Prof. designed Cardinals’ nest

On a recent Monday, Peter Eisenman stands at the mouth of Cardinals Stadium, the new home in Glendale, Ariz. that he designed for the NFL’s long-suffering franchise, and chatted with a few stadium employees.

“Is everything running smoothly?” he asks the men who see his prized project on a daily basis.

“Yeah, we took care of all the glitches.”

“The only glitch left is on the field,” Eisenman quips.

So it goes for the Arizona Cardinals, who on Oct. 16 are toiling at 1-4 and are coming off a late-fourth-quarter three-point loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Yet there is a certain anticipation in the air, a guarded optimism that tonight, before a national Monday Night Football audience that’s getting its first glimpse of the new facility, the lowly Cards just might topple the undefeated Chicago Bears and explode into football relevance.

Nearly a decade ago, before the project bounced from Tempe to Mesa to Glendale, the Bidwill family, which has owned the franchise since 1932, chose Eisenman to design the stadium instead of holding a competition between him, Frank Gehry and local architect Will Bruder. The choice was made, Eisenman explained, because he could recite from memory the starting backfield of the 1947 Cardinals — the franchise’s last championship team. A lifelong football fan, Eisenman spoke of the project as the intersection of two passions.

“It’s like a Catholic building a cathedral and seeing High Mass,” he said.

Eisenman, the Louis I. Kahn Visiting Professor at the Yale School of Architecture, has taught regularly at Yale since 2001. Although teaching has always been a treasured and even vital component of his professional life, Eisenman first came to prominence in the late ’60s and early ’70s as a member of the “New York Five,” a group of architects who made waves with an emphasis on form and a return to the modernist purity of Le Corbusier. Some of his more famous projects include the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, a plan for the rebuilding of Ground Zero in Manhattan, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which was completed in Berlin last year.

His latest project — officially renamed “University of Phoenix Stadium” and dubbed “UPS” after the private university purchased the rights for over $150 million earlier this month — is a technological marvel. It seats 63,400 with hardly anyone needing binoculars and can expand to 73,000 for the Super Bowl and other extravaganzas — like the college football national championship game, which it will host in January. The retractable roof, which opened for the first time for the Bears game, is made of a translucent fabric that admits enough light to create the illusion of the outdoors while blocking out the oppressive desert sun. Even the field is retractable. Set on 13 rails, the 160,000-square-foot natural-grass surface slides in and out like a cake pan in an oven, unlike any other facility in North America.

But the stadium offers much more than engineering innovation. Eisenman, who teamed with stadium design leaders HOK Sport for the project, made sure to put his own mark on the building. The stadium is clad in an impressive collection of 10-by-3 steel panels taken “right off the shelf,” as Eisenman is fond of saying, which helped make the project more cost-effective. The panel sections bend to varying degrees and extend to varying lengths, alternating with recessed vertical slits of glass to create a pleasing asymmetry that makes it impossible to label the building as just another dome.

Inside, 700-foot Brunel trusses hang and run parallel to the length of the field like elongated blue whales, creating a visual spectacle that manages to equal the one going on below. The vertical circulation space between the skin and the concourse is a jumble of sunlit, crisscrossing beams that recall the interior ramps of the Wexner Center. The main concourses, which are continuous for about 300 degrees, offer mostly unobstructed views of the playing field and illustrate Eisenman’s credo that “I’m a football fan. I don’t want my football being buggered around with architecture.”

Despite a rabbi-like penchant for discussion for its own sake rather than for the sake of resolution, in this football setting Eisenman, 72, is no longer the form dogmatist he was in his youth. His demeanor is more gregarious than intractable. Perhaps this is a function of the nature of the stadium project: For no other type of client except a football team could one expect Eisenman to be pleased with a job subject to so many compromises.

The gates to the stadium are marked by gigantic red numbers — one of the many aesthetic concessions made for the sake of parking and fan convenience. New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote that the site was “slathered” with graphics, a lament Eisenman shares, and it seems unlikely Eisenman would ever have come up with the name “Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza” for the stadium’s surrounding area.

“Baseball wants a kind of context, both from inside and out,” Eisenman said. “Football doesn’t want any deviation. It’s amazing that we got any asymmetry. If you get 80 percent of the things you wanted, you’re happy.”

Michael Bidwill got almost 100 percent of what he wanted. A former federal prosecutor, Bidwill, 41, is the Cardinals’ vice president and the son of team owner Bill Bidwill. There is no doubt that Bidwill is thrilled with the decision he made nine years ago to team a high-design architect with a traditional stadium firm, an experiment he once worried “could be the sort of thing that blows up in a Petri dish.”

It clearly didn’t. The Cardinals now boast the NFL’s finest home, both aesthetically and technologically, and Bidwill is well-aware of what an advantage that is.

“A stadium’s a really important place because you need a new stadium to compete in this new player-cost model,” he said. “There’s a direct correlation between revenues and success on the field.”

A few hours before game time, renowned Chicago-based architect Stanley Tigerman ’60 ARC ’61, in Arizona with wife and partner Margaret McCurry as Eisenman’s guests for the game, was not willing to indulge in the hype.

Asked if he would still root for his hometown Bears, the endearingly potty-mouthed Tigerman snapped, “Is the [expletive] Pope German?”

