Arena Las Vegas

Taking a look at the playbook for arena designers Populous

Rendoring of the zoomy Las Vegas Arena, expected to be done next year.

Rendoring of the zoomy Las Vegas Arena, expected to be done next year.

Photos

If we want to understand the stakes for a new downtown arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, we only need to refer to the playbook of the massive international architecture firm recently hired to lead the design process.

“They can shape our towns and cities more than almost any other building type in history, and at the same time place a community on the map,” states the second chapter of “Stadia,” essentially a textbook for professionals about sports architecture from Populous.

These expensive, monumental and highly complex projects have changed a great deal in the last 20 years, and Populous is one of a handful of firms that have revolutionized and dominated the increasingly specialized field of sports architecture.

Brad Clark, the design principal with Populous on the Milwaukee project, wasn’t at liberty to offer specifics about the plans for the Milwaukee arena, including the site where it will be built, in an initial interview, though he did say those details would be revealed soon.

“It’s going to be sooner rather than later,” he said in a brief interview while he was vacationing in Mexico. “We are working through the ideas and representations of the building on the site.”

In the meantime, Clark was able to intimate some broad ideas for the project, including a general design approach and an ambition to be sustainable, technology infused and integrated into Milwaukee’s urban fabric.

Populous is an international firm based in Kansas City, a city Clark sees as having many similarities to our own. The firm has worked on more than 2,000 projects worth $30 billion, including 50 arenas.

It has designed 15 NBA or NHL arenas and is the only firm in the world to have designed three Olympic main stadiums, including London, Sochi and Sydney. It often refers to its arenas, stadiums and ballparks as “the new cathedrals” of our time, echoing the ambitions associated with the museum building boom of 15 or 20 years ago, language that stands in contrast to the more austere architectural trends of the moment.

Populous, which changed its name from HOK Sport in 2009, was the firm behind the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the arena the new project will effectively replace. The Bradley Center, completed in 1988 to replace the much maligned MECCA arena across the street, is one of the oldest functioning NBA arenas in the country.

“Our hope is that we are looking at a building that is extremely forward looking,” Clark said of the new arena, “that’s about the incredible future of what is a really vibrant Milwaukee today and really taps into that energy and that spirit but does respect what’s come in the past.”

Populous is capable of architecturally distinctive and telegenic projects, such as the undulating, glassy Aviva soccer stadium in Dublin, but it’s not a given.

Tom Dyckhoff, the architecture critic for the Times of London, for instance, called its Olympic Stadium for the 2012 Summer Games in London “tragically underwhelming,” echoing a common refrain. Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote in 2011 that selecting Populous for a facility there showed “limited imagination.”

With such detractors, Populous, despite its size and dominance in the field, has much to prove, and that may be a good thing for Milwaukee. Might they be in a position to up their design game?

It does seem that the firm’s design ambitions are on the rise. On Tuesday, the firm was chosen as the architects for the high-profile Bristol Arena based on a dramatic design with an illuminated, adaptable, high-tech facade that promises to be the “most sustainable” arena in England.

Some more recent projects such as the Quebecor Arena in Quebec City, a swirling sculptural form inspired by snow drifts slated to be completed in fall of this year, and the zoomy Las Vegas Arena, expected to be done next year, appear to be decidedly more design minded. It is hard to tell at this stage whether these projects will live up to their promise.

Interpreting Bucks’ aspirations

The question then becomes: How might that square with the aspirations of the Bucks? In recent weeks, Peter Feigin, the Bucks’ new president, has said he’d like the multipurpose arena, expected to cost between $450 million and $500 million, to look like it “embraces Wisconsin” and be “ingrained” into existing architecture.

This had some wondering, myself included, if this might lead to banal historicism, a riffing on old forms.

Is it possible that Milwaukee’s more prominent architectural projects might also remain among the most conservative in terms of design, with the Milwaukee Art Museum serving as a lonely exception to the rule?

Asked whether Feigin’s comments might hint at some kind of nostalgic architecture or rather something more progressive, open and conceptual, Clark went firmly with the latter.

