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Undulating form meets staggering scale in the Music City Center, Nashville's bold coming-out invitation to the world

Making Waves

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"The shock of the new" is the title critic Robert Hughes gave to the TV series and book he did about the provocative impact of modern art, particularly during the early years of the 20th century. The term could apply equally well, however, to the visual impact of the Music City Center on the eyeballs of 21st century Nashvillians.

The MCC really pushes the design envelope. Indeed, the architects — TVS Design of Atlanta, and locals Tuck Hinton Architects and Moody, Nolan Inc. — not only push, but also pull, curve and wave the building's form in ways startlingly new to the city. Even if the building were considerably smaller — say, a one-block footprint rather than three — the effect would be dramatic. The massive size, however, inflates drama to very high theater. It's impossible to make architecture this immense stand meekly in the background. So the designers chose to boldly occupy the foreground.

Convention center design has evolved considerably since 1987, when Nashville welcomed its first specimen — an insipid box that never met a street it liked. But as late as 2006, New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger described the building type with a dismissive analogy. "In terms of architectural beauty, the convention center ranks somewhere close to the aircraft hangar, and for some of the same reasons: both must provide acres of space for a continually shifting configuration of objects, and cater to a temporary crowd of people whose minds are on other things," Goldberger writes. "Putting one of these megaliths into the heart of the city is like trying to dock the Queen Mary in the local marina."

Well, our 16-acre Queen Mary is now moored in SoBro. And while it looks nothing like an aircraft hangar, you could park a lot of flying machines in the MCC's 8-acre exhibit hall, which is "larger than a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier" (italics added), according to the stats sheet.

Aside from humongous proportions, however, what has $585 million bought?

Quite a lot, actually. The MCC is a dynamic building of real architectural inventiveness with literally stunning interior spaces.

Anyone who's been paying attention already knows that the hills of the Highland Rim inspired the rolling profile of the roof. Fewer may have heard that Nashville's status as Music City led to the influence of musical instruments on form and materials.

"We explored how to immerse the visitor inside an instrument," says Kevin Gordon of TVS, who shared design duties with Seab Tuck of Tuck Hinton. "We bought some cheap instruments — mandolin, guitar — and sliced them open to study what it would feel like to literally occupy such space. The fluidity of the shapes and forms" led to the complex curves — mottled aluminum on the exterior, wood on the interior — that give the structure such dynamism. Gordon also explains that Middle Tennessee's limestone outcroppings suggested "the stone forms that bend out from the building."

It's unnecessary, however — even a little distracting — to invoke such literal symbolism for the MCC. It's questionable whether the average citizen would make these connections unaided. Sometimes workers on the project didn't. For example, Gordon says the bent curve projection on the Demonbreun façade that contains the primary entrance lobby was intended to suggest "the shell of an instrument, say, a mandolin." The workers saw instead a whale belly and named it "Shamu."

What determines the success or failure of architecture is not metaphor, but form and its effect on the human perceiver. The architects of the MCC have used form with an architectural bravura that dispels all thoughts of bland functionality. This is a building of great plasticity — planes that curve, advance and recede with apparent unpredictability — and structural audacity. The boldest gesture of all is the undulating roof, which unifies the composition.

The building's organization exploits the 65-foot east/west grade shift of the site, with parking for 1,800 cars within the rise of ground and the great expanse of the exhibit hall on top. The meeting rooms and two ballrooms are stacked on the Fifth Avenue end.

"This creates two engines of opportunity," Gordon explains. "For example, you could have an RV show in the hall and a series of meetings and banquets for the AMA simultaneously." Motion corridors wrap the function spaces, enabling great expanses of glass for natural lighting and lucidity from the street — the exact opposite of Nashville's old convention center.

According to Seab Tuck, the architects realized early on that all five sides had to be designed with the care usually devoted to a primary façade. No exterior wall could be treated perfunctorily because "each faces a prominent street. And the roof will be visible from the high rises," Tuck explains.

