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Peter's Game Plan

A famous avant-garde architect seems an unlikely choice to design an NFL stadium. But Peter Eisenman did just that—and, it would appear, created a 21st-century masterwork along the way.

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Phoenix is an unlikely place for visionary architecture. Known chiefly for strip malls and golf courses, it is a sprawling, arid metropolis that has seen few large projects of any distinction since Frank Lloyd Wright built his western headquarters in neighboring Scottsdale.

And yet, like a coiled snake, its silvery skin reflecting the hour of day, a radical new football stadium designed by Peter Eisenman now spirals up from the desert floor. On a cloudless afternoon, the painted steel panels shimmer miragelike in the heat. After dark, dozens of glass-paneled slits emit light so that the structure glows like a UFO mother ship.

Located in the suburb of Glendale, the stadium is home to the Arizona Cardinals, a team distinguished by the fact that it (a) is the oldest pro football franchise, founded in 1898, and (b) has not won a championship in 59 years, the longest drought in NFL history. Many fans have blamed the team's woes on the Bidwills, its penny-pinching owners. So it was a shock in 1997 when the family named the high-profile avant-garde bad boy Eisenman as the architect for the $425 million project—a showcase intended to improve not only the fortunes of the team but also the profile of the city.

Hiring a celebrity architect to create a destination building may be de rigueur these days for museums, concert halls, and fashion houses, but in the conservative arena of American athletics, it's virtually unheard of. Designated as the site of the 2008 Super Bowl, Eisenman's stadium sets a new standard for sports architecture in this country. It has 63,000 seats, and capacity can be expanded by 10,000 for major events. The translucent retractable roof will remain closed during the bru- tal heat in the early part of the season and be opened for cooler weather. The natural-grass playing field, which sits in a 17 million–pound tray, slides outside on nongame days. A first in the United States, the movable field allows the stadium to also be used as a venue for conventions, rodeos, and other events.

Since being hired by the Cardinals, Eisenman has done stadium designs for Munich and Leipzig, Germany, as well as La Coruña, Spain. At the time, however, there was little in his background to suggest he would be a good match for a tightfisted football franchise or for Phoenix. His academic credentials are impeccable but East Coast: He has taught at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton and edited the influential architectural journal Oppositions. In the late sixties and early seventies he was associated with the New York Five, a group (whose members included Richard Meier, Michael Graves, John Hejduk, and Charles Gwathmey) that was loosely united by a desire to reinvigorate architecture with the formalist purity of early European modernism.

Preferring to write, lecture, and theorize rather than build, Eisenman did not even have a practice until 1980. And he developed a reputation early on for being impossibly headstrong. An experimental house he drew up in the seventies for a Connecticut couple, the Franks, had a slot in the floor of the master bedroom that prevented them from sleeping in the same bed. (Suzanne Frank's book about their expensive efforts to make the house livable reads like a black comedy about an imperious architect and a long-suffering client.)

Eisenman, who turned 74 this year, has shown in the past decade that he can listen and accommodate. His recent Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin went through years of political and bureaucratic wrangling, but the final design—a graveyardlike expanse of uneven concrete pillars—is considered a masterwork. Even so, that such a willful, brainy architect should be chosen to build a football stadium in Phoenix was, in his own words, "kind of a miracle."

With his wire-rimmed glasses and preppy tastes (bow ties, cashmere sweaters), Eisenman looks like an Ivy League professor who no longer has to worry about tenure. Nothing in his firm's dingy 11th-floor offices at an unglamorous Midtown Manhattan address seems at all chic. Books and magazines stuffed into gray metal shelves are everywhere; associates in T-shirts and sneakers stare at computers that have seen better days. A withered plant stands next to the window in the conference room.

During a recent visit, Eisenman was brimming with opinions—on food, movies, art, sports, politics—and eager to share them. He doesn't hesitate to tweak his liberal friends. "Most of my best clients have been conservative Republicans," Eisenman says, noting that he is definitely "not PC." Nor is he afraid, on occasion, of nipping the hand that feeds him.

He has no illusions about why he was hired by the Bidwills. "For most sports owners, a signature building isn't necessary," he says. "The number of projects by Frank Gehry or Rem Koolhaas or Richard Meier or Zaha Hadid or Peter Eisenman that are actually built is infinitesimal. But that's what gets the headlines." The Cardinals decided it was important to get some of those headlines.

Eisenman seems to have won the Bidwills' trust, in part because he is a lifelong jock and an avid football fan. A cheerleader as an undergraduate at Cornell, he's had season tickets to the New York Giants for years. During an early conversation with the Bidwills, when they were still considering at least one other proposal, Eisenman was able to name the backfield of the champion 1947 Chicago Cardinals. They had found their architect.

"I happen to go to a lot of sports," Eisenman says. "That's part of the imaginary world I live in—it keeps me sane." Even before he received the Phoenix commission, he had visited dozens of arenas in Europe and the United States as a fan. "For me a stadium represents a place of fantasy, escape, and expectation. There's a sense of occasion," he says. "You don't know what will happen once you're there."

