A Renaissance Plan 

Once upon a time, three brothers from South Pittsburgh, Tenn., went to medical school. Armed with their M.D.s, they established practices in Dickson and built Goodlark Hospital. HCA ultimately bought the hospital, and the brothers set up The Jackson Foundation to plow the proceeds back into the community. The result is the 100,000-square-foot, $17 million Renaissance Center.

The Center stands out as a piece of Tomorrowland in the commercial wilderness of today that is Hwy. 46 near Dickson. Exiting from I-40, I pass double-wide and car sale lots vying for attention with U-Haul rentals and purveyors of lawn deer. Suddenly, a bronze aluminum ball thrusts into view on my right. The ball bulges from a building of exposed concrete and angled aluminum panels whose ribbon windows emphasize the sleek horizontal lines of the facade. The sloping roofs that float over blue, corrugated metal inserts suggest a bird about to take flight. Fortunately, no black asphalt deadens the visual impact of the Center—the designers have tucked the parking out back.

Because they rose from lean beginnings, the Jackson brothers understood the value of education. They wanted their center to provide affordable learning in the arts, science, and technology to children and adults in the region. Foundation president Doug Jackson, the son of Dr. ”Jimmy“ Jackson, says the programs listed in a 47-page guide are intended ”to open up educational opportunity by providing training as advanced as any in the world.“ The architecture expresses this futuristic ambition.

A transparent rotunda forms the center’s core, topped by a dome with an angled oculus that sheds shifting ellipses of light onto the dome’s metal interior. The ever-changing images projected from slimline video screens along the walls emphasize the dynamic nature of the space.

Branching off from this circular hinge are two-story wings sheathed in ash and stainless steel, with flooring in fluid patterns of terrazzo. The north wing is devoted to art and music studios as well as the Virtually Unlimited Bookstore, which is edged by a jazzy, glass zipper wall. The tables of the Cyber Cafe come equipped with touch-screen computers. I press my finger to the surface, and Leonardo da Vinci magically appears.

To the east is the technology wing—rooms filled with banks of computers and scores of intent children. The mass communication equipment blinks and whirs like the control panel in a spaceship. Project architect Gary Everton tells me that the building contains 20 miles of telephone/data cable and 10 miles of video cable. ”This place is wired.“

The state-of-the-art performance theater features adjustable acoustic panels to shift from the spoken word to live music. Inside the aluminum ball, the Cybersphere Theater’s laser projector shows everything from the stars in the heavens to laser productions choreographed to the music of Pink Floyd. The steps down to the science theater in the basement are lit by glowing acrylic rods in jewel colors that suggest I’m making my own Journey to the Center of the Earth.

The most disappointing area of the center is the Renaissance Fine Arts Gallery. On my visit, the paintings on display were landscapes in the commercial-impressionist style of Thomas Kincaid. This backward glance into mediocrity is starkly out of sync with the contemporary architectural perspective.

Nashvillians think of Dickson as a trip into a kinder, gentler small-town past. The Renaissance Center is a look into the future. Make the trip.

Owner: The Jackson Foundation, Dickson

Architect: Everton Oglesby Askew, Nashville

Landscape Architect: Hawkins Partners, Nashville

Audio/Visual/Computer Systems: Media Resource Group, Old Hickory

Lighting: Light Source, Fort Mill, S.C.

Sound Systems: Lee Sound Design, Atlanta

Acoustical: Kirkegaard and Associates, Downers Grove, Ill.

Planetarium: Kevin Scott, Atlanta

Dome Exterior: Starnet International, Longwood, Fla.

Interior Design: Anderson Design Studio, Nashville

Construction Manager: The Parent Company

Photographs: Everton Oglesby Askew and Tom Gatlin

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