Soundbox: Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheater

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By Craig Hodgetts, FAIA
Founding principal and creative director, Hodgetts+Fung Architects

One outcome of a project, at least to these architects, with an established taste for the avant-garde in all things, is the embrace of an unfamiliar culture. In the case of the Ascend Amphitheater, that culture was an immersion in country-western style: the boots, the bourbon, the hats and honky-tonk. It came by way of an invitation to be considered as the design architects for a new amphitheater in Nashville, and ended, less than two years later, watching the Counting Crows soak up the spotlights and drown out the traffic on a balmy August evening.

But getting there was a testimonial to southern hospitality, and an approach to design that was equal parts homespun good-ol’-boy-wink-and-a-nod collaboration, canny behind-the-scenes maneuvering, and a just-get-it-done mentality, which we’ve never before encountered.

mcarbone-26Hunter Gee, partner at Smith Gee Studio, drew us into the project with beguiling candor, explaining that a highly regarded landscape architect – Kim Hawkins – had a chance to win the commission for a major park development along the Cumberland River at the foot of Nashville’s main drag, but needed a highly regarded designer for the planned centerpiece of the park: an amphitheater to showcase the town’s pride in the music business.

The brief was a contagious mix of aspirations, political stealth, and opportunism, but one thing stood out: Nashville’s mayor was to be termed out, and he was determined to cut the ribbon on a signature amphitheater before that happened, just 22 months after we were handed the commission. And, he insisted on personally approving the design.

mcarbone-40Our process is marked by intense research and the development of an array of alternatives designed to resonate with that research. Nashville is famous for limestone structures – some of which remain in immaculate condition throughout the downtown area, and is characterized by a number of riveted iron bridges. Its principle construction activity had been the fabrication of iron river barges – it was the sole supplier for many of the rivers east of the Mississippi – leading us to speculate about a prefabricated steel superstructure hauled up out of the river and erected over the stage. But Mayor Karl Dean was not inspired. The amphitheater he envisioned had to do with the music – darn it – and he couldn’t see what that had to do with rusty old bridges and tin boats.

image003Taken aback, we renewed our research into the area we know best: pop culture, searching for a DNA that spoke to the production of music, specifically country music. Well, there were harmonicas and guitars and dulcimers and fiddles (all too hackneyed we judged) and string ties (not architectural) when we came upon a trove of guitar amplifiers. One home-grown brand – Gretsch – had a material palette and a form language that, while not strictly speaking architectural, yet, upon a near forensic examination, seemed to contain DNA that we could extract, purify, and use to build our own design vocabulary.

The result, a pencil thin roof stretching towards the Cumberland River and anchored by a rugged limestone rampart, traces the inclined curve of the Gretsch to enclose a cavernous open stage. Beyond, the skyline offers a view of Nashville’s horned AT&T tower and, in the distance, the county seat – itself a limestone monument to the 19th Century.

The amphitheater, and the immense park within which it was to be sited, was, after all, to be the final chapter in Nashville’s decade-long journey from honky-tonk heaven to civic model, and as such was scrutinized by the citizenry, the city fathers, and most importantly, the mayor. As a legacy project, and as one inextricably entwined with Nashville’s emerging civic identity, it would instantly be the subject of postcards, selfies, celebrations and crude humor, thereby contributing to the essence of what (finally) makes Nashville Nashville.

Check out the opening day video that offers a bird’s eye view of the amphitheater.

Photos by Matthew Carbone

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