amounts of materials, labor and money around. Architecture can be complex, so focus on what makes you tick. I have worked with an array of talented architects through the years. Some are focused on the big image, some are into the money, some the CAD/IT, some are into the prestige, some are into the technical information and materials that go into buildings, some are geared more to the construction side. There are so many aspects to practicing architecture that you can fit into. All are valid and important, you just have to figure out your niche.
I get labeled as “creative” and “talented,” which bothers me sometimes because some people think that these are simply a gift. It takes hard work, practice, critical observation and discipline.