BY BRIAN LIBBY
Since opening six weeks ago, the University of Oregon's Hatfield-Dowlin football complex outside Autzen Stadium has received both reverential praise and, for its role in the college sports arms race, a bit of hand-wringing.
The design by ZGF Architects and Eugene Sandoval (with an assist from Firm 151 on interiors), which I checked out recently, is exceptionally impressive. Rooted in stone and steel but brought alive with glass, wide volumes and fun graphics by some the region's top architects, Hatfield-Dowlin gives Oregon football the chance to express in its home the combination of matchless quality and innovative thinking the team aspires to on the gridiron. This is a proper home for a team that dreams big dreams.
Indeed, Hatfield-Dowlin is expensive. Media have quoted a figure of $68 million but the university has said the figure is simply a minimum - it may be more. The building, which comes at no cost to the university, is more luxurious than, say, a concrete block freshman dormitory. But must the University of Oregon's architecture be judged based on a its degree of egalitarianism? While I'm not an apologist for every move that Nike and Phil Knight make, be it in Eugene or elsewhere, I look at Knight's benefaction across the board and see far more than sports facilities, be it hundreds of millions given to Oregon Health & Science University or many non-sports buildings at UO from a law library on down. And even the richest schools have this kind of up-and-down architectural quality, even ones without much interest in sports. You should have seen my decaying, century-old freshman dorm at New York University and how it unfavorably compared to the school’s stately Philip Johnson-designed library.
Besides, whether is a football fan or not, or whether one prefers Ducks, Beavers, Timbers or even Huskies, the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex represents something else: the opportunity to see one of our region's very best architects work with a big budget to create architecture without compromise. Sandoval has emerged over the past decade as one of Portland’s most talented practitioners. This is a new cornerstone in an already exceptional portfolio.
Perhaps Sandoval also put the Hatfield-Dowlin's budget issue best in a recent Oregon Quarterly interview. To create a building based purely around function without delight and ambition "is not architecture," the architect told interviewer Ann Wiens. "It's a warehouse. It's Costco. World-class universities have 200-year-old buildings. They don't last that long because they're purely functional; they last because they find emotion and affinity that will change over time. They're well built, well designed. They have a soul."
All that said, I was a little apprehensive about seeing Hatfield-Dowlin. I worried that with all that dark glass and black granite it would seem too imposing or try too hard to seem intimidating, with the building being about barriers more than openness. After all, as wonderfully transparent as the ZGF-designed Jacqua Center at UO is, Nike itself seems to build more fortress-like architecture, at an arm’s length from the surrounding urban or neighborhood context.
Yet as I approached the Hatfield-Dowlin on an ideally sunny early autumn afternoon, the building didn't look standoffish. It looked grand. In its facade I saw a reflection of trees and water. A new grove of trees was reflecting first onto the pool of water abutting the Hatfield-Dowlin, and then onto its glass facade.
ZGF begins by breaking down the 145,000-square-foot facility into a series of interlocking rectangular volumes, not unlike shoeboxes (perhaps appropriately) with one sitting atop and straddling the other two. Part of the complex sits atop a partially-underground parking garage, raising the platform the building sits on.
Past the massive basalt-block wall lining the pracice field along the street, one enters from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard along what's called the Players Walk, a corridor that recalls Maya Lin's Vietnam veterans' memorial in Washington, only with former football players' names etched into steel. Of course war heroes and college football players are very different things, yet as one who idolized athletes since childhood, I can't tell you they're not heroes to a lot of people too.
The Players Walk is situated beneath the upper floors of the building's west wing, which cantilevers dramatically towards MLK Boulevard and connects to the adjacent east wing of the buiding by a skybridge. At the base of this the complex's main entrance, where one is greeted by a gargantuan 64-screen video display and a massive glass case holding the football team's most prized trophies form the Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and other triumphs. There is also a small, dark, almost closet-like "ring room," in which bowl-game championship rings are displayed and spotlit under glass while Autzen crowd noise plays from speakers.
As Sandoval showed me this entrance sequence, head coach Mark Helfrich strode by, unaccompanied, but paused to give the architect a thank-you hug. At at time when Oregon is trying to convince recruits its post-Chip-Kelly future will still be bright, the place has got to help.
We next moved back outside to view two outdoor practice fields, which come right up to within inches of the building, as if the architecture insists on a front-row seat. The building looks out to the west at these fields from a transparent glass facade shielded by a second skin of dark glass. This is a functional move, to control unwanted greenhouse-effect heat gain. But one of Sandoval's most singular talents has always been as a pattern maker with facades. So the building viewed from these practice fields (which can also be seen from the street quite easily) was key.
