Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer, Knight Arena (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
Tuesday was my second trip to Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene since its January opening, and the first time seeing an event or experiencing the building with a full house.
The event was a fun one: Roger Federer, greatest tennis player of all-time, playing an exhibition match against the second-greatest player of our time and an all-time great in his own right, Rafael Nadal. As if that weren't enough, Maria Sharapova played Vika Azarenka, and they all got together for a mixed-doubles match that was crashed by my favorite tennis player of all time, John McEnroe. Oh, and the top two Oregon Duck quarterbacks of the modern era, Joey Harrington and Dennis Dixon, served as honorary line judges. What a blast!
The $227 million, TVA Architects-designed Knight Arena is a huge complex, with practice courts adjacent to the 12,000 seat arena and surrounding glass-ensconced concourse. Even so, I was surprised to find that those concourses felt quite cramped in the time before the event. The effect was helped greatly by the fact that Knight Arena has three main entrance/exit points: people weren't clogged in one place. Even so, moving around the concourse (we made three laps to kill time before the match), one couldn't help but wonder if the design could have loosened the belt, so to speak. For such an arena, it was hard to move - even long before the event filled to capacity.
The glass facade covering much of the Knight Arena exterior is amongst its best attributes. Architect Robert Thompson of TVA Architects has said that Memorial Coliseum was the arena's biggest architectural inspiration, which is a wonderful honor to the landmark Portland glass palace. At the same time, the gorgeous expanses of glass left me wanting more. A substantial portion of the facade is not glass, because the design puts stairways and elevators for accessing the top of the seating bowl on the edge of the building. Even with this configuration, I'd have liked to see more glass. Why not a glass stairway and elevator to give the building the complete, Coliseum-like transparency it seems to want?
That said, watching sport inside Matthew Knight Arena was a major treat. (And it was especially nice seeing tennis instead of basketball so Oregon's hideous painted basketball court was hidden away.) As with Autzen Stadium, there just doesn't seem to be a bad seat in the house. I was sitting about halfway up the seating bowl, in the corner, and felt like I had a superlative spot. The interior arena-proper was designed by Ellerbe Beckett, the firm that also designed the Autzen expansion (from 41,000 to 55,000 seats) in 2002. Ellerbe is, along with HOK, arguably the nation's most prolific and accomplished designer of American sports arenas and stadiums. It shows up in the practical, functional success of both Knight Arena and Autzen Stadium. For all the enjoyment one gets out of a glass facade, or a striking exterior form, these are first and foremost places to watch sports and entertainment. And both of UO's major gathering places are now truly wonderful architectural spaces for being a spectator.
Visiting Knight Arena this second time, and first for an event with an audience, I also developed a better sense of the building's integration with the rest of the campus. There is a pathway leading from the back of the arena directly into the fabric of the campus, with Hayward Field just down the street amidst a host of dorms and campus buildings.
Has anyone else out there been to a basketball game or other event at Knight? What's your review of the architecture, both aesthetically and practically speaking?
One final impression after the night at Knight: As impressive as this arena and the Jaqua Center (built last year) are, they illuminate all the more for the University of Oregon to upgrade its standard dormitories. On the walk to Knight Arena, I passed dorms with concrete facades chipped away to reveal the rebar underneath. It's right now a tale of two students at UO, the athlete and the academic, with one in the equivalent of a new Cadillac and the other in a broken down Plymouth. Hopefully in the long run these impressive sports palaces will be merely the first step in a more egalitarian architectural facelift for the university.