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Music and Motion Inspire Nashville Convention Center

Rendering of the Nashville Music City Center which displays an enormous roof structure
Although the enormous roof structure of the Nashville Music City Center is 5 ft thick, its soffit is lined with wood, helping the cantilevers seem thinner. Aerial Innovations of TN, Inc.

The design of Nashville’s Music City Center reflects the city’s musical heritage as well as its natural surroundings.

June 4, 2013—For almost a decade, city leaders in Nashville, Tennessee, tried to figure out what to do with their convention center. The building was old. It was landlocked. It was outdated. There was, as Marty Dickens, the chairman of the Nashville Convention Center Authority, puts it, “nowhere to go with it.” So several years ago a committee comprising business leaders, community activists, and citizens began to investigate the options; a 2006 report recommended a new center, one big enough to handle three-fourths of the nation’s trade show business. The project won the support of Karl Dean, who was elected mayor in 2007, and the Metropolitan Council—the legislative body for Nashville and Davidson County—approved the project in 2010. Construction began that year.

The new convention center, known as the Music City Center, opens this week. It sits at the edge of the city’s up-and-coming South of Broadway district on a 16-acre site across from Bridgestone Arena and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The 1.2 million sq ft building has more than 350,000 sq ft of exhibit space, a 57,000 sq ft grand ballroom, 60 meeting rooms, and 1,800 parking spaces. The $585-million project was paid for entirely with motel and hotel taxes.

But city leaders were adamant that the Music City Center could not look like most convention centers—large, lifeless boxes that tend to turn their backs on the city districts around them. Among large institutional structures in cities, convention centers typically garner little civic admiration. 

 Rendering of the Nashville Music City Center, displaying a glass facade which adds visual appeal

 The glass facade of the Nashville Music City Center adds visual
appeal to a typically staid structure type, and also helps
conventioneers orient themselves within the city. Aerial Innovations
of TN, Inc.

“I think the mayor was saying ‘I want something that’s distinctly Nashville,’” says Seab A. Tuck III, FAIA, a principal of Tuck Hinton Architects, the Nashville-based architecture firm that codesigned the center. As he understands it, the mayor was saying, “ ‘I don’t know what that is, but I want something that doesn’t look like all the other ones out there.’ ”

Designing a better and more colorful convention center began with attempting to improve the connection between convention visitors and the city. “These are hospitality buildings,” says Robert J. Svedberg, AIA, a principal with Atlanta-based tvsdesign, the other designer on the project. “When somebody comes to Nashville, they want to understand Nashville better through the building.”

That meant considering both the city’s geographic heritage, which includes the rolling hills of middle Tennessee, and its musical culture. So tvsdesign and Tuck Hinton came up with a design that was about motion. The facade is animated with large expanses of glass. It is studded with columns that create depth and topped by a dramatic, undulating roof that alludes to the hills that surround the city.  

Patterns of small vertical windows across parts of the facade suggest the motion of a player piano roll. And the building’s rooftop ballroom is shaped like a guitar box—a form that extends down through the east side of the building. The designers say the ballroom space, which is distinguished on the interior by wood finishes, is meant to give visitors the feeling of being inside a guitar or a fine violin (think Stradivarius).

The exterior columns along the building’s perimeter echo the columned porches of Nashville homes. Five colors of aluminum panels around the facade create a mottling effect that emulates wood, says Tuck, and although the enormous roof structure is 5 ft thick, its soffit is lined with wood, which makes the overhangs seem very thin, as if they were sheets of music drifting down to rest atop the building.

 Aerial view rendering of wavy roof convention center

 The wavy roof of the convention center is meant to reflect the
rolling hills of central Tennessee. The banquet hall, left, is shaped
like the body of a guitar, right up through its roof structure. 
Aerial Innovations of TN, Inc.

“The giant wave roof kind of evolved in a way that speaks both to where Nashville is in the world and what it means to the world,” Svedberg adds.

Designers attempted to make the building function well for people, both inside and out. Its north facade, which faces downtown, is all glass. The principal interior concourse parallels that wall, so conventioneers always have a view of the city as they move through the giant building. From the eastern edge of the building, passersby can even peer into the exhibit halls (vendors, of course, can deploy scrims if they want more privacy). And the south side of the Music City Center places administrative offices at ground level and hides a large (32-truck) loading dock above and behind them, so that the docks are invisible from the street. The goal was to have no side of the building appear to be relegated to back-of-house functions.  

