Heat's Wave

Can a new, high-concept arena devoted almost exclusively to basketball help to put the NBA's Miami Heat over the top? Bruce Schoenfeld pays a visit to find out.

At dusk, American Airlines Arena glows red and yellow like a furnace, competing with the sunset over shimmering Biscayne Bay. Its wraparound facade, punctuated by walls of glass, tapers to an edge and then shows a prow like an ocean liner. It looks like no sports arena before it, which is by design. What Frank O. Gehry has done for Bilbao with an art museum, Bernardo Fort-Brescia and his Arquitectonica firm are attempting for Miami with a glorified basketball court.

The arena, the home of the NBA's Miami Heat, hasn't yet succeeded as a signature building like Gehry's Guggenheim. But in the year following its completion, it has gained a reputation as the first indoor sports facility that deserves to be called public art, and perhaps the finest place in America to see a basketball game, especially if you have money. From now on, whenever an arena shaped like a hatbox is approved for construction, with the usual opaque walls and symmetric face and stacks of cramped luxury suites off sterile corridors, a city will have to ask why.

Fort-Brescia is a founding partner of Arquitectonica, the Miami- and New York-based architectural firm responsible for some of the world's most innovative buildings. For more than two decades he has made his fame and his living marrying avant-garde forms to economic efficiency. Born in Peru, he earned his undergraduate degree at Princeton and his graduate degree at Harvard. Along the way, he wed fellow architect Laurinda Spear, and they founded Arquitectonica in 1977. Behind the catchy name now is a couple with six kids and a support staff of architects on four continents. Fort-Brescia makes presentations around the world and does strategic design and thinking. Spear does interiors, paying attention to details as small as the pattern of the fabric that covers AmericanAirlines Arena seats.

Among their early designs was Miami's Atlantis Condominium, a color-splashed high-rise recognized worldwide by the coiled candy-red staircase and palm tree set midway up the building in a five-story cutout. As a consultant to the Heat in the mid-nineties, Fort-Brescia argued that a similarly fresh approach to arena construction could result in both a landmark building and increased income for the team. He believed that a sports arena could make an architectural statement and be an attraction in its own right, apart from what might be taking place inside. He envisioned an arena that would do for that genre what Frank Lloyd Wright's 1959 Guggenheim in New York did for museums, and Gehry's titanium-sheathed Bilbao Guggenheim has lately confirmed. You might come to see the exhibits, too, but the real lure of these museums is the buildings that house them.

The problem in Miami was convincing a city to use precious waterfront real estate for a new sports arena when another one, less than ten years old, stood six blocks away. Miami Arena, a hulking box painted hot pink and accented in pink neon, was designed in 1988, as the state of what was then a rather indifferent art. The Miami Vice look captured the ethos of a city on the make.

As it turned out, the functionality of that building dated it even faster than its garish form. Miami Arena had been built for the Heat, an expansion team, at a time when most of a pro franchise's nontelevision revenues came from ticket sales. But its paint had barely dried when premium seating, signage, and upscale concessions emerged as significant income producers for teams that had them. The Heat didn't; Miami Arena offered rudimentary suites and little to eat more evolved than a hot dog. Only halfway through its first decade, it had become obsolete.

"When we were proposing an arena here, the assumption was that we were going to do an enclosed box, and the idea was a scandal, to do such a thing to the waterfront," Fort-Brescia says. "Another big, pink box, just like the other one. People were thinking of other arenas around the country, which are either in suburbs or bad areas, and all of them look like boxes. That's all they knew."

Some of Arquitectonica's buildings do look like gleaming glass boxes that could have been designed by anybody, but the best of them, such as the Washingtonian Center, a fiercely original shopping mall on a lake in suburban Maryland, and the playfully elegant headquarters of the Banque de Luxembourg, use shape and color in ways that mark them as unmistakably Arquitectonica. Most of those have been built on a client's tight budget. As a quasi-public project, AmericanAirlines Arena was no exception. "This was a phenomenally complex building," says Bill Senn, the arena's general manager, who supervised the construction. "The facade cuts a different angle with respect to the bowl in every quadrant. Yet it didn't cost any more than a conventional arena would have cost. That may be the most remarkable thing about it."