“It would be a more open and conceptual interpretation of (Feigin’s) comment,” Clark said. “It’s not specifically about brick details and arches and that kind of old-school detailing…. I don’t think it is a natural for knock-off historic detailing.”

So, that’s good to hear. We’re not likely to see another design misadventure such as Miller Park or the Wisconsin Center, projects with many fine qualities that fail architecturally because they are boilerplate homages to great architecture.

They lacked the courage to be of their time.

Still, one question that remains after talking with Clark and looking at images of the many projects that Populous has done in recent years around the world is whether the Milwaukee project will emphasize the sculptural form of the building, a structure that will be an ambassador for the city on TV screens around the world, or whether the Bucks might place greater emphasis on the arena’s interior, on the engagement of the fans and luxury spaces, for instance.

Both exterior and interior are important, of course, and one of the primary advances in arena design in recent years is simply the capacity to balance the extreme programmatic needs of the insides with the demand for exceptional design outside.

In truth, though, it is the building’s visual presence in the urban landscape that will have by far the greatest impact on the city and be experienced by more Milwaukeeans. This impact is especially outsized in a city of our modest size.

Comparing images of the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Populous’ hometown, to the Amway Center in Orlando, for instance, different values stand out.

In Kansas City, the elegant, curving curtain wall and its altering affects and reflections at various times of the day seem to be the show-stopping feature.

It’s a lantern-like jewel box at night.

In Orlando, the interior finishes and custom luxury spaces that allow for uniquely embedded sponsorship opportunities may be more headline worthy.

So, where will the Bucks invest? Where will the emphasis be here?

“Every client is different,” said Clark, who worked on both the Kansas City and Orlando projects, completed in 2007 and 2010, respectively.

Integrated technology

Clark did say the fan experience will be nothing like what Milwaukeeans are used to, however. One of the biggest differences will be an interactive, social and technology-fueled environment.

On the one hand, he said, Populous wants to design a space to feel intimate, connected to the action on the floor, to the squeak of the athletes’ shoes. On the other, it’s also about an immersive, connected digital experience.

One of the challenges is finding that “sweet spot,” Clark said.

He called the advances in integrated technology, including acoustics, scoreboard design and other features, “an arms race, literally.”

Clark also hopes the Milwaukee arena will achieve a high level of sustainability and was excited about some features that will be unique to the project. In addition to snagging the Bristol job, expected to be a showcase of environmentally conscious practices, the Amway Center was the first NBA facility given LEED Gold status.

“Honestly, we just believe that it’s good design and prudent design to get and achieve a Gold certification,” he said of the rating system from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Connecting arena to the city

That textbook mentioned at the top of this column also states that arenas are among “the most important buildings any city of the future can build, partly because of their power as an urban planning tool.”

When asked what kind of urban planning tool the Milwaukee arena might be, Clark stressed the importance of “stitching” the new arena to the existing urban fabric, to create “walkable and active” public spaces, a community “living room.”

He acknowledged the challenges of working in a part of the city with a crop of monolithic, block-sized buildings. It is a bleak zone that lacks socially, ethnically and architecturally diverse and dense areas that are conducive to development and people.

“Obviously, we are going to be very strategic about how we do that,” he said. “We love the idea of being able to stitch pedestrian and vehicular connections across the river and make it feel like it is tied more to the urban fabric you have now.

“I like the scale of your city and the vibrancy of what is happening on the east side of the river… that is the kind of energy that we believe we can make happen over on the other side, west of the river.”

What remains unclear is how the arena plan will sync up with the city’s existing urban design and revitalization priorities, particularly along the once thriving artery of Wisconsin Ave. and its flagging commercial district. This is where the partnership with local firm Eppstein Uhen Architects will be especially critical.

“Stadia: The Populous Design and Development Guide” (Routledge, 2013) goes on to suggest that sports structures can transform cities and “change people’s lives.”

That is spectacular ambition, goals worthy of a project of such rarity and significance. Let’s hold Populous to its words.