Since Dennis Wellner cofounded HOK Sport in 1983, the Kansas City–based subsidiary of HOK has become one of the world’s largest designers of sports facilities and has built no less than 14 of the NFL’s 31 football fields—not to mention London’s new 90,000-seat Wembley Stadium, in collaboration with Foster and Partners. So when architectural antagonist Peter Eisenman was commissioned to design the Arizona Cardinals stadium outside of Phoenix—opening at the beginning of this month—Wellner was wisely brought in to ensure that the $370 million project didn’t go the way of the original starchitect’s high-profile disasters such as House VI and the Wexner Center.
Eisenman’s reputation recently reached a low point, decades after he helped reinvigorate American architecture by injecting it with a heavy dose of Continental theory. But just as his star seemed to have fallen irretrievably (despite the generally positive reception of his long-anticipated Berlin Holocaust memorial last year), he was putting finishing touches on the Cardinals stadium’s glowing series of window strips, retractable roof, and rolling (literally) grass field with Wellner’s invaluable oversight. Metropolis associate editor Stephen Zacks spoke with Wellner about the project, working with the famously difficult Eisenman, and how urbanist thinking is being incorporated in the design of other stadiums.
How did your collaboration on the project come about?
I had never worked with a design architect before; typically on our projects we assemble a design team from our office to develop an image concept. In this case Peter had been working for some time with the Cardinals and the Arizona Sports & Tourism Authority (AZSTA) on a design that would serve both their needs. When the funding and location were secured, a concept was developed for a site in Glendale, Arizona, and I made a trip down there and said, “Is there a way that we can help?” It’s really a multipurpose building; it’s supposed to do everything that a large venue can possibly do: conventions, trade shows, major events like the Super Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, concerts. The design had that program in mind, and we had done that multiple times, so a marriage was created between Peter’s office and our own.
Eisenman has a better reputation as a thinker than as a practicing architect. Were you worried about realizing such a huge public building with him?
I wasn’t worried about his reputation so much as about my not having been in that situation before and the uncertainty of how we might work together. I was pleasantly surprised that it was an absolutely wonderful working relationship. Peter had concerns about the design, the thinking, and the concept, and we acted in a review capacity in terms of the building’s image and how it would be realized. He had comments about the performance of the building and the program as it affected the design.
At one point there was a drastic change from an earlier very large and complex design into a tighter building that still did everything the AZSTA and the Cardinals wanted. We suggested to Peter that repetition in building form would be an advantage, and he developed the design that you see today, which meshed very well with the program. So the working relationship was phenomenal; I think he learned a lot, and we learned a lot. We’re the architect of record, and so we had to address all of those things that an architect on a project like this would have to address: safety, construction, cost.
Were there any unique challenges to the collaboration?
I guess I had expected a lot of monumental challenges in trying to deal with the design. The building had a very different image than had been seen before in a stadium. The difficulties had to do with the Cardinals’ willingness to take that approach, combined with how much money was available. Projects where people are working at cross-purposes create a great deal of angst and acrimony, but I have to say the process went very well. Ultimately the owner would decide what he wanted to do, and Peter was very accepting of that.
Budget was an overriding factor, and there wasn’t any confusion about that: it was a very integral aspect of the entire design and construction process. There really wasn’t a desire to have more than you can afford—which is common—so the conflict was only about finding the best solutions for realizing the ideas, which I don’t consider unhealthy at all. That’s part of the process of testing whether something should be done. I think Peter valued what we brought to the table, and he didn’t try to do anything he wasn’t interested in or admittedly couldn’t do. He was concerned with the image of the building and its form, and continued to argue for those things throughout the process.
How would you describe what you call the “image” of the project?
It’s not what people would expect from a building that houses a football team. The way the cactuslike form sits on the landscape is visually striking. The client also wanted the building to be open to the outdoors, so it has a retractable roof. One of the downsides of football in Arizona is that it’s played in the fall, which is extremely hot and unbearable there. The building had to be enclosed to cool the environment for the fans, but it has an operable roof for good-weather days. The other unique feature is the natural–grass field, which is difficult to grow even in open-air buildings because of the shading. The entire field slides in and out of the building on a tray with 542 steel wheels that roll on 13 steel tracks, similar to train-track technology. It takes about 65 minutes to travel in one direction or another, which makes it easy to convert for other uses.
Has the expectation that a stadium be a symbol for a city changed the way that they’re designed?
The images of these buildings are becoming more substantive because incredible amounts are being spent on them, but I think the general public looks at them differently than sports fans, who are struck by the energy of being around a like group of people. Sports cross socioeconomic boundaries unlike anything else. If your team is winning it can create a cohesiveness and pride in the community that’s unmatched, so stadiums very much serve a public purpose. But for the general public it’s more a question of image. The presence of a major-league professional team changes a city’s attitude about itself.
There’s a tension between the idea that a stadium helps define local identity and the sense that it destroys street life in downtown areas. Are new stadiums addressing that issue?
A number of projects in recent years have tested whether residential, retail, and entertainment can work in conjunction with these large buildings. In Pittsburgh the blocks between PNC Park and Heinz Field were planned for development from the very beginning to bring more people to the area other than just on game day. It’s much richer visually to have development around the building. The idea of mitigating the impact of a sports facility and a sea of parking lots is more at the concept stage right now for NFL stadiums. In baseball, urban ballparks have really been the model, although new ballparks are also being used to rejuvenate underutilized areas—Denver, San Diego, and San Francisco all come to mind. Football still hasn’t attempted that model. There’s been a great focus on the buildings themselves in isolation, and I think in the future associated development will be really critical.
What’s your favorite stadium?
Arrowhead Stadium, in Kansas City.