BY BRIAN LIBBY
On the eve of the Oregon Ducks' all time biggest sporting moment from more than 115 years of athletic competition, the BCS national championship football game, yesterday I was part of a gaggle of reporters, bloggers and radio deejays invited on a tour of the all but complete Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene.
The LEED Gold-rated arena, a new home for coach Dana Altman's basketball team and replacement for the venerable MacArthur Court, acts as a new front door for the university, literally oriented toward a new freeway exit that will deposit drivers beside its 1776 Franklin Boulevard address.
Although one thinks of this as a TVA Architects project, there are actually quite a few different architecture firms involved. Ellerbe Becket, the Kansas City-based sports facility specialist, designed the interior arena itself: the basketball court and the surrounding seats. TVA Architects designed building around the arena proper, as I understand it. But then there was another firm, the acclaimed sustainability-oriented, Chicago-based Perkins + Will, that designed the three different private clubs. A lot of cooks were working on this broth, but all with respective talents.
Given that MacArthur Court is such an historic, beloved presence (it was the oldest basketball arena in America as of the closure of the original Boston Garden), it's natural for fans to compare Matt Court (as Knight Arena is nicknamed) and Mac Court.
The architects did a fabulous job of recreating the intimacy of Mac Court at Knight Arena. At the new place, like the old one, seats are placed right up against the hardwood - so much so that Knight Arena couldn't host a hockey game. In a surprisingly democratic architectural move given the norm in stadium and arena building, Knight Arena has no skyboxes. Think about that: the University is giving up the opportunity to reap millions in sky box revenue in order to preserve the integrity of sports attendance as a communal event where every fan is equal.
Also to Phil Knight's credit, the architects reported that on his first tour of the space, the Nike co-founder asked to be taken to the worst seat in the arena to make sure it was still good. When Autzen Stadium was expanded nine years ago, I heard a similar story about Knight.
Founders Club inside Knight Arena (photo by David Piper, Addicted to Quack)
That said, this egalitarian spirit does not extend to the luxurious spaces reserved for donors. Here segregation by income and donation level is the game plan. There is the MacArthur Club for one level of donors, the Founders Club for higher-level donors, and private suites built for Phil Knight and Pat Kilkenny, respectively. It must feel strange to have given, say, $10,000 to the Oregon Athletic Department, invited to the MacArthur Club for a game, and then watch as the higher rollers go next door where the granite and leather finishes are nicer, and where you, the generous Oregon donor, is not allowed. For all the wonderful democratic, all-for-one attitude in the arena, the back of the house is just the opposite: Your Mercedes could be scoffed at by the Rolls Royce or the Gulfstream.
Luckily the building is admirable when it comes to another kind of value: sustainability. Despite the aforementioned LEED rating, Knight Arena is projected to use about 30 percent less energy than a building constructed to code. (Hoffman Construction is the general contractor.)
The concourse surrounding the arena is a sumptuous space teeming with natural light from the glassy exterior facade. Here one also notices the rich, white oak paneling that clads the arena bowl. One can also see the wood of the curving bowl from outside the building, which recalls the gorgeous, luminous transparency of Memorial Coliseum.
Another great move with respect to transparency is the fact that as one crosses the threshold Knight Arena from any of its multiple entrances, it's possible to see into the seating bowl through its entrances in the concourse. In fact, the massive Jumbotron-style scoreboard sits at more or less eye level with the street (the arena is sunken into the ground), so you could actually get a sense of what's happening inside the very moment you step into the building.
There is, as you can see in the accompanying photos, a substantial amount of glass along the perimeter of the building, especially the long northern facade facing Franklin Boulevard and the nearby all-glass Jaqua Center. That really benefits the concourse, which practically doesn't even need artificial light during the daytime. What's more, the glassiness of the facade allows one to feel a connection with the university. From the upper concourse at the top of the seating bowl, you can look out at Hayward Field, the UO campus and even Autzen Stadium across the Willamette River. At ground level, the east facade looks directly out onto the campus dorms.
It's because the transparency is such a success in the concourse, however, that I wish there was more natural light allowed into the arena itself. A few years ago I wrote an Architecture Week article about a new arena at the University of Virginia. Tritely neo-classical in style, seeking to meld with UVA's magnificent Thomas Jefferson-designed campus, it would not hold a candle to Matthew Knight Arena in overall architecture. Yet that arena brought a great deal of natural light onto the basketball court itself. Something similar could be said about recent football stadiums like Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the Indianapolis Colts. Its form is hideous, like some kind of overgrown barn. But the stadium's end zones feature giant walls of glass.
