Q&A: Architect of A’s Las Vegas stadium on Sydney Opera House comps, ‘armadillo’ look

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The plans for the A’s new stadium in Las Vegas were unveiled Tuesday, with designs produced by the same lead architect who once drew up plans for a new ballpark in Oakland. Bjarke Ingels, who runs an eponymous firm, spoke to The Athletic on Wednesday about those instant comparisons to the Sydney Opera House, the lack of a retractable roof, and how he compares this proposal to what he envisioned had the team stayed in Oakland.

Bjarke Ingels Group will work with HNTB to design the nine-acre stadium parcel as part of a larger 35-acre design on the site of the Tropicana hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. Bally’s Corp. and Gaming & Leisure Properties plan to build a new resort in place of the Tropicana, but how the A’s stadium and the new construction of the resort around it will fit together has not been decided.

Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

In the press release, you had a quote that the stadium “is like a spherical armadillo — shaped by the local climate — while opening and inviting the life of The Strip to enter and explore. In the city of spectacle, the A’s ‘armadillo’ is designed for passive shading and natural light.” Where did the armadillo idea originally come from?

I mean, it’s not like we tried to make it look like an armadillo. We tried to factor in some of the main qualities and some of the main challenges of the site.

A major quality is the opportunity to relate inside-out to the Strip, and the energy of the intersection of the Strip, where you have (the hotels) New York, New York, and MGM and Excalibur. That’s basically in the general northern direction. And you also want to face north, plus-minus a few degrees, for the field.

Then you have the blazing sun of the Nevada desert, which rises in the east, goes over the south in an arc and sets in the west. So we were trying to maximize the openness and the sense of being in Vegas on the Strip, the blue skies of the desert, while still protecting the audience and the players from being cooked on a 100-degree warm day.

That led to this idea of ribbons that bounce back and forth, creating a series of very, very generous clerestories that allow you to see the sky, and the sunset if it’s a late game. And then also this massive opening, where you see the entire urban spectacle of the Strip, and the skyline. Maximizing soft daylight from the north, minimizing thermal exposure and glare, protecting the audience from the blazing sun, while still having a strong presence on the street. You can actually see from the surrounding buildings from the strip into the arena.

Regarding the process, is a year’s time a typical amount to put together the project? Is it slow, fast? And when you first visited the site, did you envision what it has now become? The A’s wanted a retractable roof at one point.

We’ve been through a bit of a journey. And obviously it’s no secret that we all really love what we had created for Oakland. I think I’ve been working with John (Fisher) and Dave (Kaval) for five years or something like that. And of course, taking advantage of the Oakland climate, we had created an entirely outdoor stadium. It became very, very clear after an afternoon and the following morning in Vegas, that we needed to think differently in Vegas.

For a long while we were looking at various versions of retractable roofs. But I was never a fan of it. I went to the Super Bowl at the Falcons’ stadium in Atlanta, they have this kind of legendary Chuck Hoberman so-called retractable roof, but in the end it turned into very expensive light wells. At the Super Bowl when the fighter jets flew over the field, we couldn’t see them at all because there was like this multi-story thickness of the roof structure.

The roof cost like the same as the stadium, and I think they’ll never open or close it because it doesn’t make any change. So I was much more into the idea of trying to create a permanent solution that would be beautiful and successful all the time, instead of a fat, clunky, mechanical thing that may disappear a little bit, but would always leave a ton of a ton of steel up there.

The permanence and the lightness of the ribbons, the arch, is a very effective way of producing long spans. This slenderness of the edge of the ribbons, the generosity of the clerestories … means that we’ll have a very beautiful and very elegant structure that, at all times, will feel incredibly connected to the Strip.

What was the challenge of nine acres? People were doubting that you could build on a parcel of that size. From your end, how did that play out, and did it reduce the possibility of a retractable roof?

We ended up choosing what we see as the best permanent solution for the roof. And also, honestly, the sun and the heat will dictate the preference for a conditioned space the majority of the time in Vegas — it’s just the fact of the climate of the city.

But regarding the nine acres, of course, it’s been a design criteria. And no doubt when you’re trying to sort of orchestrate the logistics of arriving and departing 30,000 people from a game or a concert, you can definitely use all the space in the world.

