Having had the weekend to digest the unveiling of the Big House’s new design, the shock of the proposal has subsided to allow for public discussion. Indeed, the project is a huge change, and should be open to public scrutiny. As sports columnist Jim Carty wrote in Friday’s Ann Arbor News: “This isn’t so much a stadium expansion as a new stadium.” So let us discuss – with all of the facts.
Spin is common in politics, as this mid-term election reminds us. Technically not lies though not unbiased facts, slanted reports only include one side of the story. Though many believe it a purely technical trade, architecture is no stranger to spin. The Big House controversy is proof that architects need to present their ideas carefully in order to build anything at all.
Most of the time, spin is a harmless and necessary way for fact to support opinion. I become upset, however, when legitimate concerns are dismissed through the manipulation of fact and the use of generalities.
Currently, certain aspects of the proposed Big House design are raising questions. These are real concerns. They are not being heard. As one expansion supporter wrote in a stadium feedback e-mail, as reported by The Ann Arbor News: “(The opposition is) mainly people who live in a different reality than the rest of us, who want big-time sports, without paying for that privilege.” With that attitude, any objection to the proposal is ridiculous and pure fantasy. Well, here are some facts – based in reality – that tell a slightly different version of what is being proposed.
Before any criticism, it is important to acknowledge what was presented to the public. Two large brick structures are being proposed to flank the east and west sides of the current stadium. Modeled after Yost Arena and the IM Building, these buildings will house two levels of concourse, a new press box and brand new luxury suites. Color elevations and renderings showed these ideas in a vivid and articulate manner.
The new design is neither aesthetically unpleasant nor excitingly original. The luxury box issue has already been settled as financially necessary, so belaboring that contention is futile. Brick is employed in massive quantities, making the building pricier. The fact that the Athletic Department is opting for a quality structure over a less expensive design is refreshing. In sum, the design is grand enough to be impressive, practical enough to be endorsed and not disruptive enough to be hated.
With clients to appease, budgets to meet, regents to handle and fans to impress, the stadium expansion is most certainly a project that requires architectural spin. This bias is presented as sober truth in the form of pictures, facts and details. But pictures can be misleading, facts can be relative and details can be left out.
One of my concerns is the appearance of the completed project. The renderings only show the new design, and everything else is cropped out. How does this design fit into its context? A thin slice of existing stadium can be seen if one looks closely at the renderings. In relation to that existing structure, the expansion appears massive. Understand it is only Jim Carty’s opinion when he says, “There is no massive anything.”
Another apprehension to the new design is not even addressed in these renderings. How will these looming structures appear from inside the stadium? How will it look in an aerial photograph? Michigan Stadium is known for its bowl shape, but the additional brick facades that will sandwich the current arena may appear more like an Oreo cookie with Maize and Blue filling.
Words also skew the scale of this project. The description has been, until now, that the new structures will be ten feet higher than the current scoreboards. Using relative language, one basketball rim taller does not seem like much. Yet if we look at the stadium from Elbel Field, the scoreboards soar above everything else within sight. Buildings of that height may be imposing. One of the reasons the current stadium has a large capacity and low profile is that the grass field is actually below ground level. The proposed towers are over one hundred feet above the ground-level concourse, or half the height of Burton Memorial Tower.
Lastly, the renderings and elevations leave out one important detail: the mechanical parapet. This element is conveniently lightened in the proposed elevations, although it runs the entire length of both additions and is the same height as the “towers.” The public needs some explanation on how the mechanical systems will be addressed, or I fear that they will be disappointed with the final result.
The new proposal does have some good, but also has some bad. Until now, the good has been extolled and the bad omitted. Spin it any way you like, but the final project will be a part of the University’s tradition for generations to come. Dismissing valid concerns may lead to a bigger Big House that doesn’t fulfill its potential. I would hope the University would strive for the best because that is what champions do.