Written by Julian Rankin | Photographed by Tate Nations and Timothy Hursley
Anne Marie Decker has been a pianist since she was six years old; she plays Debussy and Satie to connect with things larger than herself. Roy Decker is a painter of the natural world; on his easel now is a work in progress, in bright oils, of a splintered agricultural outbuilding which appears to spill out an avalanche of flowing grain, as if Cezanne’s neat haystacks came apart at the seams. That is to say, the husband and wife are more than just architects. And their buildings are more than tangible collections of line and form. The Deckers are on a search for what a building in Mississippi can be. Not just for a skyline, but for a community.
“We’re making a thing, but the form is not the thing we make,” says Anne. “It’s all the interactions between the people and the environment that we’re making – all of that experience.”
Roy came from western New Jersey. His blue-collar father was, as Roy describes, “a laborer, carpenter, electrician, everything;” his mother was, and still is, a wildlife painter. Architecture is a natural fusion of these two influences: pragmatism and imagination.
Anne came from small-town Humboldt, Tennessee. She first found her muse through musical exploration and childlike curiosity. “I always loved spaces,” she says. “I was always finding the attic, the basement, the crawlspace.” She experienced the transcendent impact of buildings during a visit to neighboring Arkansas, when she stood on an Ozark mountain path beneath the vaulted lattice of the stunning Thorncrown Chapel, designed by architect Fay Jones. Marveling at the fantastical rendition of transparent glass, local pine and spiritual calm, Anne knew she wanted to devote her life to making structures that moved people.
The two met (and later married) in the early 1990s at the College of Architecture, Art and Design (CAAD) at Mississippi State University. In 1998, they doubled-down on their commitments to one another and to Mississippi when they founded Duvall Decker Architects in Jackson. The firm is an expanded practice, which includes real estate development. Early adopters of Fondren, the Deckers purchased office buildings along State Street in 2000, years before the neighborhood’s recent renaissance.
Roy left a tenured position at CAAD so that the firm could pursue state projects. Their first of this kind was a building for the Mississippi Library Commission. Anne, two weeks after giving birth to their son, helped close the deal in the bidding phase. In reverence to the illumination of knowledge that libraries provide, the Deckers employed immense windows that bathe common areas of the Library Commission in ever-changing light. “We saw that building as an instrument to keep space alive in the cycles of the day,” Roy explains. Because of this integration with the environment, the building remains fresh and exciting, visit after visit.
Roy and Anne believe that architects should be teachers, and not just in the classroom. Roy recalls Anne telling him, before they set out on their own: “Rather than teach directly, let’s teach by example.” In the broadest sense, their designs instruct others about the thoughtfulness and empathy that can accompany something as rigid as stone and steel. Many of their projects have also have literal connections to academic growth, such as facilities on the campuses of Newton High School, Hinds Community College, Alcorn State University and Tougaloo College, to name a few.
In the design of the Bennie G. Thompson Academic & Civil Rights Research Center on the campus of Tougaloo, the Deckers weave the college’s proud history as a haven of African-American intelligentsia, activism, racial reconciliation and civil rights with its modern evolution and modern student body. President Beverly Hogan allowed the Deckers the design freedom to harness, as Roy puts it, a “deeper, more essential understanding of what that institution is.” The contemporary, accessible faÃ§ade sits among buildings that are more than a hundred years old. Because the architects rooted their choices in the identity of the community they serve, it fits in while not being a stock replica. “It’s a fundamental foundation of our practice that everything we do is for a public consequence of good,” Roy adds.
Public projects have high stakes in the deep South, where the architectural (and social) history is starkly summed up in the disparity between antebellum columns and sharecropper dogtrots. Instead of relying on precedent as the chief determinant for the shape of a building, “suppose we respond to the climate, the light, the economy, the soil, the hopes of children in schools,” Roy remembers thinking. Making lasting impact in society takes more than a building; it takes worldbuilding.
To accommodate the challenge, their expanded practice has five phases: Planning, Idea/Need/Feasibility, Design, Construction and Care. Roy and Anne understand that ninety percent of project innovation occurs during in the first ten percent of project time, before the design phase where most architects come in. “Community engagement and outreach is the spine of the process and research is the foundation,” they say. “Connecting quantitative data with personal stories reveals the true community.”
They also outlast some of their peers, shepherding projects long past construction. For the high school in Newton, Anne even consulted with administrators on what janitorial staff to hire. Extensive research and layers of dialogue with residents and stakeholders in Midtown Jackson produced a master plan that reimagines affordable housing and includes community gardens, support for creative economy, health clinic expansion and expansions of early childhood, afterschool and charter school options.
The result: in contrast with much of the serviceable but uninspiring affordable housing that exists in communities across the South, these Midtown homes have vaulted front porches, practical common areas for extended families to spend time, and graceful spaces that are missing from other bare-bones models.
“People take for granted the dimension of a foot,” says Anne. People take for granted a lot of things. HUD publishes minimum requirements for the size of a bedroom, for example. In the Midtown homes, the Deckers left an extra three feet of space in those bedrooms. It’s the same size of the rooms they built for their own children, Evan and Avery.
You’ll rarely, if ever, see Roy and Anne photographed in front of their finished projects. They’re the vehicles for the design, but not the focus. After all, Anne says, “we’re in an art form that is experienced over fifty years [or more].” The impetus for design shouldn’t be fleeting ego or mere aesthetic, but the needs of people, now and in the future.
Mississippians, by and large, are used to doing with a little less (education, opportunity, nutrition, representation, infrastructure and on and on). But that doesn’t preclude good design. “The grace of a plan is important for everybody,” says Roy. “And it doesn’t have to be big.”
The buildings Roy and Anne design, including their own Fondren home, aren’t any more expensive than other buildings around town. They just approach them with creativity and a dogged belief that, if you care enough, you’ll find a better way. They aren’t evangelists for one way of doing things, by any stretch. But they most definitely practice what they preach.