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VOL. 122 | NO. 172 | Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Respected Architect Ventures Out

By Andy Meek

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FLYING SOLO: Michael Walker, standing on the far left along with the development team for a recent office project in Collierville, has left JBHM Architects and started his own firm. -- Daily News File Photo

A period of self-examination often accompanies the prospect of changing jobs, however frightening or thrilling - or a little of both - the opportunity seems. And it isn't difficult to imagine what might have run through the mind of architect Michael Walker when he recently left his job at the firm JBHM Architects.

Already, he's been the master builder of a life in full. A college football athlete under University of Michigan coaching legend Bo Schembechler, an occasional actor and artist as well as a professional architect, Walker has done a little bit of everything, it seems.

Now that he's decided to go into business for himself - launching his own company, WalkerArch - the well-rounded life of a respected member of Memphis' architecture community is about to get richer still.
Time for new challenge

Part of the inspiration for wanting to leave JBHM and build his own business from scratch, which he's already in the midst of doing, speaks to Walker's artistic streak. He loves putting pen to paper, stretching the limits of his design capabilities.

But he's also to the point in his career where, instead of handing pieces of each design project off to the next guy at the company, assembly-line style, he'd like to have a go at seeing everything through from start to finish.

"I just decided, I guess it was about six months or so ago, maybe around Christmastime, that I was going to go do my own thing - and I was getting to that age where it's about doing it now while I'm still young enough to run around and go do it," said Walker, whose handiwork can be seen in everything from Collierville's Town Hall to the renovation of the old Cummins Mid-South building Downtown.

Said Walker, "So much of what I was doing with JBHM and previously with Fleming Associates was a little bit of everything. It was a lot of marketing responsibilities, a lot of the initial client meetings, but getting further and further into the process of the project - I was doing kind of less and less."

Not exactly the winning formula for an architect keen on fostering the kind of relationships with his clients that translates into a final design they like.

"It's funny," he said. "Most of my clients have become good friends. When you spend this much time with somebody, kind of getting into their head and figuring out what they want for their building, you get to know them very well. And you just want to make sure that whatever is dug out of those initial meetings really does make it out onto the field for them."

A place to dance

Katie Smythe, artistic director and CEO of New Ballet Ensemble & School in the Cooper-Young neighborhood, can attest to that.

Walker was one of the first people she talked to after her school acquired its new property at 2157 York Ave. She said she tapped him to help renovate the facility for several reasons. He already had designed set pieces for the school, and he'd whipped up some drawings for the new dance and school space that wowed Smythe.

Another factor that also played a part: Walker's daughter Molly dances at the school.

Designing the renovations allowed for some unique father and daughter bonding time, as Walker introduced his designs to Molly and showed her where she'd ultimately be dancing.

"I kind of picked her brain a little - 'Hey, what would you want to see if you were here?'" Walker said. "She'd go out with me on Saturdays and watch the thing being built, and we'd walk through it. 'Here's where the big studio's going to be. Here's where the dressing room's going to be.'"

Walker in the round

For now, WalkerArch consists solely of its namesake. He's got a home office as a base of operations - as well as enough work right now to last him through the rest of the year.

"Michael is a very unique individual, in that he's got a lot of diverse interests, which I think really makes him a good architect," said Walker's former partner Scott Fleming, a principal at Fleming Associates. "He's an athlete, an artist, he's good with his hands - he builds stage sets and does work on his house. He's a soccer coach, so all of that to me means Michael stands out because of his well-roundedness.

"He's also got great people skills and is very good at presenting his ideas. He's very creative - I mean, Michael's really got a lot of talents."

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