We benchmark a lot with Fenway and Wrigley as examples of compact fields, actually so compact that some of the sightlines are in fact compromised. But we are actually achieving similar or better intimacy without having any compromised seats. And I think all of those exercises actually also take you towards a more compact footprint. And then the circular perimeter, combined with the somewhat diamond-shaped — maybe it looks a little bit like the space capsule of a rocket on the plan drawing — the difference between those two geometries gives you some kind of indoor-outdoor plaza areas around the bowl that I think provides a great kind of holding area before and after the games.

Did you have to go back and forth with the resort on how the stadium would look? What was the interplay? Obviously you have to design it to the A’s specifications, but you’re also part of this larger Bally’s plan.

When we started, a general master plan had been decided upon between Bally’s and the A’s. Now that we are a step further, we are taking a closer look together with Bally’s to actually make sure that the interests and dreams and desires of all sides are met as closely as possible.

Because ultimately, the more light and air we can create around the arena, the more light and air will also be felt from the hotel guests. So in that sense, now that we’re a little bit further with the A’s, we’re trying to get up to speed with the surrounding resort.

There were a lot of online comparisons to the Sydney Opera House. Did you see those?

I’ve seen it, and I mean, I can see the point, I’ll definitely take it as a compliment. I think it’s one of the most beautiful buildings on Earth. And I think in all fairness, this is a very different building. It’s a circle in floorplan, it’s essentially a dome. But it is true that the way that the ribbons arch and nest could evoke some thoughts to a distant Australian cousin. Regardless, I’ll definitely take it as a compliment.

It wasn’t a direct thing that you looked at and thought, ‘I want to mimic this.’

No, I think in that sense, I do think that maybe the armadillo is a slightly more direct reference in the sense of the nesting and overlapping of the shells in the skin of an armadillo, of course provides its movability, which is why it can sort of fold into a curve. But it also allows the armor to create protection from predators, but also from the environment and then it can ventilate in the gap in between, and that’s essentially what happens here. The armadillo is maybe a more direct reference than the Sydney Opera.

I saw some people say yesterday, ‘how could they possibly build that for $1.5 billion?’ Meaning they thought it would cost more. Are you confident that it can be done in that specification?

It’s been something we’ve been designing very closely towards. Actually in the design process we have been engaging with major general contractors to get pretty authentic pricing. So we’re very confident about the budget. Of course, it’s not fully detailed, but we already have a very good handle on what this will cost.

There’s a lot of unhappy A’s fans with the team moving. As someone who has designed the hopes of the people in Oakland and now the hopes of the people in Las Vegas, is it bittersweet in a way? Did you love the design in Oakland?

I absolutely love the design I had in Oakland. When there was talk of moving to Vegas, I was definitely also hoping that ultimately the City of Oakland and the A’s could find some agreement, as I know that the A’s leadership and ownership were hoping. But when ultimately that failed to materialize, we had to somehow take a deep sigh and try to start with a fresh mind.

We had the benefit of having quite deep intimate knowledge of the A’s, and we had a lot of dreams that we had cooked up for the Oakland design. But ultimately because Vegas is such a different climate and such a different context, we had to in many ways start from scratch.

But I actually think there are way more elements of the Oakland design left in the inner workings than meets the eye. Because obviously what ends up meeting the eye primarily is the exterior shell, which is radically different.

What parts are similar that we don’t see as easily?

It’s that circular part where the whole bowl was wrapped with a public park. You do have that as a continuous wraparound movement. That way you have a series of destinations around the bowl, coming down at the outfield and rising behind and coming down again on the other side. And in this case, they just keep inside the curve of the arches. But a lot of that’s programmatic continuity, a lot of that relationship between the various amenities and concessions and the bowl still live on, even if the overall experience is completely different.

Should this be considered a final design, or does it keep evolving?

I would be very surprised if what we are looking at four, five years now, you wouldn’t be able to recognize exactly what we’ve shown. That said, a lot of things will evolve and acquire more detail and refinement. But for sure, this is the concept we are moving forward with.

(Top Photo: Rendering by Negativ)

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