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Steelers Heinz Field dominates, rewards fans with spectacular scenery

Wednesday, August 01, 2001

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

So what'll it be? The Steel Trap? The Mustard Bowl? The Screaming Yellow Zonker?

By any nickname, Heinz Field is a massive, rugged, in-your-face building, with exposed gray steel and sage-colored cast stone framing high-intensity, "Steeler gold" seats.

Steel trusses support the upper deck of Heinz Field. Designers dubbed the four-pronged supports "quad pods." (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

"I think it adds a great spot of color on the North Shore," said architect Melinda Lehman of HOK Sport, project manager for Heinz Field.

If you're a space shuttle astronaut, perhaps.

If you're a Pittsburgher viewing the stadium from one of the city's traditional vantage points, those yellow seats are a bit more than a spot of color.

In a city where most Downtown buildings are clothed in variations and combinations of grays, greens, browns and buffs, Heinz Field stands out like a yellow submarine beached on a bed of heather.

You want not to hate those seats. Really you do. After all, they're the color of sunflowers and school buses and smiley faces. Only a misanthrope hates yellow, right?

But they're just so bright. So bold. So oppressively, insistently, unrelentingly almost-primary yellow, everything else pales and recedes in comparison.

Heinz Field, you're no Pitt Stadium.

Donuts to go

In their salad days, pro football teams often played on college fields like Pitt Stadium and Philadelphia's Franklin Field, both built in the 1920s -- grass fields set in seating bowls wrapped in Romanesque brick facades that, despite their scale, looked at home in their historic neighborhoods.

The Steelers -- then called the Pirates -- first played in 1933 at Forbes Field, their home for the next 25 years. From 1958 to 1963, they alternated between Forbes Field and Pitt Stadium, but from 1964 on, they played at Pitt until Three Rivers Stadium opened in 1970.

By the early '70s, many pro teams had graduated to multipurpose, state-of-the-art stadiums like Three Rivers, buildings that, a generation later, came to be seen as concrete donuts lacking personality, urban views and -- more important to team owners -- high-rent luxury boxes and club seats.

Some of the donuts went on to lead baseball-only lives (in Anaheim, St. Louis and Cincinnati); some were converted to soccer fields (in Houston and Washington, D.C.); some, like Three Rivers Stadium and Seattle's Kingdome, were demolished. And in Philadelphia, Kansas City, Buffalo, Detroit and East Rutherford, N.J., some still are hosting NFL football games, at least for now.

Unlike the 1990s revival of the great American ballpark, the rush to build new football stadiums in the past decade saw no parallel resurgence of neo-traditional designs modeled on Pitt Stadium and its cousins.

There's also been no sweeping movement toward high-concept, innovative architecture. Only one team, the Arizona Cardinals, has invited a prominent, risk-taking architect to the party: New Yorker Peter Eisenman, with HOK Sport, is designing a multipurpose stadium/convention center for a 60-acre site in Tempe.

Scheduled to open in 2004, it has the sinuous curves and folded planes of Eisenman's rejected plan for the Carnegie Science Center expansion -- this time wrapped around a retractable roof and a moveable grass field, mounted on rails, that will roll outside on non-game days to keep the turf alive and open the stadium to conventions and other events.

A nod to context

While the scale of all these new stadiums is immense, architects do strive to make them fit in by tailoring the design and materials to their cities.

Light pours into a Heinz Field lounge through a glass curtain wall. Supporting the wall are steel columns perforated with hexagons, derived from the Steelers' logo. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

"These are sometimes the biggest structures in a town," HOK's Lehman said. "We try to respond contextually."

For Heinz Field, "we tried to give it a human scale that reflected more of the [street] grid. That's why the sides are linear rather than following the outline of the bowl."

Members of her team also have worked on new stadiums for the Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins.

The Ravens' PSINet Stadium has a red brick exterior that pays homage to nearby Oriole Park at Camden Yards and, presumably, the city's historic row houses. FedEx Field, home of the Redskins, is clad in white aluminum and steel to complement the white buildings and marble monuments of Washington, D.C.

For the Steelers stadium, the Rooney family "wanted us to acknowledge the history of Pittsburgh and also bring in an element of looking forward, this is where Pittsburgh is going."

That meant using steel, as all stadiums do, but in both a structural and expressive way.

"We wanted an honest steel building," said architect Ben Stindt, one of Heinz Field's designers. "All of the steel is honest structure; it really has purpose," something that sets it apart from nostalgia-driven designs.

"We wanted to use steel," Lehman said, "in a way that was more modern looking, especially the elements that hold up the upper deck."

Lehman and her team dubbed these four-pronged, gold-painted, upper-deck trusses "quad pods."

"The more traditional use would have been a more two-dimensional look."

The tapering steel columns that support the glass curtain wall are perforated with hexagons, a shape derived from the Steelers logo.

"We thought that [logo] shape was interesting but didn't want to be so literal about it," Stindt said.

At the base, "we wanted to anchor the building to the site and for that we used stone," Lehman said. As with HOK's PNC Park, "that came from looking at a lot of the buildings and bridges [in Pittsburgh], which have a heavy stone base."

To keep the cost down, Heinz Field's stone is artificial, cast stone, a gray-green color that Ariscraft, its manufacturer, calls sage.

"The building grows out of that and becomes lighter, more airy, more open as you move up. The glass is a more modern building element, which ties into a lot of the buildings in [Downtown] Pittsburgh and gives great views of the surrounding areas," Lehman said.

While the Baltimore stadium's upper concourse provides views of the city skyline, and FedEx Field's upper concourse offers a glimpse of D.C.'s monuments, Heinz Field, sited on axis with the Point State Park fountain, will have the most dramatic urban panorama of any NFL stadium.

With the only open-ended field in professional football, Heinz Field presents a spectacular skyline laced with rivers and punctuated by the fountain. The view from those yellow seats is simply awesome, a never-quite-seen-this-way-before panorama of rivers and skyscrapers nestled in a green valley. And even the uppermost seats, where the best views are to be had, offer a surprising sense of intimacy and connection to the field.

Without a doubt, Heinz Field enjoys a prime riverfront location in one of America's most scenic cities.

Unfortunately, it upstages everything else around it.

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