Reappearing Act

In Nashville, TN, a 12-year-old bridge takes on the visual power of a landmark

In Nashville, TN, a 12-year-old bridge takes on the visual power of a landmark
In Nashville, TN, a 12-year-old bridge takes on the visual power of a landmark

By Leonora Desar

At night, the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge catches your eye in Nashville. The cool, silver-white arch curves over the Cumberland River, reflected in the water. There, the structure appears to double, reminding you of a spectral twin. On another night—Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, the Fourth of July—the bridge comes to life, animated by color and bold blocks of light.

“Before, you could hardly even see that there was a bridge there at night,” says Nancy Lok, senior associate with Domingo Gonzalez Associates (DGA) in New York City and lead designer on the project. Prior to the redesign, the bridge, which spans 1,660 ft, was lit mostly with high-pressure sodium street lighting. In the dark, it seemed to vanish.

To make the bridge not only visible but visually powerful, Lok and her team specified linear RGB fixtures to illuminate the arch. They knew they were dealing with a tough schedule—11 months from design to construction to completion—not to mention a strict budget, and were relieved to find a manufacturer who offered favorable pricing. There was only one problem, which the team discovered when they were at the halfway point in the project. “What [the manufacturer] failed to mention was that their facility completely shuts down not for a day or a week, but for a month during Chinese New Year,” says Domingo Gonzalez, principal in charge at DGA. “That was happening at the moment that we needed to see delivery, or at least knowing that the fixtures were being manufactured.”

NATURAL BEAUTY

Illuminated by warm white linear LEDs, the red deck girder draws your eye to the bridge’s sweeping silhouette.
Illuminated by warm white linear LEDs, the red deck girder draws your eye to the bridge’s sweeping silhouette.

The team ended up using linear RGB fixtures from Winona, who could manufacture the fixtures quickly and whose price was right. The RGB-mixed 4000K color temperature of the fixtures in normal mode accentuates the arch’s steel, its light gray color. A wireless controlled remotely accessible system helped save on wiring and conduit costs, allowing the fixtures’ programming to be adjusted off-site. During the Paris attacks, the colors were changed to correspond to the French flag, and they can also be coordinated to pay homage to local sporting teams, such as the Tennessee Titans. But cool white, rather than color, is the bridge’s mainstay. “If we started to make it a different color every day, it almost loses meaning,” Gonzalez says. “Being able to celebrate the bridge in its natural state seemed very logical to us.”

The fixtures are mounted to struts, which have a series of slots for mounting flexibility. “They’re like an erector set,” says Phat Quach, designer with DGA. “You can almost use them like LEGO pieces and put them together.”

The same fixtures, but with different LED modules, highlight the bridge’s striking red deck girder. After conducting mock-ups, warm white 3000K was selected to bring out the girder’s eye-catching tone. Different color effects on the girder weren’t successful, with blues and cooler tones turning brown against the girder’s red. “We decided to just stick with one color,” Quach says. “It makes it look more vibrant.”

The designers also specified shielding for the fixtures, preventing glare. “We want people to see and experience the light without being caught in the crosshairs of the light source,” Gonzalez says. “It took careful study and planning to make sure that the light sources were well-crafted and integrated into the fabric of the bridge itself.” To prevent the equipment from being visible, the team had the struts and shielding painted red to match the girder. “We wanted the fixtures to become part of the bridge and not be an appendage,” Gonzalez says.

SEEING DOUBLE

A floodlight illuminates the arch’s underside. An accent fixture lights the cable.
A floodlight illuminates the arch’s underside. An accent fixture lights the cable.

Under the bridge, land-based floodlights (Northstar Lighting) create the mirror effect—the arch of the bridge doubles in the water, like two ropes in a game of double-dutch. The team chose the fixtures for their performance and shielding, as well as their distribution of light. “We had to provide narrow distribution to get more punch toward the center,” Quach says. “It creates a more even floodlit effect than just using one distribution throughout.” The fixtures are pole-mounted and elevated from the ground to prevent vandalism.

In spite of the hurdle they faced with the original manufacturer, the designers made their 11-month deadline. “Like every other project around here, it was five percent inspiration and 95 percent of everything else, including desperation,” Gonzalez says. An efficient contractor (Stansell Electric) certainly helped, not to mention open tion. “We created very clear construction documents for the contractor to use,” Gonzalez says. “That way we didn’t receive any serious requests for information.”

The result? A 2016 IES Illumination Award of Merit and a portal to the city. “Before the bridge was named the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge, it was called the Gateway Bridge,” Gonzalez says. “Now it is reclaiming its right to its other name. It’s truly become the Gateway.”