Some of Eisenman's own earliest sportsgoing memories were at the old Palmer Stadium in Princeton, where he recalls "walking through the arches and arcades, hearing the sound of the crowd and the bands rising through the vomitories, then seeing the teams coming on the field." That feeling of ritual, he believes, is ultimately more important than any piece of design.

Rather than copy classical arcades for his Phoenix stadium, Eisenman sought to achieve a similar effect with "cuts" in the building's skin. "By providing glimpses into the stadium, we wanted to create a sense of anticipation, to raise the level of excitement about the unknown," he says. The glass slits also offer spectators views out to the surrounding landscape, bringing a new inside-outside dimension to watching sports in an arena.

While Eisenman was solely responsible for the stadium's spaces and surfaces, most of the functional elements—traffic flow, seating, concessions, bathrooms—were done in collaboration with HOK Sport, specialists in stadium design. An international sports-world juggernaut, HOK is the driving force behind the retro park trend (popular with fans but widely derided in architecture circles as nostalgic kitsch) that began with Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1992 and has since been replicated in numerous American cities.

"For most people HOK is fine—that's high-end," Eisenman says candidly of the firm, which is currently working on new ballparks for both the Yankees and Mets in New York. "How many Michelin three-star restaurants are there, and how many do you need? For most people a one-star is fine. HOK is a one-star."

During the construction in Phoenix, the working relationships between everyone involved were generally happy. "Peter was the first so-called design architect we've worked with," says Robert Aylesworth Jr., executive vice president of Hunt Construction Group, which oversaw the project. "We were pleasantly surprised he was willing to compromise on some elements in his design that proved too costly for the budget. But he fought for those elements [like the steel outer skin] that were most important to him. And it is a better building because he did."

Eisenman estimates he got 85 percent of what he wanted. "You don't fight losing battles—you have to measure in every situation how far you can go," he says with a shrug. "The bigger the project, the bigger the compromises. The challenges of large projects are very important. They tell you things about the world that become precious at a small scale."

Eisenman's 2001 proposal for a 66,000-seat arena for Munich's two soccer clubs (the commission ultimately went to the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron) featured a dramatically curving aluminum-clad roof that appeared to emerge organically from the ground. His design for a new stadium for the Deportivo soccer club in La Coruña, which is currently on hold, calls for a 36,000-seat venue that would be integrated into the urban fabric of the city, part of a mixed-use complex with offices, shops, a hotel, and apartments.

With both of these projects, Eisenman sought to realize his theories about architecture that hugs or dissolves into the landscape. "Most of my work tries to marry the ground and the object so that it's hard to distinguish between the two," he says. "There is very little opportunity for that in the Arizona desert."

Though he is not exactly mellowing, Eisenman seems pleased to be putting his views into practice instead of simply on paper. If he has to listen to interviewers quote back to him a few extreme statements from his long paper trail of opinions, well, he can live with that.

"Do I mind that the young, radical Peter Eisenman who said it wasn't necessary to build is building large-scale projects?" he asks rhetorically. "No, I don't. It's infantile to remain young and radical, as far as I'm concerned. It doesn't wear well. What one has to learn is how to grow old. Growing old means learning to compromise and how to build things." Otherwise, he adds, you're just a theoretician.

Elevating the Game: Stadiums of the Future

Design: Wood + Zapata
Seats: 63,000
Budget: $365 million
Completed: 2003
While not universally loved, this redo of the Chicago Bears' famous home entailed erecting a state-of-the-art stadium inside the colonnaded shell of the original.

Design: Herzog & de Meuron
Seats: 66,000
Budget: $410 million
Completed: 2005
The lozenge-shaped arena's translucent skin can be illuminated in red or blue, depending on which of the city's soccer teams is playing.

Design: Von Gerkan, Marg und Partner
Seats: 74,000
Budget: $305 million
Completed: 2004
Werner March's iconic 1936 exterior was retained, but a dramatic partial roof and an updated seating bowl were added to the site of this year's World Cup final.

Design: Foster and Partners and HOK Sport
Seats: 90,000
Budget: $650 million
Completion date: Early 2007
It has the same legendary name but sports a totally new look, marked by a sliding roof supported by a 440-foot-tall arch.

Design: Herzog & de Meuron
Seats: 91,000
Budget: $270 million
Completion date: End of 2007
Initial plans for the Olympic venue were scaled back, but the hyperfuturist structure—often likened to a bird's nest—is eye-popping.

Design: Devrouax + Purnell and HOK Sport
Seats: 41,000
Budget: $610 million
Completion date: 2008
Criticized by some as dull, this HOK project promises to break from the boilerplate retro baseball parks that the firm is famous for.

CHIVAS ESTADIO, Guadalajara, Mexico
Design: Studio Massaud
Seats: 45,000
Budget: $90 million
Completion date: Spring 2007
Melding seamlessly into the landscape, the structure calls to mind a volcanic crater, its ring-shaped roof suggesting a cloud (or a flying saucer) hovering above.

BALTIC ARENA, Gdansk, Poland
Design: Rhode Kellermann Wawrowsky
Seats: 40,000
Budget: $100 million
Completion date: 2010
A transparent skin allows the stadium to glow from within, revealing a framework that evokes the region's shipbuilding traditions.


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