Guest Commentary: Arena design reveals the perils of micromanagement

by Stanley Collyer

AmericanAirlines Arena.: photo ©Richard Barnes

AmericanAirlines Arena.: photo ©Richard Barnes

The worst thing that can happen to a municipal project is for clients — who think they know a lot about architecture — to get into the business of micromanaging a design. A forum featuring design input from the community for the new downtown arena was a step in this direction. In reading about the gamut of suggestions from participants, one had to be impressed with the many contradictory notions: Some asked for some kind of replication of the Main Street look, while others wanted transparency. As a result, this began to look more and more like a design by committee, rather than by a strong hand.

The most impressive arena designs have one thing in common: They all suggest a design that is well integrated with an overriding theme. Here I am referring to the AmericanAirlines arena in Miami by Architectonica and the brand new Sprint arena in Kansas City, designed by a local team including 360 Architecture, Ellerbe Becket, Rafael, and HOK, the latter the designer of the Louisville arena. In the case of Miami and Kansas City, there are no attempts to add flashy elements to bring attention to the building. The design in itself is sufficient to attract the attention and admiration of passersby.

Based on published renderings of the Louisville arena, the Main Street facade of the building tries to incorporate some of the suggestions that came from community input. There, for instance, we discover a cornice topping off the facade. Was this meant as some sort of sop to preservationists? And the portico with the lettering, “Downtown Arena” emblazoned on the front — one might assume the client recognized that the building’s appearance might be misconstrued to suggest department store, not arena. Thus the need to tell pedestrians what they are really looking at.

Then there is the parking entrance. Where does that show up on the renderings? We see a lot of deadly blank walls on the east and west facades. Is this pedestrian friendly? As we move around to the riverfront facade, we wonder if we are still looking at the same building. Where is the design continuity here? Unfortunately, it is missing. Design by committee rarely leads to a happy ending.

Finally, there is the ubiquitous claim we keep hearing that the arena is going to present a great image of the city to visitors approaching from Indiana. They seem to have forgotten that the Second Street Bridge will obstruct any view of the arena from I-65.

So instead of giving the architects free reign to come up with an interesting overriding design concept, we are left with a hodgepodge of notions about how such a design should look. There is a sense that getting the building built was more important than how it might look.

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