Finest start all season

By four p.m. — 90 minutes before kickoff — traffic on the Loop 101 is at a standstill. Monday Night Football has returned to Arizona for the first time since 1999, the sports nation’s eyes at long last on the Cardinals franchise and its new stars and stadium for what promises to be the most-watched Cardinals game since Rod Tidwell caught touchdowns in “Jerry Maguire.”

As if on cue, the Cardinals have their finest start all season. On the opening drive, the Arizona defense begins to rattle Bears quarterback Rex Grossman, the subject of some early-season Most Valuable Player consideration, in what will become a four-quarter theme. Grossman misses on his first two passes, former Cardinal Thomas Jones is stymied for a one-yard gain and the mighty Bears are forced to punt.

When Arizona gains possession, rookie quarterback Matt Leinart goes to work. Having impressed fans in the narrow loss to Kansas City eight days earlier ­— his first career start — Leinart is the primary source of optimism tonight, and he makes good on his promise by completing all five of his passes for 46 yards and a touchdown on the first drive. Running back Edgerrin James, a fellow first-year Cardinal, did the dirty work, gaining 31 yards on seven impressive carries.

That James is even playing for Arizona is remarkable. The former University of Miami star was drafted fourth overall by the Indianapolis Colts in 1999. Teaming with quarterback Peyton Manning, James led the NFL in rushing during his first two seasons and went on to set Colts franchise records for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. But last offseason, with James viewed as only the third-most important member of the NFL’s best offense, the Colts refused to match their running back’s contract demands. Normally having little else to offer besides a warm climate, Cardinals brass took into account projected revenues from an upcoming season of sold-out home games and decided to make an aggressive push. The League’s most high-profile free agent signed a four-year, $30-million deal with Arizona on March 12, happy proof of the financial model Bidwill outlined. After the signing was announced, traffic on azcardinals.com forced the site to crash, and the editorial page of the Arizona Republic wrote, “For a team whose pieces usually find a way to fall apart, things suddenly seem to be coming together.”

One month later, Leinart, the former Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Southern California, slipped in the NFL Draft and fell into Bidwill’s lap. With Leinart fated to depose aging quarterback Kurt Warner, Arizona would finally have a competent passer to throw to its best players, receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.

Sure enough, Leinart triggered the Cardinals’ shocking first half, in which they jumped to a 20-0 lead.

But the Bears would linger long enough to mount a comeback. Their defense, led by Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher, frustrated the Arizona offense. James, after that stellar first drive, would rush for just 24 yards on his next 29 carries. When Chicago pulled within six points in the fourth quarter, the droves of Bears fans on hand made their presence felt, and Urlacher noticed Eisenman’s compact design help turn University of Phoenix Stadium into a southwestern Soldier Field.

“Our fans are always there for us,” Urlacher said after the game. “It was motivating to see them getting intense out there.”

Meanwhile, upstairs in the ESPN broadcast booth, analyst Tony Kornheiser joked that if the Cardinals should squander their enormous lead, the Bidwills ought to tear down the stadium and replace it with that ubiquitous staple of Sun Belt development: a Pizza Hut.

Just a mirage

As the sky grew darker and the game’s outcome grew murkier, something equally striking was occurring above the field. The huge gray trusses, now illuminated by blinding flood lights, whitened in the night sky in a manner reminiscent of the white cornice beyond the outfield bleachers at Yankee Stadium. Now being seen for the first time ever with the roof finally open and the sky a stark black, the trusses reveal the wonder of Eisenman’s work.

Indeed, it is at night that the majesty of the stadium is best conveyed. By day the skin can assume forms ranging from a surreal silver to a drab gray lost in the grainy horizon, to the semblance of spruced-up metal storefront shutters. But claiming that the exterior is iconic only by default — after all, as Eisenman said of vacuous Glendale, “There’s nothing here” — is to shortchange its design. As inside, at night there is a striking contrast between light and dark on the stadium’s exterior. The myriad sources of light inside the stadium cause the skin to emit a brilliant silver glow that electrifies the black sky and black parking lot asphalt in a way no amount of lightning ever could.

The Brunel trusses are the triumph of Eisenman’s work. Their stunning elliptical shape and reflection of light embody form in a world of function. But it is also the silver skin, fraught with potential energy in its glowing bends and asymmetries and choppiness, as it interacts with the recessed glass slits that helps humanize what is too often a rigid and austere rectangular space.

For Eisenman to say that, as a football fan, he does not want architecture to interfere with his football experience is disingenuous. While he took pains to enhance sight lines and acoustics, he endeavored to assert architectural expression in the face of constant opposition, and that is nothing to hide from. Indeed, the success of the stadium’s design is that Eisenman managed to accommodate the soldierly needs of the NFL, which wouldn’t flinch if all its facilities were domes with artificial turf as long as the fields were 100 yards, while still making room for human art of a high order.

Down on the natural-grass field, the lead slipped away from the Cardinals in an improbable Bears comeback. Chicago was statistically dominated, but its defense and special teams accounted for three touchdowns and its record remained immaculate just the same. The Cardinals would go on to lose to the previously winless Oakland Raiders six days later, the third loss in the three-game career of Leinart, who was defeated only twice in three starting seasons at USC.

With his seamless melding of form and function, Eisenman has created the new standard for architectural expression and engineering technology in North American stadium design. Yet for the Cardinals, it is just a mirage.

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