Consol Energy Center to be about the 'connection between a Penguins fan and an environment'
Consol Energy Center view from Fifth Avenue.
A rendering of the Consol Energy Center as viewed from Centre Avenue.
Share with others:
Just who is a Penguins hockey fan?
A) A rabid, fast-food devouring sports nut who focuses only on the game and cares little about what the new arena looks like.
B) Someone who would rather hunker down in the Igloo indefinitely.
C) A person who is looking for a new hockey arena that honors the sport's connection to the community, the purity of play and the energy of the experience.
If you picked C, congratulations: when you and other fans step into the $321 million Consol Energy Center later this summer, that's the experience you're going to get -- connection, purity and energy -- all around you, in the textures, the lighting, the placement of rooms, objects and the colors.
You'll feel that connection to community in the location of the "will call" box office, which is inside the arena's vast glassed-in front facade, or "glass spine," rather than outside -- in a gesture that says to the community, "Come in."
If you buy a hot dog, you'll feel the energy of the game there, too, because the concession area is open to the arena, not at the dark end of a tunnel. In the private suites, the first three rows of seats are cantilevered into the arena, not behind a glass partition, so patrons can feel more connected to the game.
Seating in the public areas isn't a mass of black chairs, but stippled in yellow, a visual display of black-and-gold energy moving outward. One concourse wall will feature art -- a motion study of a player in a photograph of a slap shot taken at 1,000 frames per second.
In the venue's 68 private suites or in the sweeping public concourses, you'll see cool colors -- blue, silver -- recalling the purity of play, as well as other evocative symbols of the game: slashes in the carpeting, on glass panels and steel sheathing recalling skate blades, sparkling "ice" chips on a sweep of terrazzo flooring.
Even the threading in the carpet is blue, gold and black. In the retail shop, the racks, made of recycled bamboo (the whole facility is LEED certified), recall upside-down hockey sticks.
The Penguins haven't gone all New Age-y or anything on us, and this isn't exactly feng shui. But a recent tour of the arena -- designed by the architectural firm Populous Inc., and which is racing toward completion -- revealed a space that is elegant yet welcoming, understated yet full of energy, forward-looking yet evocative of the past.
The team colors of black and gold are everywhere but not in your face. It's not a museum with hockey sticks hanging from the ceiling at every juncture, but reminders of the game's history are artfully placed on LED video screens -- indeed, there is no static signage anywhere.
The team's locker room, where Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby will jump into their uniforms, is oval-shaped and its ceiling backlit, in a nod to the Mellon Arena.
Of course, the Consol (pronounced con-SAWL, as in Consolidated Energy, the company that purchased the naming rights) isn't just about hockey, nor are its customers, said Travis Williams, senior vice president for business affairs and general counsel, who is heading construction for the new arena.
The voluble, good-natured Mr. Williams noted -- in between fielding numerous cell phone calls as construction noise erupted everywhere -- that the arena's users are also fans of Lady Gaga and Paul McCartney -- and the circus, too.
Luckily, the arena is now large enough to handle Mr. McCartney's production, which will open the Consol in two shows Aug. 18-19. Arena managers had to turn Mr. McCartney away in the early 2000s because Mellon Arena couldn't accommodate his tour's large equipment -- and elephants in the circus will now have their own custom-sized "elephant door" in the back.
More subtly and important, though, the design "is about understanding the fan at a very deep level, about the emotional connection between a fan and an environment," said Christine Astorino, founder and CEO of fathom, the research, design and strategy firm hired by the Penguins three years ago to -- literally -- fathom customers' subconscious desires for the new arena.
In the field, it's called "design thinking," a problem-solving protocol used by designers to discern the needs of a user of an environment, product, brand or experience.
Fans and other users told fathom they "wanted to have something rooted in the past as far as tradition but not dwell in it," she said. "We didn't have to have hockey sticks hanging from the ceiling everywhere. We rooted the design decisions and materials into something more connected and deeper," said Ms. Astorino, a trained landscape architect.
"Whether it was concessions, retail, interiors or art, it was really just trying to have everything have the same look and feel and that consistent experience throughout, and it was all based on user-centered research," she said. "We uncovered that fans appreciate all aspects of hockey; not only just coming here and experiencing the energy, but the roots of the game, the nostalgia of the game. The fans actually felt like the Mellon Arena was a second home to them, so this new arena had to somehow embrace that, make them feel comfortable and welcome but at the same time add an entirely new and innovative experience that was much more current with the new brand of the Penguins."
The team's new brand, created in a separate marketing study for the Penguins by a Minneapolis firm, is, perhaps unsurprisingly, "The New Pittsburgh," incorporating three themes: drive, energy, innovation. If the Steelers were a car, they'd be a Hummer, while the Penguins would be a Lexus, Mr. Williams said.
That sleek, upscale motif can best be seen in the arena's private suites and clubs -- from the Lexus and First Niagara clubs on the upper floor, or in Suite 66, an underground bunker suite with special access to players.
Suite 66 is just off the skating rink, reserved for team sponsors and named after owner and hockey legend Mario Lemieux's jersey number, where up to 40 people will be able to watch the players as they head out to the ice. It's a room full of warm woods, a fireplace and a wine collection (in a nod to Mr. Lemieux, a wine connoisseur).
That idea came from the Mellon Arena, Mr. Williams said, noting that during a training camp they'd pulled retractable bleachers back and put a sitting area for VIPs right on the glass, "and we thought how neat it would be to reproduce that for an actual game." In Suite 66, guests will be able to stand near the runway from the locker room as members of the team emerge onto the ice, he said.
For the general public, there are unobstructed views of the game from the upper floors; an interactive hall of fame in the main concourse, complete with touch screens and other smart technology; and some less high-tech, but no less meaningful, displays. These include the Highmark Wall of Champions -- a holdover from the Mellon Arena -- where high school and amateur hockey team jerseys will be displayed.
And fans will be able to explore all this while keeping tabs on the game.
"We wanted people going out to get a pop or a beer to stay connected to all the action, still see the scoreboard," Mr. Williams said.
Visitors of the Penguins' offices will be greeted with back wall images of past cup celebrations and -- because no team gets to keep the real Stanley Cup -- a series of 10 glass panels featuring past NHL trophies won by the Penguins etched in glass.
When walking through the building, Mr. Williams, a lawyer by training, could scarcely contain his enthusiasm for his newly acquired knowledge of user-based design, pointing proudly to the spear-shaped white terrazzo strips on the concourse floor.
"It's kind of a racing strip concept, showing the energy coming off the ice," he said.
That's yet another way of looking at a place that was variously described in fathom's fan surveys as a cathedral, the Bellagio in Las Vegas or a home away from home.
Whatever it is, it's hockey in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future.
First Published June 27, 2010 12:00 am