Natural light isn't just more pleasant for spectators. The quality of natural light and our ability to perceive in it can never be fully replicated by artificial light. In other words, athletes will actually perform better in natural light, just as studies have shown students to achieve higher average test scores in naturally lit classrooms and workers to be more productive when they're in a space with windows.
On the outside, the glass facades help mitigate another formal difficulty with the building. Because there is an attached building with practice courts on one side, and the Alumni Center abutting the arena on the other, the complex has a monolithic quality. The arena itself would have seemed large, but now the whole development seems huge.
And while the aluminum cladding on the outside has an understated elegance, it's also, at least to my eyes, rather dark and drab for such a rainy climate. (This is the same reaction I had to the cladding on the TVA-designed John Ross Condominiums in Portland's South Waterfront.) Given that TVA was also the architect of the Nike World Campus in Beaverton, I found myself wondering if a similarly white facade would have made the building feel lighter.
The interior concourse, besides benefitting from the glass facades and the connections it brings to the outside, also shows off the attention to detail on Matthew Knight Arena. Take a look upward at the building's massively high ceilings, and you won't find the tangle of mechanical and electrical equipment that have become common to most buildings. One notices the craftsmanship and detail in the white oak wraparound facade as well, and the scrapbook-like murals featuring great moments in Ducks basketball history.
Then there is the court itself, the hardwood. Nike created a special pattern printed onto the wood: a crown of tall forest trees. And just in case one doesn't recognize the imagery, text at center court reads in large script, "DEEP IN THE WOODS". I find the whole patterning affect highly distasteful. Natural wood is one of the beautiful subtle textural details of the game of basketball. The texture of the grain is celebrated in this arena in the white oak wraparound concourse. But then the hardwood itself is covered in a faux printed pattern.
That's right: Nike actually created a pattern of fake wood that covers up the real wood.
Many of my fellow Duck fans seem to be excited about the unique look of the tree-crown imagery. Indeed, there is nothing else like it in any basketball court I've ever seen at the high school, college or professional level. So if you're reading this rant against the tree crowned court and find it simply the equivalent of an old man saying, "These kids today with their hula hoops and their bell-bottom slacks!", then I hear you.
What I will argue more definitively against is the various text covering the court.
In one of Knight Arena's private clubs, there is a photo of the MacArthur Court playing surface with the familiar Oregon 'O' logo at center court and the name "OREGON" in all caps below it. Now, it says, "MATT", in a massive new logo for the arena. One wants to applaud the use of the late Matthew Knight's name in the arena - it's a loving gesture from his father, who bankrolled the $200 million building. But does "MATT" really need to usurp "OREGON" at center court? What's next, changing the name on the jerseys?
The hardwood itself is also named "Pat Kilkenny Floor" as a nod to the the former athletic director and a millionaire longtime booster who joined Knight in funding the arena. Besides the name "PAT KILKENNY FLOOR" scripted on the court, there is a trio of little drawings inscribed with his name that are personal references to things like his home in San Diego. Again, it's not to say Oregon shouldn't be very thankful that two gargantuanly affluent alumni have gifted one of the better arenas in America to the university. But I find the floor a bit meretricious.
Just as MacArthur Court comparisons are inevitable, so too does one think of Memorial Coliseum when looking at Knight Arena. I admit my own bias in this regard, having fought to save the Coliseum. But just as I wondered about more natural light in the arena itself based on the Coliseum's beautiful example, when I came through the doors Knight Arena yesterday at its western entry I noticed many more columns in this fraction of the building alone (approximately six to eight by my count) than in all of Memorial Coliseum (four). As a result, the concourse, while certainly much larger and wider than tiny little MacArthur Court's, is not the wide open space it could be. There are also columns lining the glass facade from the inside, like a fence blocking the view. Why not do more to place structural support for the building in its roof system, so the glass curtain wall can be more enjoyed?
Again, these criticisms come in the context of finding Matthew Knight Arena an exceptionally wonderful place to see a basketball game, and a very impressive building from its sustainability to its beautiful materials to the detailed construction.
Although TVA and co-founding principal Robert Thompson have designed some big projects in the past like the Nike Campus and the Fox Tower, Knight Arena is seemingly the culmination of a career. And while the project architect who led our tour confessed an ambivalence about "some football game" on Monday night, Thompson, like Knight, is an Oregon alumnus and a fan. I know the architect, an AIA Fellow, took great pride and care to make sure this building is a palace to make Duck fans, players and staff happy for generations.