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.
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.