The design was formulated using a different methodology than the architects of most sports facilities use. They typically work from the inside out, calculating sightlines and seating angles first, then building hallways and external areas around a central core. With his focus on the grand stage, Fort-Brescia designs from the outside in. He begins with a concept, always dramatic, then tries to make it work as a functional building. He had the look of AmericanAirlines' facade in mind long before the project was even approved by voters. As he designed inward, working toward the arena floor, he arena-hopped around North America on Heat co-owner Mickey Arison's private plane, stopping to see a basketball game in Phoenix, a hockey game in Vancouver, eating at an arena restaurant here, visiting locker rooms there, gathering ideas.

Fort-Brescia contracted with Heinlein + Schrock, a Kansas City-based firm whose partners had extensive experience in sports-facility design, to make sure the building would actually be suitable for basketball. And as the basketball details started to coalesce, he met with Pat Riley, the Heat's coach, general manager, part owner, and resident potentate. The design of the arena was important to Riley, and not only because he is known as a man with a well-defined sense of personal style. "What we wanted was something all-inclusive and, obviously, very nice, but also very efficient in terms of players getting their work done," Riley says. He talked through a scenario with Fort-Brescia that began with a Heat player walking into the arena, passing a plush lounge where wives and children could spend hours in comfort, a billiard room, a 20-seat video theater, and so on. At the end would be the finest locker room in sports.

Riley believes that the comfort and spaciousness of locker rooms and practice facilities becomes known around the league. Players talk, organizations develop reputations, and teams can come to seem like winners before the season's first tip-off. As a result, his players ride exercise bicycles while staring out at the ships in Biscayne Bay. They pull on their uniforms in a circular clubhouse reminiscent of a Greek amphitheater. They see the arena from their charter plane, gleaming in the night and unmistakable. "It becomes a recruiting tool," Riley says. "Players know that we're a first-class operation. When they come in and they see the arena, it makes them want to play here." Riley's machinations served to inspire Fort-Brescia even further. On the drawing boards, the arena began to look less and less like anything that had come before.

After months of the kind of backroom negotiations that always seem to accompany public works, the city of Miami, Miami-Dade County, and the Heat struck a deal. AmericanAirlines Arena, built by the Heat on county land, belongs to the county, but the team retains the right to most of the income gleaned from naming rights, corporate sponsorships, suite sales, and other 21st-century revenue streams. It opened on December 31, 1999, with a Gloria Estefan concert, and immediately took its place as a jewel in Miami's skyline. "Whether it will become the city's signature building, only time will tell," says Alex Penelas, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, "but it's off to a good start, that's for sure."

Though the Heat had more or less paid for its own arena, Penelas had risked substantial political capital on the project. He admits he was relieved when the finished building turned out as dramatic as Fort-Brescia had promised. "It couldn't have been just a box, not right there on the waterfront," he says. "We needed something unique. All the plans crossed my desk, but you never know. I notice now that anytime Miami is shown on television during important events, the arena is in view."

The arena also makes plenty of money for the Heat, which is, after all, the point. Not only is luxury seating sold to capacity, but Estefan has a thriving restaurant and nightclub off the enclosed patio. A team-owned 76-foot cruise ship, the Arena Eagle, carries groups of fans on sunset tours, then docks on the arena's doorstep for the game. You can't do that in Denver or Dallas, you can imagine them saying.

Conventional wisdom in the industry used to hold that profitability could be achieved only if a basketball and hockey team shared a building. What's important now, it turns out, is for a team to control its own lease—and, with that, its potential revenue. Getting individual fans into the building is almost incidental; premium seating, bought on an annual basis, accounts for 75 percent of the Heat's ticket revenue. In other words, a mere 800-odd seats contribute $14 million to the team's annual profits, and that doesn't include the discretionary spending (on upscale catering and other items) those patrons provide.

Since everyone who buys a luxury box, a courtside Starbox, or one of 308 Flagship seats gets into all other arena events anyway, booking it for 40 more dates with hockey games would have added comparatively little income. So the National Hockey League's Florida Panthers, who formerly shared time with the Heat at Miami Arena, now sell their suites and play their games 17 miles north up in Sunrise, hard by a shopping mall, and the Heat thrive as the main tenant of AmericanAirlines Arena. (The WNBA's Miami Sol plays there during the summer.) It seems nonsensical to have two new arenas empty most of the time, never mind one old one empty nearly all the time, but such is the counterintuitive result.

Those single-tenant economics only work if an arena maximizes premium-seating opportunities—and this one does, in new and imaginative ways. Sure, the luxury suites offer the standard amenities—refrigerator, a stocked bar, digital cable TV, seats with a fine view of the action. But Arquitectonica separated those seats from the living-room area with an open hardwood hallway instead of tucking both inside a quiet, carpeted corridor that would fit a generic office tower. "The suite is no longer on the inside of the curve, it's on the outside," Fort-Brescia says.

