Friday, February 7, 2014

Four Buildings, One Impressive Roof
Dallas Cowboys Stadium (a.k.a. AT&T Stadium) in Arlington, Texas

Sure, it's an impressive stadium.

And yeah, it looks pretty unique.  So unique, in fact, that a local architecture critic here in Dallas was surprised to see its design so brazenly copied for one of the Sochi Olympic venues.

Back in 2009, the Dallas Cowboys football team left their storied home in Irving, a pile of steel and concrete whose only distinguishing characteristic was a hole in its roof, so, as was said, "God could watch His favorite NFL team play."  They moved over to within a couple of miles of my home, in the bustling city of Arlington, Texas, and set up shop in a dazzling, commanding, and sleek palace that holds a unique place within the National Football League.

In a sport known as much for blue-collar bravado as it is for its gridiron gladiators, the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium - which was recently officially rechristened "AT&T Stadium" - and its owner, Jerry Jones, have created a paradox.  Sure, it's where American football is played, as well as soccer, and rock concerts, college football, and a host of other sweaty, pop-culture events.  Yet all of that loud, raucous activity takes place in a drop-dead-gorgeous building that itself is its own world-class attraction.

Jones tasked his wife, Gene, to commission millions of dollars in custom artwork for his trophy property, a trophy property he paid HKS Architects of Dallas to design with meticulous attention to detail.  Slick curtain walls of silver glass sheathe the sides of his stadium, and most importantly, triumphant steel arches soar across the length of the playing field, supporting a retractable canopy.  Massive plate-glass doors at both ends of the stadium let natural light inside, and also glow with dazzling effect when night games are being played inside.

I'm not a fan of the NFL, or of Jerry Jones, whose tenure as owner of America's Team has been anything but stellar.  But I'm a big fan of this stadium, even though taxpayers here in Arlington have picked up part of the tab for building it.  It's the most iconic building in the State of Texas, I believe.  It's more spectacular than our grand state capitol building in Austin, and far more recognizable than the original Kimbel Art Museum by Louis Khan in Fort Worth, arguably the most architecturally significant building in Texas.

Fisht Stadium
Fisht Stadium in Sochi, Russia
So with all of that going for it, Mark Lamster, the architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News, sounds appropriately puzzled that officials with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, would agree to build a stadium that so closely mimics it.  You'll see it tonight, if you watch the opening ceremonies for these winter games, and at the closing ceremonies, and you'll likely marvel at the arching trusses that support its roof, a key element of its design.

Key elements that have been boldly copied, and not entirely successfully.

It's called Fisht Stadium, in honor of a nearby mountain of the same name, and we're told its roofline is meant to suggest snowy mountain peaks, which sounds appropriate, considering this is the Winter Olympics.  However, the Fisht's roofline also suggests either a low-budget job to begin with, or too much corruption eating away at its pricetag to complete it as it was intended.  As Lamster points out, most of the design execution below the roof and those impressive trusses looks cheap and sloppy; but this is Russia, after all.  As we've already learned from many reporters already posting tweets and blog entries from Sochi, Russian planning for these Olympics seems to have been long on first-glance wow-factors and woefully sort on everything else.

That cheapness, however, might also explain Russia's willingness to accept what is virtually a miniature version of the Cowboys Stadium concept.  Fisht Stadium has some extra girth around its belly to try and disguise its uncanny resemblance to Cowboys Stadium, and its bubble-wrap skin lacks sleekness, just as a pillow-stitched down coat does.  But maybe this too is supposed to evoke a Russian motif?  Perhaps we could call the Fisht Russia's "Babushka" version of the Cowboys prototype?

Just don't presume that Cowboys Stadium really is an original prototype.  For all of the accolades HKS has garnered with its design for the NFL's largest venue, they're not making much of an effort to educate their fans on their own inspirations for their project.  Because, for all of its glamor and intrigue, Cowboys Stadium is not the first of its kind.

It may not even be the second.

Ōita Stadium

To explain what I mean, we need to travel over to Japan, where a couple of lesser municipal venues have been languishing in the shadows of Cowboys Stadium.
Ōita Stadium in Ōita, Japan
First, let's consider the remarkable similarities Ōita Stadium, opened in 2001, shares with the HKS concept for Cowboys Stadium.  Designed by Kisho Kurokawa, Ōita Stadium is a multi-purpose building in the Japanese city of the same name, and it utilizes the elegant sliced-dome aesthetic to the same powerful affect as Cowboys Stadium.

A significant difference exists between the two buildings, however, and it comes in regard to Ōita Stadium's saucer-shaped roof.  It employs lateral trusses, attached to a central longitudinal truss, whereas Cowboys Stadium goes all-out with just two mammoth longitudinal trusses, onto which the rest of the building's roof structure is attached.

Still, at least visually, the resemblance is uncanny, isn't it?

Fujisawa Municipal Gymnasium
Fujisawa Municipal Gymnasium in Fujisawa, Japan
Even if you don't want to concede that Ōita Stadium is a legitimate precursor to Cowboys Stadium, you have to give serious consideration to an even earlier building, the Fujisawa Municipal Gymnasium, again in the Japanese city of the same name. 

It was designed by the celebrated architect Fumihiko Maki and constructed in 1984, replete with steel arched trusses to support the roof, and broad flanks fanning out from those trusses exactly like the roof atop Cowboys Stadium.  

Okay, so the Fujisawa roof isn't retractable, but in terms of aesthetics, aren't the similarities between it and Cowboys Stadium too obvious to ignore?  So why ignore them?  Isn't seeing believing?  With Cowboys Stadium, its dominant feature is its roof design, a design that could almost have been copied from Fujisawa Gymnasium.  Just look at more photos of it, if you need further convincing.

Not that the HKS interpretation of what is obviously an inspiration from Maki's gym design is a bad one.  And if the designers at HKS literally had no idea that Maki's Japanese gym even existed, it speaks to the universal triumph of the roofing conceptualization they share, and the drama the two-arched-truss system affords rooflines covering broad, uninterrupted rooms.  After all, one of the reasons why so many sports fields are open to the elements is that the conventional method for supporting a roof involves pillars or columns, and those can seriously interfere with playing most sports!  It could be that with, first, the Maki design, and now, its application by HKS on a much grander scale, we'll be seeing more and more of these stadium roofing solutions around the world.

Indeed, Russia's Fisht Stadium is proof of that.  Even if it looks like an inferior knock-off of its far-better-executed progenitors.  And should we be surprised?  Russians have a reputation of copying Western technology and design with impunity, and masquerading them as comparable to their originals.  Again, perhaps with their Fisht, it's all in pursuit of a Russian motif.

As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

So, as an Arlington taxpayer who helped pay for the new home of the Dallas Cowboys, to Russia I say "Спасибо!" (pronounced SPAH-see-bah)

Which is "Thank you" in Russian.

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