Bird's Nest stadium, Beijing (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
When Beijing hosted the Olympic Games three years ago, the biggest star was arguably not swimmer Michael Phelps or sprinter Usain Bolt, but the National Stadium built for the games: more commonly known as the Bird's Nest. The stadium became an instant international icon, and one that has yet to be surpassed or even neared in terms of compelling, unique architecture.
Last week on the ESPN-affiliated website Grantland, writer Peter Richmond viewed stadiums like the Bird's Nest in comparison to the recent stadiums built in New York and elsewehere in the United States, all of which engender a giant yawn. The billion-dollar replacement for legendary Yankee Stadium? A boring clone. The new Citi Field, home to the Mets? It's stuck in even more of a historicist time-warp, meant to evoke Brooklyn's old Ebbetts Field practically brick for brick.
Why is there no Bird's Nest in the United States, and why hasn't there been a great stadium or arena built here in seemingly decades? Consider Richmond's description of the Chinese's thought process as an alternative to our own:
"My guess is that in the rest of the world, when someone decides to commit billions of municipal bucks to building a stadium for their city their first thoughts generally go immediately to the architecture. My guess is that the Beijing Olympics organizers didn't sit down on Day 1 and say, 'First off, which fast-food franchise should we put at the top of all the mezzanine escalators: Snake Shack or a Canton Cat Taco? What's going to work, maximum-bucks-wise? And should we go with a Michael Jordan Steakhouse or Hard Time Café in the end zone?'"
"I'm going to guess that they said something like, 'Who can design something that will put Beijing on the map as something other than a really large city in a really, really large country that likes to run over dissenters with tanks?'"
"How can the former architectural capital of the globe erect three buildings so irrelevant in design that they were greeted by a collective, global yawn — when they were greeted at all?"
"Because, I suspected, the architecture of most of our national stadiums is now, officially, an afterthought. The revenue jones has reduced design to irrelevance — even though a killer, eye-opening edifice, in the long run, is worth its weight in publicity gold."
Here in Portland, our lone stadium is, while nowhere near as compelling architecturally as the Bird's Nest, a success in terms of the sense of place it creates. Jeld-Wen Field, now home to soccer's Timbers, was of course a renovation of PGE Park, which was a renovation of Civic Stadium. In other words, the building has character because the original structure from 1922 has been preserved. Had the architects bulldozed the original and tried to build something new on the same site, chances are great that it would not have matched the presence of its predecessor.
I have yet to encounter a single Oregonian who possesses any love for the city's other home to a professional sports franchise, the Rose Garden arena. Though we love our Trail Blazers, and the arena inside provides decent sight lights for viewing a basketball game, the exterior is a mostly concrete behemoth with a sloping roof, all of which appears to have been designed by Fred Flintstone.
The one beautiful, architecturally significant arena in the city, Memorial Coliseum, was threatened with demolition in 2009 to make way for a minor-league baseball stadium. That effort was defeated by a grassroots compaign to save the building, which has since been added to the National Register of Historic Places and seen a request-for-proposals issued by the Portland Development Commission for its restoration. Yet the Coliseum rehab remains hypothetical until it actually takes place. With Mayor Adams deciding against re-election in 2012, his successor could still try to re-ignite the demolition process and court cases it would trigger. And still, even if it is renovated, the initial instinct was to introduce this building to the wrecking ball, and a minority of mouths continue to foam calling for such destruction.
The connecting thread on a national level with regard to mediocre stadium and arena design - as well as the local evidence of good work done in the 1920s and early 1960s and lousy architecture in the 1990s - may be that for decades, America acceled at designing stadiums and arenas only to lose its way in the 1970s. And we still hasn't found a way out.
In the '70s, cities across the nation started building either ubiquitous multipurpose stadiums such as Veterans' Stadium in Philadelphia, Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati and Jack Murphy Stadium (now Qualcomm Stadium) in San Diego - all distinguished by their cookie cutter circular shape - or domes such as the Kingdome in Seattle, the Astrodome in Houston or the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
Then, in the 1990s, baseball led a wave of retro stadiums such as Camden Yards in Baltimore and Jacobs Field in Cleveland. They were in some ways a big improvement on the circular cookie-cutter stadiums, but the recreation of the past became trite and left an absence of new thinking about the forms these places should take.