That one design stroke enabled the suites to look like those in no other arena; each one, for example, has a glass door that leads to an outdoor balcony. They come in sizes as large as 1,200 square feet, and offer the flow-through spaciousness of a cruise ship's stateroom. Their thick wooden doors are decorated by a pattern of small rectangular perforations; it's obvious people are inside, but you can't quite tell what they are doing. And the hardwood corridor has become a networking area where members of the suite community can meet and greet. "These kinds of people already know each other in Miami, which has a small corporate community," Fort-Brescia says. Already, two corporate suiteholders have asked that a door be built connecting their living rooms.

Surprisingly, AmericanAirlines Arena has only 20 suites sold by five- or ten-year contract, plus four party suites available on a game-by-game basis, all on a single level. "Miami doesn't have a huge corporate market," says Bill Senn, "so we didn't think we had the ability to bring a hundred suite-type units to the market, as many of the new arenas do." But the area does boast inordinate individual wealth—millionaires-without-portfolio such as entertainers, import/export entrepreneurs, retired executives ready for the good life, even exiled Latin American politicos with bolivars to burn. For them, L. Jay Cross, the president of the Heat at the time, invented Starboxes, which consist of ergonomically correct Aeron swivel chairs set directly on the floor along one sideline, where everyone in the arena can see them. Each Starbox costs $500,000 a year.

A Starbox comes with its own lounge, tucked under the lower bowl beside the team locker rooms. Each suite has a flat-screen television, full catering possibilities, even a Frank Stella painting on the wall. A stairway leads underneath the arena to a private, hassle-free parking area: You drive right in, walk up the stairs and into your lounge, and then out to your courtside chair. Like the several hundred fans who have purchased $20,000 Flagship seats within ten rows of the court, Starbox holders who deign to socialize also have access to the ultrapremium Flagship Lounge restaurant, which peddles foot-high gastronomic creations and cult California wines.

Charging half a million dollars a year for courtside real estate would require a certain amount of nerve even if the paintings on the wall were Picassos. The idea came from Cross, who has since become president of the New York Jets, after having developed a stadium proposal for the team. Cross realized that the cachet inherent in owning one of only two dozen or so highly visible seats was worth far more than the seats themselves. It would not work in Milwaukee or Indianapolis, but Cross knew his market. "The universe of people who would pay $500 a game for seats on the floor," he explains, "is only slightly larger than the universe who would pay $10,000."

The arena hasn't yet made the Heat NBA champions, but even the famously unsentimental Riley admits that, win or lose, there's a certain nobility in a workplace at once so beautiful and beautifully functional. "The art of this building makes me feel special as a coach," he says. "When I hit the button and my blinds lift up and I look out at Biscayne Bay, I know that this is exactly where I want to be."

Not all the design innovations work, of course. From too many angles the building seems impenetrable, fortresslike. Because it is built on a flood plain, the arena's ground floor is several flights of stairs above street level. On the nights when events such as ice shows fill the building, it's lit from within with garish blues and greens that look like Gatorade flavors.

Still, the scope of the achievement is remarkable, and Fort-Brescia well understands what he has wrought. "To be special, to make a statement, a building must have the right scale and the right purpose," he says. "It also has to have the right location. To get all of that, you need the right client. I was lucky because I had a client who told me to do something new with the form, and I have to say that the result has upped the ante for everyone else who would build an arena."

That includes Fort-Brescia himself. Arquitectonica has also designed Atlanta's Philips Arena, and soccer stadiums now under construction in São Paulo and Newark. All are attractive and inventive, and they find ways to break with standard form. Yet none have the same sense of daring, of architectural attitude, as AmericanAirlines Arena. A year and a half on, the building remains the best recent example of innovative sports venue design, and Fort-Brescia of an architect who, literally, allowed himself to think outside the box.

Master Builders

Arquitectonica, founded 24 years ago by Bernardo Fort-Brescia and Laurinda Spear, has become a highly regarded international practice, with commissions as varied as the sleek and playful headquarters of the Banque de Luxembourg, in the Grand Duchy's capital, and the Washingtonian Center, a 250,000-square-foot lakeside shopping mall in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Miami's 18-story Atlantis Condominium apartment tower, with its signature central "sky court," was the firm's first large-scale success.

Bruce Schoenfeld profiled Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder for the November/December 2000 issue of Departures.