February 7, 2007

Alum Designs NFL Stadium

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How many members of the NFL’s 1947 Chicago Cardinals could you name?
World-renowned architect Peter D. Eisenman ’54 named the team’s entire starting backfield. The feat ultimately earned him the job of designing the current Arizona Cardinal’s new $455-million dollar home in Glendale, Ariz.

In August 1997, Eisenman received a phone call asking if he’d be interested in participating in a competition with architects like Frank Gehry to design the Cardinals’ new stadium. Informed it was the 50th anniversary of the last time the Cardinals team won an NFL championship, Eisenman said he’d seen that last championship game.

“I pulled it out of somewhere, the four starting backfield of that team,” Eisenman recalled in a phone interview last Thursday. “This just floored him.”

That weekend, Eisenman flew to Cincinnati to watch the Cardinal’s season opener against the Bengals with the team’s owners. Gehry never had a chance against the self-proclaimed “sports nut” who has held New York Giants Season tickets since 1957.

“We hit it off with the owners,” Eisenman said. “They cancelled the competition, and we got the job.”

Paired with HOK Sport — a firm whose stadium credits include the Baltimore Oriole’s Camden Yards — Eisenman would soon realize that getting the job may well have been the easiest part.

“We went through seven different sites in five years,” Eisenman said. “The politics were amazing.”

The frequent site changes caused a change in Eisenman’s vision.

“We were always working with horizontal curves from these Native American motifs,” Eisenman said. “Out in the West Valley, it is an agricultural area, so we looked to another kind of symbolism and one of the things that struck us was a barrel cactus, which is a segmented rounded cactus.”

With a final vision and location in place, construction on the stadium began in 2003 and on Aug. 12, the stadium opened with a 21-13 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in a preseason game. In September, the naming rights were sold for $150 million and the University of Phoenix Stadium was born.

Athletic stadiums are not traditionally known for their architectural daring. However, Eisenman’s glass and steel cactus in the desert is something singular and different.

Boasting a standard 63,400 seats — with the capacity to expand to 73,000 seats — University of Phoenix Stadium is a merging of high design with practical considerations.

“We have tried to make it both functionally and aesthetically interesting,” Eisenman said. “I didn’t want the architecture to interfere with the spectator.”

All of the concourses open inward, giving fans a view of the game, while 21 glass slits along the perimeter of the stadium evoke the segments of the barrel cactus and provide patrons a view of the Phoenix landscape. Integrating his stadium with the surrounding environment was a consideration influenced by his days as an undergrad at Cornell, when in addition to swimming on an undefeated freshman swim team, Eisenman was a cheerleader for the football and basketball teams.

“I remember from my experiences in Ithaca, the fact that you can go up in the crescent [of Schoellfkopf Field] and look out over the lake — which is really important, the fact that you can view the surroundings,” he said.

Eisenman had never even heard of architecture before coming to Cornell. But after seeing his dorm counselor in Founders Hall, an architect, work on a project, and after being put on academic probation, he decided he needed a change.

The career choice seems to have worked out, as Eisenman rose to prominence in the 1960’s as a member of a group of innovative architects later known as the “New York Five,” and his designs have pushed the boundaries of architectural theory and aesthetics.

“Peter is an extraordinarily talented architect. He always has been, since his days at Cornell,” said colleague, and fellow member of the New York Five architects, Richard Meier ’56. “I don’t know if you can say there’s a Peter Eisenman style. I think what distinguishes his work is that he’s always experimenting and looking for new ways of doing things.”

Eisenman’s latest gridiron creation is in keeping with this tradition. The stadium boasts the first inclined retractable roof in North America, as well as a retractable field that rolls outside of the stadium, allowing the Cardinals to play on natural grass on Sunday, and the stadium to host a boat show on Monday.

For Eisenman and the Cardinals alike, the stadium has been a considerable success. The Cardinals sold out all of their games this past season, after having averaged about 35,000 fans a game in their previous home in Sun Devil Stadium. In a recent Sportsbusiness Journal/Sportsbusiness Daily reader survey, the stadium was named the best in the NFL, beating out such famous gridirons as the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field.

In addition to Cardinals games, the new complex will host the XLII Super Bowl next year and the annual Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

Jonathan Moody ’07, a fifth-year architect and former center on the Cornell football team, worked for Eisenman during the summer of 2005 and said that, as a boss, Eisenman helped “us to be creative through his ideas.”

Moody, a native of Columbus, Ohio, also visited Eisenman’s stadium Jan. 8 to watch his home town university, Ohio State, lose to Florida, 41-14, in the Bowl Champion Series national championship game. While the game was less than memorable for his Buckeyes, the stadium itself left an impression on Moody.

“Seeing the building on TV and experiencing it are a lot different,” he said. “When you experience it as a fan, you get to see all of the detailing that occurs and it’s just amazing.”