Places: Arena evolution -- a functional building so far, but where's the fun?


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The Penguins are stonewalling.

"We just, as a strategy, aren't going to talk to the press about [the arena design] until it's approved by the Planning Commission," Penguins spokesman Tom McMillan told me last week.

Stonewalling of a different sort is what city Planning Commission chair Wrenna Watson complained about at its April 8 meeting, at which it sent the architects, HOK Sport of Kansas City, back to the drawing board.

"I think we should have something a little more pleasant to look at than just the stone side of the building," said Watson of its east elevation. It's an issue that hits home for Watson, who lives in Crawford Square, the 1990s traditional neighborhood near the arena site.

Other commissioners had other kvetches, but they added up to the same thing: There is too little design detail on the $290 million arena's exterior walls. The architects prescribe slim, vertical banners for parts of the east and Centre Avenue elevations, but banners tend to look like what they are: a cheap way to gussy up a building and give it a theme.

Today at 1:15 p.m. in a pre-agenda briefing, the architects will bring further refinements to the commission. Its vote on the design, previously scheduled for today, has been postponed.

Most hockey arenas are about as inspiring as their corporate names. Some look like Quonset huts on steroids, others like industrial park buildings or monumental, monolithic drums. Often the only architectural interest comes from the masts and cables used to hold up the roofs.

Many arenas, too, have little context other than the parking lots that surround them. Not so in Pittsburgh, where the arena will butt up against a historic commercial district and be, literally, a stone's throw from 106-year-old Epiphany Church. What this massive building looks like matters more than in some other places, and its location and sloping site have had a big impact on the design.

The master plan, by Pittsburgh's UDA Architects, points out the 18,500-seat arena's urban qualities: It's built to the sidewalk in urban materials and along Fifth Avenue, providing space for retail storefronts. The seating bowl of the arena will be set back above the storefronts, which carry a rooftop plaza and are in scale with the three- and four-story buildings across the street.

The first design, unveiled in March 2007, is similar to the current one, but in between, in August, was something rather different. The barrel-vault structure, enclosed by a rectangular shell of brick, cast stone and glass, had been replaced by a giant metal-clad bowl that rose up out of the shell. The atrium was different, too, more assertive and irregular in form.

It's clear the architects have struggled with what the building should look like. An arena? A retail strip? A modern office building? The present scheme hints at all of that yet forgets to communicate one important thing: that something fun and sporting happens inside.

HOK, which designed PNC Park and Heinz Field, has made a name for itself as the premier architect of sports venues. While it has produced some stylish traditional and contemporary hockey arenas, it is not known for high-concept designs, such as the "bird's-nest" stadium and the bubble-wrapped aquatics building produced by other firms for the Beijing Olympics -- buildings that are functional sculptures. How functional remains to be seen, but this pair raises the bar for what sports facilities can look like, given a lavish budget, a desire to be daring and, in this case, a disregard for displacing thousands of residents.

The Pens' arena had its own, far more modest, displacements, but will do penance by striving for LEED certification. Green features in this nonsmoking building include accessibility to public transportation, energy-efficient systems, recycled and recyclable materials, daylighting and much more.

Pittsburgh's Green Building Alliance has been aggressive and successful in promoting green buildings here. The city needs a similar advocate to promote the early involvement of artists in architecture. It's tempting to imagine what the arena might look like if an artist had been involved from the beginning, as sculptor Ned Kahn was in the design of the Children's Museum.

The city and Pens are seeking an art consultant to define the arena's public art program, which will be asked to celebrate the revitalization of the Hill and Uptown and pay homage to Pittsburgh's hockey history. Let's invest some of its resources in the outside of the building. Give some detail to the Fifth Avenue storefronts. Play up the corner of Fifth Avenue and Washington Place. Make the arena look like the entertainment palace that it is, but in a way that's respectful to Epiphany Church.

The glass atrium provides an interior pedestrian connection between the primary entrance on Centre and the lower ones on Fifth, as well as expansive views of Downtown and the church. But its main entrance and plaza are sterile and bland, and the primary aesthetic virtue of its vast wall of glass may be that it will, to one degree or another, reflect the church and heighten its presence.


Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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