For my money, Fifth Avenue presents the best face of the MCC, perhaps because it has a street wall to play against. The Omni Hotel is a clean, simple volume, and the addition to the Country Music Hall of Fame is equally planar. This linearity contrasts with the complex geometries of the MCC — in particular, the rust aluminum curve, with its irregular glazing — accentuating the latter's rhythmic sensuality. The plaza out front, according to Gordon, was expressly designed for public functions. The street itself, with a fine degree of detailing courtesy of Hawkins Partners, has the potential to floor one of Nashville's most urbane blocks.

Tuck describes the Demonbreun Street façade, which contains the main entrance, as the "front porch" of the MCC. The porch shelters a series of terraces defined by low crab orchard stone walls. The most public — called Songwriters Square because its paving celebrates Nashville's greatest — lies on the corner formed with Fifth Avenue. Steps are designed to serve as informal seating when music is programmed in the square.

The horizontal proportions of the square are comfortable, almost cozy. But the extreme verticality of the space, with columns 150 feet at their tallest, and the enormity of the overhanging roof are intimidating — even a bit menacing. For Gordon, this effect is due to the undeveloped state of the rest of Demonbreun.

"Give it some time," he says. "It needs some context to grow up around it."

What the MCC has right now, particularly along Demonbreun, is great transparency.

This visual permeability is crucial to making a convention center "more than a box with docks," says Andrew McLean, the TVS principal for the MCC. "You lay a glass corridor along the street, and it activates the façade, makes it seem more friendly." Conventioneers can see out to the city, and the citizens can see in.

What's inside is a series of spaces carefully shaped and detailed with wood trim and lighting to create informal, even intimate areas — a clever way to evade the long hall trudge familiar to habitual conventioneers. The skylights along the main concourse are a textbook-worthy illustration of how to manipulate light to create a vista. The wood-ribbed grand ballroom on the top level is luxurious without being overwrought. The 100-plus artworks in the MCC collection, elicited by a national call to artists as well as those regionally acquired, are of a scale and quality appropriate to a building of this magnitude.

The art of the exhibit hall lies in its engineering. Faced with the need to hold up an undulating roof while spanning a 980-by-355-foot "room" — picture an indoor space almost 200 feet longer than the Hindenburg, and two-and-a-half times as wide — Nashville's Ross Bryan Associates devised a system of bowstring trusses of varying geometries that were affordable yet look elegant.

Nashville has historically been devoted to architecture of the classical tradition, whose rectilinearity expresses the values of rationality and stability, permanence and order. This is the architectural language used by the likes of Washington and Jefferson, or in Nashville by William Strickland, to give weight, credibility to a society in formation.

The MCC, on the other hand, is all about motion. The structure, through its aversion to the flat surface, embodies the rhetoric of a city proud of its present "it" status. As architecture that alters the cityscape and demands a response — from passers-by, from visiting bigwigs, from anyone seeking to develop in its impact zone — it's an aggressive stride into the future, with no looking back. Whether that is a statement of prophecy, or mere chutzpah, will be written in time.


Make the Center Hold

How the city can get more value from its shiny new toy

Whether Music City Center revenues will cover its $585 million cost, or even whether the convention industry in general is a sustainable economic model, is something that won't be known for years. It will also take years to determine whether the MCC will generate other new development, particularly needed to the north and south of the center on Demonbreun and the newly extended Korean Veterans Boulevard.

In the meantime, Mayor Karl Dean and his minions should take steps to ensure that the MCC lives up to the promise found on its website: "The new convention center will not just host visitors, but serve as a central meeting point for Nashville's residents." That implies not just a few open houses, but the creation of occasions for "meeting."

A few suggestions:

• Program public walks into the exhibit hall — four circuits is about two miles — for selected hours when the space isn't occupied by trade shows. And the escalators, when not running, make an excellent substitute for Stairmaster, as I discovered during my tour.

• Activate the outdoor street-level spaces. The soaring "porch" on Demonbreun, with its northern exposure, would be a cool spot on a summer's day. (Well, cooler, anyway.) Listening to music on the steps by Songwriters Square would be nice.

• There's no reason to be even this organized. Just set out stacks of movable chairs — à la New York's Bryant Park — and invite the food trucks.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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