Mass timber ‘Sunset Canopy’ takes center stage in Tennessee park

by arslan_ahmed | September 12, 2023 10:43 am

At the heart of the recently transformed Tom Lee Park in downtown Memphis’s riverfront, lays the defining feature of a mass timber structure, called “Sunset Canopy”, which is a shaded area over an artist-painted basketball court and a public deck, providing a hub for a multitude of activities shielded from the Sun.

Memphis River Parks Partnership, the architect Studio Gang, and landscape designer SCAPE collaborated on the 12.5-ha (31-acre) public space set between the Mississippi River and downtown Memphis.

The park’s centerpiece, the Sunset Canopy, is a 1,486 m2 (16,000 sf) timber structure supported by six bundled steel columns. Crafted from environmentally friendly glued laminated timber (GLT), it offers shelter from the elements, serving as a hub for various public activities, from basketball and yoga, to concerts and dance lessons. The design pays homage to the area’s industrial heritage along the riverfront.

Honoring local hero Tom Lee, who saved 32 lives in a 1925 steamship disaster, the park aims to promote economic equity in Memphis by providing accessible amenities for the community. Situated near underserved neighborhoods, including the region’s most economically disadvantaged zip code, the park plays a vital role in revitalizing the area.

The park is divided into four zones: Civic Gateway, Active Core, Community Batture, and Habitat Terraces. These zones, inspired by the Mississippi River, offer spaces for civic activities, recreation, and contemplation. Native plants and trees provide a habitat for migrating birds and pollinators along the Mississippi Flyway Corridor.

Adding to the park’s appeal, a river-themed playground by the playground designer, Monstrum, and various landscape features create destinations for recreation, outdoor education, dining, performances, and more, all framed by the backdrop of the Mississippi River.

Tom Lee Park also features two new public art installations: “A Monument to Listening” by Theaster Gates and a vibrant, geometrically patterned basketball court by New York City-based artist James Little, a Memphis native, located beneath the Sunset Canopy.

Community engagement has been at the forefront of the park’s development, ensuring its programming aligns with the desires of Memphians from diverse backgrounds.

“Tom Lee Park’s design draws inspiration from the dynamic flow patterns of the Mississippi and the goal of revitalizing the river corridor,” says Jeanne Gang, founding principal and partner of Studio Gang.

Kate Orff, founding principal of SCAPE, highlighted the ecological restoration undertaken in the park, stating, “We’ve rehabilitated the soil to support native plantings and introduced over 1,000 trees where there were previously less than 50.”

In summary, Tom Lee Park is a transformative public space in downtown Memphis, designed to promote equity, community engagement, and ecological sustainability along the Mississippi River. The Sunset Canopy, along with various amenities and art installations, serves as a focal point for diverse activities, creating a vibrant hub for Memphians to relax, exercise, play, and connect with their riverfront.

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