October 30, 2009
  Barclays Center: Firms Large and Small(er) Come Together Around Performative Design
Ellerbe Becket and SHoP Architects get together to ask the same questions on the state of contemporary sports venue design

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

How do you . . . align a design partnership for a complex building type around a shared practice methodology?

Summary: The two firms designing the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, developer Forest City Ratner’s basketball arena centerpiece to the Atlantic Yards development, are far different entities in terms of size, expertise, geography, and project portfolio—but nonetheless they’re discovering ways to merge their practice methods and common design worldview on a unique and trendsetting project.

Ellerbe Becket is a 100-year old Midwestern-based firm that’s a giant in the sports venue design industry, with numerous offices in the United States and the Middle East. SHoP Architects is a Manhattan-based firm of 65 people that began just 13 years ago and has never design a sports stadium before, but has quickly become one of New York’s most promising and well-regarded design firms. Ellerbe Becket's recent announced merge with planning, engineering, and infrastructure giant AECOM makes the comparison between the two firms all the more stark.

The Barclays Center arena, designed by SHoP Architects and Ellerbe Becket.

The Barclays Center arena, designed by SHoP Architects and Ellerbe Becket.

Forest City Ratner hired both firms to work on the Barclays Center, which will break ground in December and be home to the Net Jersey Nets basketball team for the 2011–12 season. If the design these firms have produced is executed as currently planned, it will emerge from a morass of stalled attempts, public contention, and disappointment to become a landmark in progressive, contemporary sports stadium design in the decidedly conservative domestic sports market.

Clearly, Ellerbe Becket contributed their deep expertise with sports venues. SHoP helped to formulate the big-picture formal aesthetic and vision. All the while, both parties are wary of strictly defined roles and labels for the collaboration. “It’s a great team coming together to try to make the best building possible at this location,” says Greg Pasquarelli, AIA, a founding principal of SHoP Architects.

On the block in Brooklyn
Forest City Ratner originally hired AIA Gold Medalist Frank Gehry, FAIA, to design the Atlantic Yards development. A 2006 design by Gehry consisted of a curving, glass-walled basketball stadium with a green roof and several twisting, canted residential towers. As the economy soured over the past several years, the mega-block development was scaled back, and Gehry (whose basketball arena was deemed too expensive at $1 billion, according to Crain’s New York Business) was dismissed from the project. Last November Ellerbe Becket (whose sports design practice is in Kansas City, Mo.) began working with Forest City Ratner on a less expensive design. In June, SHoP began working with Ellerbe Becket on the project, and the two firms released a final design in September, which Forest City Ratner is raising $700 million to build.

The firms’ design is composed of glass, which allows the kind of inside/outside urban transparency that’s often lacking from buildings of this scale. Sections of the glass are wrapped in rust-colored perforated steel swaths, creating a banding pattern in organic, sinuous curves. The steel perforations allow the building a welcoming glow while maintaining its urban streetwise sensibility.

Play to perform
The two firms’ collaboration began with Ellerbe Becket setting out program and site parameters for the project. “Once we had the program, the site, and some of the bigger picture fundamentals , we were ready for SHoP to join the party and start really fleshing out the big themes and the big ideas for integrating all those objectives in the building design,” says Bill Crockett, AIA, principal and national director of sports at Ellerbe Becket.

“The fascinating thing was to really learn all the parameters necessary to make a successful arena,” says Pasquarelli. “For us, it was taking those parameters and working with them collaboratively to push the overall form and aesthetics and methodology of the developing design.”

The Barclays Center design is more adventurous and unconventional than much of Ellerbe Becket’s sports portfolio, but MaryAnne Gilmartin, executive vice president of commercial and residential development at Forest City Ratner, says that in hiring SHoP, Forest City Ratner wasn’t attempting to buy into any particular level of design credibility or highbrow aesthetic sensibility. “It has a value-add,” she says. “It allowed us to take advantage of all that SHoP could offer at the right point in time. We understand that good design pays. I don’t think we have to hire an architect to prove that,” says Gilmartin, whose firm has already hired AIA Gold Medal Winner Renzo Piano for his New York Times headquarters skyscraper and still retains Gehry for the residential Beekman Tower in New York City.

Crockett says that both design firms found that they had remarkably similar approaches to practice, despite vast differences in how their firms are structured and the kinds of projects they take on.

Pasquarelli defines his firm’s approach to design as “performance-based. The idea is to make the building aesthetics emerge from what the building is doing,” he says.

In general, and specifically in their collaboration with Ellerbe Becket and the Barclays Center project, SHoP begins projects by asking how buildings function, how they interact with their site, and how their aesthetics emerge from these conditions. Sports venues, Pasquarelli says, are particularly performance-driven. This building type deals with a multitude of design constraints that arise from their need to maximize the number of people who can quickly enter and exit the space to view an event, to make sure the primary event can be viewed while ancillary actions (like concessions and team stores) are visited, and must work well in person and on television for players, staff, and fans. All of these requirements call for solutions that tend to define strongly the form and aesthetic quality of a sports venue, unlike a living room or art gallery, the programmatic requirements of which can be met in many different ways. “Its shape is very much connected to what it needs to do,” Pasquarelli says, who laments that he was “born 10 years too late to get the Yankee Stadium commission.”

But lately, Pasquarelli says, sports venue design has been more interested in clothing stadiums in industrial 20th century nostalgia rather than holistically interrogating the contemporary sports program and expressing it in a timely way—“ye olde buildings,” he calls them, with “fake brick arches.”

That’s not what Crockett was interested in either. The firms share an inquisitive approach not suited to pro-forma answers and aesthetic sensibilities. “There’s a real alignment there,” he says. “Compared to some other firms that are known for doing sports work, we take every challenge and every design on very specifically, looking at research and coming up with evidence as to why things need to be the way they are.”

Because sports venues must perform their programmatic duties so intensely, Pasquarelli says that expressing their programs honestly and rigorously gives them an inherent design quality, akin to the confluence of function and aesthetics seen in aeronautic design. “If a plane looks like what it has to do,” he says, “and it if performs well, it typically looks good as well.”

news headlines

recent related
Shooter’s Lodge
HKS-Designed Cowboys Stadium Makes Regular Season Debut
New Nationals Park Opens in Washington, DC
Architecture Problem Solving Pairs Two Post-Katrina Needs in One
With a Relaxed Dignity, Portola Valley Town Center is Buttoned Down, but Stands Up Straight

See what the Practice Management Knowledge Community is up to.

Visit the AIA’s Navigating the Economy Web site.

Do you know the Architect’s Knowledge Resource?
The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to a fact sheet of accessible stadium seating by Linda Reeder, AIA.