Jan 31, 2019 | Atlanta, GA
On Sunday, February 3, 2019, crowds will unite under one roof (or “oculus” as it is known by Atlantans) to celebrate the spectacle that is Super Bowl LIII.
The Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home to the National Football League’s (NFL) Atlanta Falcons and the Major League Soccer (MLS) team Atlanta United Football Club, opened in August 2017. One of the newest stadia in the United States, the Mercedes-Benz seats up to 75,000 people and features novel design technologies including a retractable roof and a 63,000 square-foot video board that encircles the roof aperture.
With the Super Bowl taking place in our own backyard, we felt it was apropos to take a look at what stadia represent and discuss how stadia design can add value to city’s identity.
A Sunday Gathering at Mercedes-Benz Stadium
“[Stadia] really are secular cathedrals,” said Benjamin Flowers, professor in the Georgia Tech School of Architecture, recently appointed associate vice provost for advocacy and conflict resolution, and our very own stadia expert. Flowers’ newest book, Beautiful Moves: Designing Stadia, takes a deep dive into the design of stadia, calling it “an architectural type as captivating as the play occurring on the pitch.”
“Think about it.” Flowers continued. “You go at certain times of the week, at certain times of day, wearing certain kinds of clothing; you sing certain kinds of songs that are like the hymns that you know, you eat certain kinds of food. You have a sense of comradery with people you have never known in your life before because they’re there supporting the team you support. You hug them and you cry and scream with them.”
Even simply seeing the pitch for the first time can feel like a spiritual experience. “My favorite moment probably on any ground is when you’re walking towards the seating and the field first becomes visible,” said Flowers. “It’s that moment of reveal--when the enormity of what you are now a part of becomes apparent.”
The stadia experience is unlike any other. These colossal buildings have the ability to bridge political divides. “In the United States, politicians of all political stripes routinely support public financing of stadium construction for professional sports leagues,” said Flowers. “And so, you find mayors and city councils in places as politically varied as Atlanta, Minneapolis, Seattle, Houston, and Arlington, TX (home of the Dallas Cowboys) agreeing to spend public dollars to support what is a private enterprise.”
Stadia also connect people from various races, classes, and creeds. Flowers said one reason stadia have such an impact in society is, “You’re mixing the social power of sport with the social practice of architecture—two of the most powerful forces in modern society. That is the only place in modern life where most people share that kind of kinship with tens of thousands of others as broadly and as generously as they do across lines or race, class, and gender.”
Stadia and the City
Just as stadia can unite and inspire a crowd, they are also capable of adding to a city’s identity, thereby, inspiring a sense of community. For example, when the U.S. Bank Stadium was built in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the design employed ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) for the walls and roof so that the skyline became a part of the crowd’s experience. ETFE was also used for the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, adding to the trend of using the skyline as part of the building’s design.
“We have the world’s busiest airport and if we look at flight patterns going into and out of Hartsfield-Jackson, a huge number of those planes fly in close enough to Mercedes-Benz that everyone onboard and looking out the window sees it,” observed Flowers. “The Atlanta skyline is sufficiently generic, and it’s popular for filming because it can stand in for almost any place. What Mercedes-Benz does is it gives the city of Atlanta something it didn’t have before—an architectural icon that is immediately recognizable and globally broadcast.”
When selecting a Super Bowl-worthy stadium, the NFL considers more than just the size and newness of the stadium. They also consider the building’s visual appeal both inside and outside the stadium. Is it striking? Will it provide a strong establishing shot? “And that is something that leagues are super attentive to—how these things photograph for broadcast coverage, in addition to how full they look and how dynamic they are when the audience forms a kind of moving curtain background to the field.”
Stadium Design from the Inside Out
For those lucky enough to attend the Super Bowl in-person, the stadium’s design is even more complex.
“One of the things you have to keep in mind is when you go to any one of these concessions that are selling food or drink, all that stuff has to come from inside the stadium during normal operations. It is not being trucked in, in real time. So it’s got to have vast storage capacity for all of that. In some stadiums, the beer supply is all centrally located. So when you go buy a pint at a particular bar at the stadium, that beer is being piped in from some central location that might be three stories away,” explains Flowers.
“Part of the design challenge in a lot of these venues is how do you address the need to be able to serve 85,000 beers in 15 minutes. It’s actually quite challenging. It’s more of a mechanical engineering problem more than an architectural problem, but it is something that happens, “ Flowers continues. “How do you have systems that will allow you to flush 85,000 flushes at once? You can’t rely on municipal water supply alone to do that. So most stadiums have these huge water tanks so that you have enough water pressure to manage those kinds situations, all of which are hidden from you because they want your experience to be seamless and magical and effortless. But there’s a lot of back-of-the-house stuff that goes on in these buildings.”
During the Super Bowl, the back-of-the-house need for storage is heightened. In addition to being the biggest football game of the year, the Super Bowl is host to the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show. So where do they store the staging for the Halftime Show?
“That’s under the stadium,” Flowers said. “When you look out in a stadium, there’s a vast infrastructure that you would never know as a fan that exists in there. All of that is in the body of the building, but is not visually accessible to the average visitor. You have to go into highly controlled areas that are underneath the stadium, behind the stands, and in some cases, underneath the field itself. It really depends on the particular site. But at Mercedes-Benz, it would probably be some range of all of those elements.”
From their detailed, and in some cases, hidden interiors to their elaborate exteriors, stadia serve as an iconic contribution to their urban landscape. The Mercedes-Benz Stadium not only has the infrastructure to support the biggest football game of the year, but also incorporated the Atlanta skyline into its design. “By providing that visual link,” Flowers said, “the stadium becomes a powerful symbol of urban identity.”
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Benjamin Flowers, Professor in the Georgia Tech School of Architecture and Associate Vice Provost for Advocacy and Conflict Resolution