One can think back to Portland projects from the Eliot condominiums in the early 2000s to the more recent Port of Portland building and the Emery Apartments in South Waterfront to see examples. In Hatfield-Dowlin's case, the pattern of the shaded glass pieces (some of the largest that subcontractor Benson Glass has ever produced) took its visual and metaphorical inspiration from samurai armor, comprised of many interlocking pieces.
The tour then moved into the interior, starting with the 60,000-square-foot weight and fitness training room. Here, amidst one massive double-height volume, weightlifting machines sit atop foam pads shaped in the Oregon 'O' logo as well as an immaculate walnut floor. Walnut is a signature material throughout the space, be it as flooring or as the doors, floors and walls of the coaches' offices upstairs, just above the weight room.
But more than walnut, steel or stone, the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex interiors are about being bathed in natural light. Because of how ZGF's design breaks the 145,000 total square footage into a series of long, relatively thin volumes, one is never without natural illumination. At the same time, the shading on its glass creates some curious moments of transparency and partition. For example, showers in the players' locker rooms are placed along a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass that overlooks Autzen and one of its main entrances. If the glass were just a little more transparent, the view inside would be more revealing than fans might expect.
The effect of elegant materials and wide, naturally lit volumes would be dramatic enough on its own, but what really makes Hatfield-Dowlin sing is the array of interior accoutrements, be it graphics, technology or artwork.
In a massive hallway outside the coaches' offices, for example, there is not only a room for recruits and their families to watch games on several TVs from cushy leather sofas, but also an art display featuring scores of gold and silver ducks in flight, each representing an Oregon player who reached the National Football League. In the 200-seat cafeteria are not only the world's biggest steaks (which Sandoval and I watched being grilled), but neon signs cheekily encouraging players to eat their enemies. In the parking garage are portraits of former Oregon coaches such as Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly done in a graffiti style.
What one notices here isn't simply a building with a big budget, but the result of a design team leaving no stone unturned. Anywhere there was an opportunity to enliven a space, be it with materials, graphics or technology, that opportunity was embraced.
Yet this doesn't feel like architecture crammed with doodads. Because the building itself is wide-open and elegant, there is plenty of room to have fun with signage, graphics and the high-tech without seeming like a packrat who won the lottery.
Even so, at the end of the tour, my favorite space in the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex wasn't one with TV screens or graffiti. It was the theater-like meeting room for the whole team. Much of the team's personnel are broken down into positions and their corresponding coaches. There's a meeting room for running backs, one for linemen, and so on. Yet as gametime approaches, there's got to be somewhere the whole team can go, to receive the coach's game plan, hash out responsibilities, and come together as one unit. This space indeed is clad in walnut and the aforementioned seats by an Italian leather company that also supplies Ferrari luxury sportscars. Yet it was again the volume and transparency that compelled. The room, with stadium seating rising behind the podium, is big enough to hold 100 players, and it looks out through a massive wall of glass at Autzen.
As Sandoval and I stood in this meeting room and theater, I thought not just of the 2013 Ducks under Mark Helfrich, but also of the many Duck squads that came before. These teams always fought uphill battles against college football's traditional powers, not because Oregon lacked good athletes and coaches, but because college football is not a level playing field. When I started attending games at Autzen in the early 1980s, Oregon's football budget was smaller than what powerhouse Ohio State budgeted just for its marching band.
Now, the tables have turned and no one receives more big-ticketed toys than the Ducks. Yet in sports as in life, we've all been taught time and time again that money doesn't buy as much as we think it does. It can enable great work to be done, but still relies on the talents of individuals working in tandem. Remember that Houston Rockets team with Olojuwan, Drexler, Barkley and Pippen? They stunk. There are countless more examples of teams heavy in expensive free-agent signings that under-achieved. The Hatfield-Dowlin may have a big budget, but that alone would not have guaranteed great architecture. That ZGF, 151 and the other team members delivered means not just that they had size, but that they knew what to do with it. Perhaps you could call Sandoval the Phil Jackson in this scenario: able to channel the big budget and big egos into something that is, like the 200-year-old university buildings Sandoval described, more soulful.
If you frown on the multimillion-dollar arms race college sports have become, I don't blame you. But when I look at the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, I don't see luxury. I see architecture that expresses, as Humphrey Bogart once said of the Maltese falcon in a movie of the same name: "the stuff dreams are made of."