In 2008, when Thomas K. Davis took over the Nashville Urban Design Studio in the College of Architecture and Design, he had a clear vision in mind: his students would design projects that could become real-world structures across Nashville and other parts of Middle Tennessee.
“Our students would be the generators of ideas and possibilities for other architects and urban developers,” said Davis, longtime professor in the School of Architecture. “Their projects would get the momentum going for the professional work that comes afterward.”
That’s been precisely the case for hundreds of students who have worked on more than 30 projects since then. Davis’s students have proposed ideas for a potential Amazon headquarters, Clarksville’s Downtown Commons, the Neuhoff Slaughterhouse in Nashville’s Germantown neighborhood, and an affordable housing community for teachers working in Metro Nashville’s public schools.
Davis selects the projects with input from the Nashville Civic Design Center (NCDC), a nonprofit organization that collaborates with local architects, residents, and urban planners to improve Nashville’s built environment. The center has strong links to the college. In 2000, the college partnered with Vanderbilt University, the city and others to create the center. Retired professor Mark Schimmenti served as its first director, and Davis succeeded him from 2004 to 2008.
“Students help us to bring an imaginative approach to community design,” said NCDC CEO Gary Gaston, a 1999 UT alumnus and assistant professor of practice in the college. “Their work generates intense interest from engaged citizens and the design and development communities.”
Getting Creative in Clarksville
In the 2012 summer studio, students addressed a lack of creative space in downtown Clarksville, Tennessee. They consulted with area architects, studied urban design plans devised by Davis, and gathered input from residents. Then they got to work.
Their designs came to life in 2018 with the opening of the Downtown Commons, designed and built by the father-son team of Lane and Matt Lyle, both UT architecture alums. Though the end result looked different than the students’ designs, their work helped propel the project forward. This year, Money.com named Clarksville the best place to live in the United States, citing the Commons in its article.
“At the time, it was just a studio project,” said Tyrone Bunyon Jr., who participated in the 2012 studio. “But everyone in the class pulled their weight to do the research and come up with a plan that could one day happen.”
As part of the process, students presented their work before then mayor Kim McMillan and other stakeholders, from local politicians to designers and everyday citizens.
“Architects are creative, idea-oriented people,” said Bunyon, who is now an associate architect and project coordinator with Goodwyn, Mills, and Cawood in Nashville. “But how do you communicate effectively to a librarian, an academic, a mayor—someone who may not understand the jargon of construction documents? The studio taught me to be comfortable sharing my vision in any room with city leaders or everyday citizens.”
Urban Housing for Teachers
More recently, 12 students have been developing designs for Woodycrest Teacher’s Village, an affordable housing community for teachers in development in metro Nashville.
Throughout the 2019 summer studio, students met with the developer of the site, an 11-acre city-owned school bus storage and maintenance facility on Tech Hill. Davis and the developer guided the students as they created designs that included 450 livable units, terraces, amphitheaters, community kitchens, and small parks.
“Getting to have that real relationship with a developer and to know as an architect what is expected of you was the highlight of the studio for me,” said Breanna Williams, a fifth-year architecture student from Rutledge, Tennessee.
Williams’s and her classmates’ final designs will be presented in Philadelphia this month at the annual meeting of the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities.
“That is one of the great benefits of these studios,” Davis said. “They are service-learning courses. Our students are solving the needs of different communities.”
Aside from the experience itself, some students find that the urban studio leads to internship and job offers and helps them build professional networks they can use after graduation. At the end of each studio semester, the NCDC packages the students’ designs and Davis’s accompanying narrative into an urban design research report for the Greater Nashville Regional Council and other public sector agencies.
For Williams, there’s satisfaction in seeing her ideas built into a real structure for others to experience and enjoy for years to come.
“It’s inspiring to think that what I did may serve a purpose outside of the classroom.”
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