The undulating roof of the exhibit hall uses a unique catenary arch system designed by the Nashville engineering firm Ross Bryan Associates. The system features curved top and bottom chords that support the roof. The bottom chords, says Don Yarbrough, P.E., S.E., M.ASCE, the president of Ross Bryan, are basically tension bars that appear to curve across the 240 ft span of each portion of the exhibit hall. In fact, the bottom chord comprises several straight segments 30 ft long that rotate slightly by virtue of a clevis at their connections to the king posts at the bottom of each arch, creating the effect of a curve.

“There are probably 22 different top chord geometries that we’re following . . . with varied radiuses of the top chord so we could create the effect of these hills,” says Yarbrough. “The geometry was pretty complex, but the concept was relatively simple.”

The roof contains 33 arches, and from north to south the radii of curvature decrease, making the curvature more pronounced. At the north end the depth of the arch is around 14 to 15 ft, whereas at the south end it’s twice that. Also at the southern end, clerestory windows let in diffused light. Svedberg notes that from the floor of the exhibit hall, visitors have a sense of vastness as they look upward. The ceiling is painted white, and there are only a dozen or so columns used throughout the entire 350,000 sq ft space.

 Rendering of the exterior columns around the perimeter of the Nashville Music City Center

 The exterior columns around the perimeter of the Nashville Music
City Center echo the columned porches of Nashville homes. 
Aerial Innovations of TN, Inc.

Svedberg notes that the catenary roof allows designers to use significantly less material than is the case in a more traditional roof structure. “It is the most open and spectacular room in the industry,” he says.

But crafting the soaring roof was only one challenge. Engineers also had to fashion a tunnel underneath a portion of the site that services underground loading docks for the nearby Bridgestone Arena. The engineers devised a complex tunnel with an entrance beneath the building at the south; the tunnel then takes a hard right turn, dives under Sixth Avenue—a surface road that bisects the convention center, the exhibit halls above it—and then turns left before connecting with the existing entrance to the arena. Despite the two 90-degree turns, the tunnel is wide enough for two trucks to pass. Underneath is a loading dock for the convention center, as well as a curved ramp that takes trucks up a 10 percent grade to the main exhibit hall’s truck dock.

The Bridgestone Arena had to remain accessible during construction, so the entrance to what remained of the existing tunnel, at the edge of the property, had to be rerouted several times.

Engineers also had to contend with a major electrical system that runs beneath Sixth Avenue and supplies power to essentially all of downtown Nashville. The system extends through a concrete-encased conduit that carries 30 or so 6 in. diameter polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes. Yarbrough says the builders had to construct the tunnel beneath this conduit. So crews predrilled and blasted the rock beneath the street but didn’t remove it. They then built a 10 ft deep concrete beam beneath the conduit on top of the shot rock. With the beam in place, helping to protect the conduit, Yarbrough explains, the shot rock could be excavated.

Svedberg points out that the Music City Center goes beyond “trite sustainability.” Roughly two-thirds of the roof, approximately 200,000 sq ft, is vegetated, and the other third, within the “guitar,” supports a 250-panel solar array. Storm water is captured in a giant cistern and used for toilets and irrigation, and the building’s heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system has an economizer mode that allows air from outside to be filtered and run through the entire building without using the central plant.

While the fate of the old convention center has yet to be determined, Dickens calls the Music City Center a transformative project for Nashville. An 800-room hotel is under construction nearby, and “every developer in the U.S. is looking for sites in the South of Broadway neighborhood,” he says. Dickens says average convention attendance at the old convention center was about 1,500; already the new center is seeing as many as 6,660 per event, and there are conventions booked to 2026.

Yarbrough’s firm has collaborated with tvsdesign on other convention centers, including structures in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. He says he’s been working on the Music City Center so long it’s become part of his life. But despite his considerable experience, engineering convention centers doesn’t get any easier. “They all get harder,” he says. “You think you have the problem solved, but it just continues to evolve. The program you’re trying to meet is much more detailed and involved than it was thirty years ago. There’s great competition between these cities for these centers.”



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