When innovation has come to stadium and arena design, it usually has been technological. The most recent wave in American stadiums has been retractible roofs. Rain threatening that baseball game? Close it. Super Bowl in Detroit? No problem.
Yet imagine if your house had a really fancy garage-door opener. Would that do much of anything to determine if it was a beautiful house?
There is one exception in America to the uber-mediocrity wave: the University of Phoenix Stadium in suburban Arizona, home to the NFL's Cardinals and a recent Super Bowl. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman, who is known better as a theorist but is part of an acclaimed group of deconstructivists that includes Portland Buiding designer Michael Graves, it is as technologically advanced of any of the retractible roof stadiums - more, in fact, given it also has a retractible natural grass field. Yet it's also beautiful, futuristic, and maybe even a growing icon. From one side of the stadium, you can look through the glass at the coppery Arizona desert hills. The Cardinals themselves, after decades of losing, even rose to become a contender just as the stadium was built. Quarterback Kurt Warner was largely responsible for that rise, but having a home stadium with energy and excitement (and in Arizona's case, air conditioning) certainly contributes to a team's on-field success.
One similarity between the Bird's Nest in China and University of Phoenix Stadium is that each was designed by an internationally renowned architect whose reputation lies far beyond stadium designs: Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron in the former case, and Eisenmann in the latter. Most stadiums, on the other hand, are designed by surprisingly small array of firms, especially HOK (recently renamed Populous) and Ellerbe Beckett. It's not that these venerable firms aren't capable of good design. Ellerbe was the architect for Jeld Wen Field's renovation, for example, as well as two Eugene projects: Autzen Stadium's expansion in 2001 and the seating bowl at Matthew Knight Arena, completed last year. But all those cases are either of renovations or, in Knight's case, of the interior but not the exterior. If one wants a stadium or arena of beauty built from the ground up, it seems it's largley a matter of calling a designer with a wider vision.
Architecture firms are often divided in the business between what are called service firms and design firms: large companies with lots of experience but little ability to create bold, memorable forms, or small firms with strong ideas and design acumen but not enough trust among institutional clients to secure such major commissions. Stadiums and arenas, becuase they are such large and expensive projects by nature, usually go for service firms. But it's design firms that they need. Bird's Nest? Design firm. University of Phoenix Stadium? Design firm. The almost universally derided new Giants Stadium in New Jersey? Service firm. The Rose Garden here in Portland? Service firm.
But sometimes this division is turned on its ear, such as with Qwest Field in Seattle (recently renamed CenturyLink Field). It was designed by Ellerbe Beckett, which has churned out countless stadium and arena designs and not all of them so compelling. But this project mostly had one private, deep-pocketed client in billionaire Paul Allen, the Seahawks' owner. Clients matter to a design almost as much as architects. What this collection of projects seems to indicate, like architecture in general, is that greatness demands a talented, forward-thinking designer as well as a client looking for more than just a completed puzzle of seating, field and concessions.
Besides having a good architect and client, the other connection amongst successful projects may be transparency and a sense of the outside. As mentioned University of Phoenix has a portion of its facade made of glass. CityLink in Seattle exposes its northern facade to the downtown skyline. And in Memorial Coliseum you have the ultimate example: the only arena in the world with a 360-degree view through the glass facade. These buildings by nature are huge and have been traditionally been designed with little regard for transparency and connection to the outside. Yet that is slowly changing. Even some of the ugliest of recent stadiums and arenas, such as the barn-like Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, has a wall of glass.
Maybe you're saying at this point, "Portland doesn't even have a football team. Or a big stadium. What does this matter?"
But Portland, of course, is growing. We may someday be home to an NFL team. And we have numerous big-ticket institutional projects that engender a similar set of challenges, such as the Columbia Crossing bridge proposal, which has been hijacked by state-government bureaucrats and highway engineers, poised to become a case of malt-liquor architecture at champagne's price. We've had the impetus to build the Columbia Crossing, but not to build it right. Sooner or later, a major stadium or arena in Portland will be a similar test. We'll be looking to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, but that won't guarantee a quality product. The bigger a project gets, the less personal and creative it seems to be. Which is exactly the opposite of what these public places need to be.