Guest Column - May 2014
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Design Corner

Off the Scale
Create Buildings That Appear Both Imposing and Approachable

By Bill Massey

If you've ever felt the pressure to be in two places at once, then you understand one of the primary burdens facing designers of collegiate athletic facilities—creating buildings that are simultaneously of a grand scale and a human scale. Collegiate architects are always charged with designing within what is called "the campus context," but at the same time, clients want their new building to stand out. Spectator facilities in particular have to perform double duty, imparting a sense of grandeur and excitement while avoiding the possibility of dwarfing crowds or nearby buildings.

For arenas and stadiums, "context" usually means other spectator facilities or outlying dormitories, since available land for construction is typically peripheral to older academic quads, on the campus perimeter. This gives the designer a fairly large palette to work with, given the variability in the age and materiality (steel, brick, stone or even clapboard siding) of nearby structures and neighborhoods. Having said that, most universities and the architects they hire will look to at least honor the campus' prevailing architectural style, from Georgian to Collegiate Gothic to Modernist.

Far knottier is the issue of scale. In the presence of another large facility (an arena next to a stadium, say), the immediate context provides cover for any architect given to grandiosity. On the other hand, that situation poses a risk of creating a canyon of sorts that can overwhelm visitors as much as it promotes excitement. Meanwhile, a spectator facility set in a large open space (surrounded by parking lots, typically) has to avoid looking like a crash-landed alien ship.

Material Witness

There are three common methods of minimizing the visual impact of a large building. First, the building can be partially built below grade. This is fairly typical in arena and stadium projects, with the resulting entry concourse bringing spectators down to their lower-bowl seats or up stairs to upper-bowl seats.

Second, a human-scaled (one- or two-story) building volume can be appended to the front of the larger structure. This isn't a traditional arena treatment, but the recent trend of building professional spectator facilities as part of larger retail developments will sometimes see restaurants, bars and storefronts used to help mitigate building mass (and create additional revenue streams for building owners).

Last, materials can be selected and combined in a way that breaks up large monolithic surfaces such as masonry walls. For example, brick or concrete masonry units (CMU) of different colors or textures—made possible by cutting or breaking units—can be laid in different patterns. A wall of variable texture usually will start with several courses of more massive material and give way to walls of smoother texture above. These larger flat surfaces can be visually broken up by laying bands of material of contrasting color, opening up exterior concourses or specifying windows and clerestories in ancillary spaces on the arena's perimeter.

All three methods are in evidence at the new 5,200-seat SECU Arena at Towson University in Maryland, which is located on a sloped site and is connected to an existing arena that with the new construction becomes a practice gym and support space. The new arena is built partially below grade, with the new competition floor one level below the old building's basement level, which contains newly renovated team locker rooms and lounges, strength conditioning space, a sports medicine suite and other ancillary spaces.

SECU Arena's structural move is more complicated than the building-volume method described above. Necessitated in part by the tight site, the arena plan is actually two offset boxes—one larger building volume that is the actual arena bowl, and a two-story box that is skewed so that the lower portion of the building appears to point in the direction of the 300-foot promenade by which spectators approach the building's entry. A generous eave accentuates this effect, making the building look a little like the prow of a ship.

The offset both masks the larger structure behind and creates a more human-scaled foreground, and it offered the design team more natural opportunities to vary the exterior materials. For example, the upper structure is clad in a standing-seam zinc panel system that runs vertically, while the lower box's zinc panels are a smaller-scaled shingle pattern and run horizontally. Terracotta on the lower box runs in a stack bond pattern, using horizontal panel courses of split- and ground-faced block, with the two separated by a horizontal aluminum channel. The larger block from a distance appears to have just three courses, a result of the decision to insert rows of accent banding; the careful observer will realize that what looks like three courses of block is nearly 9 feet tall.