The Heart and Soul: Random Thoughts About Market Square

Market Square, Knoxville, August 2017

By David Denton

My profession as an architect and an itchy foot have taken me to many cities around the world.  I always head first to the center of town where I expect to find the public space that defines the heart and soul of the city.  These spaces may go by many names: piazza, plaza, square, zocalo, etc.  But they all have something in common: They are pedestrian oriented places meant to represent the local culture, the meeting place to see and be seen, and a stage for major events in the life of the city.

Some are grand like Tienanmen Square or Place de la Concorde, designed more for military parades meant to impress.  The most successful I have found are the medium size spaces in medium size cities like Knoxville’s Market Square.  Although many others may surpass in architectural exuberance, I can’t think of many as comfortable as Market Square.

Firstly, it’s a very appropriate size, the right size for Knoxville.  It never feels dangerously empty or crushingly crowded.  It seems to be the right size for most events.  The buildings are tall enough to visually define the space and low enough to assure plenty of light.  Most of the buildings were built around the same time in the late 1800’s, creating a consistency to the architectural style with the use of brick tying it all together visually.

The green space in the center is essential to its success, although somewhat diminished as a lawn with the addition of the inexplicable stone walkway through the center. It still provides the canopy of green and that essential ingredient of dappled sunlight filtered through the trees.

So here I sit in a charming café on a balmy summer evening, the setting sun casting an orange glow on the buildings across the square, a nice ringside seat watching the parade of people, always fascinating.  The thing about Market Square is that it is so unashamedly wholesome.  Not in a way that makes it any less sophisticated but there is something about the place that seems to bring out the best in people: Our town. I have had my pocket picked in Market Square but nevertheless the place seems almost innocent, inconceivable that anything untoward might take place here. Even the angriest protest marches seem to mellow out in Market Square.

We have elected in this country to separate ourselves into like-minded communities culturally, politically, economically, and racially. Market Square is one of the few places where differences seem to have less weight as we come together for the common enjoyment of just coming together.

Market Square, Knoxville, January 2017

Endless activities, some of them programmed most just spontaneous. Children gleefully frolicking in the fountain, the strange music of the saw, street musicians hoping for a tip, preachers blasting their fire and brimstone and people smiling at each other for no apparent reason.

The sidewalk cafes on each side provide for an interesting interaction between the diners and the passers-by.  The locals are checking to see who they know, visitors are ascertaining locals and panhandlers are looking for an easy spot.  People watching people is always the most entertaining and the layout of Market Square, like the classic zocalo in Mexico, encourages a circular route, up one side and down the other without feeling conspicuous.

Bringing your own chair to a concert seems to make it much more special. One does wonder who lives in those lofts on the second floor; they must all be deaf by now.  Stores and restaurants come and go.  We’re always checking to see what Alan Sims has to report but rest assured that it will just keep getting better.

Market Square in my opinion is getting close to being a perfect urban space but it has a few areas to be addressed. Three sides of the square are nearly complete, needing minor tweaking, but there is the incompatible north side, the edifice of TVA.  My stepfather was working for TVA when the decision was made to build this complex. He was on the side of pushing for architecture only to lose to those who felt that a public utility should appear as fiscally responsible as possible.  How shortsighted that was.  TVA did not take into consideration its responsibility as a public institution to contribute to the viable future of the downtown and the environment that would make downtown desirable for working and living. It’s not too late!

Market Square is like the living room of the city, a place where we put our best foot forward, welcome our guests and shower them with hospitality.


  1. Larry Griffin says

    Very nice indeed, David! Thanks.

  2. Jean Galyon says

    I agree. Thank you for the warm description of the downtown and Market Square. I think you nailed it.

  3. Diane Davidson says

    Excellent commentary, David! You describe well the place-making characteristics that draw residents and visitors to Market Square as the living room of Knoxville. I agree 100% about the cold and off-putting architecture of the TVA buildings. Thanks for the article.

    • FutureDowntownDevelopment says

      I am not sure that I agree with you. They do seem “cold” but they do provide modernity (albeit dated) in the city. I am somewhat concerned that downtown has become overtaken with bars/restaurants, although I do understand that they were necessary for its revitalization. I would like to see more varied businesses downtown but that may be more a function of the market than personal wishes.

      One could argue that the Knox. Chamber should be more visible on the Gay St. rather than an interior courtyard. I, myself, would like to see more activity on Main St. as it goes rather quiet on evenings and weekends. Something also needs to be done to connect downtown to the other “downtown”, the U. of T. I think the metro area hears the word, “downtown” and thinks of U.T., while downtown politicos/developers only think of the immediate downtown around their offices. Perhaps, U.T. could help out the process by building a bridge from their garage at 11th St. into the World’s Fair Park and provide a more level walking/biking connection into downtown area. As much as like our geography, sometimes we must overcome it.

  4. FutureDowntownDevelopment says

    Agree with all about the Square. I am also wondering about the Old City and how it needs to find a way to stand apart from the Square. There seems to be a movement in the state to allow open containers (alcohol) in certain entertainment districts. Could this work in the Old City? Could they block off the main streets in the Old City and enlarge the street/sidewalk area for holidays and/or weekends and re-open them during the workweek? Just curious if any else has any ideas for that area?

  5. Everything David Denton touches is golden. Here, the pen and the camera.

  6. Well done! (again)

  7. TVA essentially locks in the north side of the square preventing it from bein a U. With TVA constantly shrinking can see a time it will be gone. That would open up the square and altering its communal quality. A loss I would say. Old City is the new Market Square with galleries and some former MS retail. Best news is life is lived large where once it was spiders and cobwebs and broken windows.

  8. Downtown Worker says

    Regarding the inexplicable stone walkway, I always thought it was to cover up a desire path? I don’t mind it at all, I use it quite a bit when the square gets crowded.

  9. Well that was so well written and thought out. It’s all so true.

  10. As usual, you’ve garnered our imaginations with the sharing of yours David. Thank you! You add to the character of Knoxvile making it a nice place to live and a comfortable place to share our own ideas.

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