Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Football, Fashion, and Architecture

Sharp dressed men or Project Runway refugees? You decide.

Here’s a post that is a real stretch for me to claim is related to architecture, even if only tangentially. On the other hand, it is about design, so that makes it almost all right.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool (feathers?) fan of the University of Oregon Ducks football team – a season ticket holder and card-carrying member of the Oregon Club of Eugene-Springfield. My blood runs “thunder green” and “lightning yellow.” My wife would tell you that I hum “Mighty Oregon” in my sleep, but I’m not sure I believe her. Anyway, you get the picture.

Like many other Duck fans, I eagerly awaited the latest iteration of sartorial splendor that Nike unveiled this past Tuesday. Oregon Football has become notorious for changing up the look of the players’ uniforms every three years or so.(1) When it comes to the team’s uniforms, the only thing that passes as “tradition” is the absolute abandonment of a traditional look or style. It’s all about change and what young recruits think is cutting-edge and cool.

4 different helmets x 5 different jerseys x 4 different pants = how many unique combinations?

My take on the new look? I’m okay with it, but I always hope for something really crazy from the designers at Nike.(2) In my opinion, the more controversial and outrageous the togs, the better it is for Oregon. Like them or not (and the kids do like them), people are talking about the latest Ducks styling. And that’s the whole point.

Oregon has inherent disadvantages when it comes to competing for the hearts and minds of the most promising high school prospects. Eugene is not a recruiting hotbed. The University of Oregon is not situated in a populous metropolitan area with the associated attractions and distractions. Our weather (rightly or wrongly) is often maligned as wet and dreary. The bottom line is that recruiting does not happen on a level playing field when it’s USC, or Arizona State, or Stanford that the Ducks are up against. Anything that Oregon’s program can do to be on the national radar screen can only help. When it comes to football fashion, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

The new "chrome" helmet

During my regular perusal of the various Duck blogs online, I came across Brian Libby’s comment in response to a post about the new uniforms on the Addicted to Quack blog. Brian is a Portland-based freelance journalist, author, and filmmaker. He’s an avid fan of Duck football, having authored a couple of books on the topic, one of which – The University of Oregon Football Vault – has a place in my library at home. Brian is also a prolific blogger about architecture in the Rose City. His blog – Portland Architecture – is the first place I go online when I want to see what's shaking with P-Town architecture and urban design. He detests the new uniforms (tell us how you really feel Brian) but it was his reference to Michael Graves' Portland Building in his comment on the Addicted to Quack piece that I found amusing. Here’s the URL for the post on Addicted to Quack, followed by the full transcript of Brian’s comment:

LOVE the Ducks, hate the unis

It doesn’t matter if it’s politically correct or incorrect to like or dislike the Ducks uniforms. I absolutely detest them, but I don’t think that makes me less of an Oregon fan. I’m not saying the Ducks have to be as plain-Jane traditional as Penn State or Alabama. But the fake/faux imagery like gladiatorial wings and diamond plating is absolutely ridiculous. Football players don’t need fakery.

My other big beef besides the faux imagery is the addition of first black and now silver to the green/yellow color scheme. What are we, the Oakland Raiders?

Nike has done some really great stuff over the years for Oregon’s uniforms. The “O” logo is masterful, and so are the green helmets overall. The ability to interchange different pants/jerseys is also terrific. But Nike too often — every three years to be exact — seems to want to tinker merely for the sake of tinkering. They did a great job with the original 1999 redesign that was worn during the Joey Harrington era. Maybe the green shading was a tad too dark, but the simple stripe on the sides of the pants and jerseys was elegant and classic.

Oregon’s brand identity, or whatever you want to call it, is based on the notion of change and innovation. That’s fine as a strategy in and of itself. But why fix something that isn’t broken? The green and yellow color scheme didn’t need two more hues to be added. And the two most recent uniform sets (the new ones and the ones worn the last 3 years) don’t need to rely on faux diamond plating or feathers/gladiator wings.

Nobody likes the Portland building in downtown Portland because it’s a silly caricature with fake ribbons on the side of the structure. The Oregon uniforms are the Portland Building of college uniforms: a disingenuous embarrassment.

And I say that being a life-long, ceaselessly loyal Ducks fanatic. Go Ducks! I just wish we looked more like the Harrington or Musgrave teams.”

The Portland Building, Michael Graves, Architect

I simply enjoyed seeing Brian insert an architectural analogy into a line of reasoning about the design merits of uniforms for college football players. Architecture and the Oregon Ducks! A kindred spirit!(3)

Where Brian’s analogy to the Portland Building falls short is that the building is plainly just bad architecture. Some might think that the Ducks look silly when they take to the gridiron, but few fans of college football today would argue that they’re a bad team. The Portland Building is notorious for its functional and urbanistic shortcomings as much as for its poorly scaled, shallow aesthetic. Looking back now, thirty years on, it’s hard to believe that many professionals and academics were so beguiled by Michael Graves’ abstracted, cartoon classicism.

Hmmm . . . Is it possible that Nike’s Beaverton brain trust was nevertheless inspired by Graves’ signature project so close by in downtown Portland? Does that explain the “fake/faux imagery of gladiatorial wings?” Perhaps the outcome would have been dramatically different if Nike had instead looked to its house architects, TVA, for inspiration.(4)

Robert Thompson, FAIA, of TVA Architects with images of the Park Avenue West Tower and Matthew Knight Arena projects.

Brian asserts that the uniforms are a “disingenuous embarrassment.” I don’t see the disingenuous part. There’s nothing deceitful about them. For better or worse, they’re an honest reflection of what the Oregon program has become. An embarrassment? That’s definitely open to debate.

The Portland Building was the victim of shortsighted cost-cutting and cheap materials. By contrast, Oregon Athletics can hardly be accused of doing things on the cheap. Therein, of course, lies an entirely different subject for debate.

There is a public perception that big-time college athletics, football in particular, has skewed the priorities of the University of Oregon. Is it right that Head Coach Chip Kelly is the highest paid public employee in the State of Oregon and that his annual base salary is many times greater than that of long-tenured professors? Maybe not. On the other hand, many Duck football followers will argue that recent success on the field has translated to increased financial support from wealthy donors to academic programs and facilities. They will also point out that the Athletics Department does not rely upon the University’s general fund to cover expenses.

I do have a concern that the architecture of some of the new facilities for Duck Athletics communicates exactly the wrong message. In particular, the mute glass cube of the Academic Learning Center for Athletes, to be surrounded by a water-filled moat, is shockingly aloof and indifferent to the campus of which it is supposedly a part. What were Phil Knight, the Department of Athletics, and the architects thinking? This is a subject for another day.(5)

There are few experiences that surpass the exhilaration of a crisp Saturday afternoon in Autzen Stadium when the home team is on a roll and the crowd is deliriously raucous. College football fans look forward to the promise of every new season and the chance to cheer on their alma mater to victory. We Duck fans also enjoy the extra pleasure of regularly debating the finer points of Oregon Football fashion and design. What do you think of the new uniforms?

(1) The frequency of the design changes is intended to deliver on a promise made by the coaches to incoming players. Players are told that at some time during their career at Oregon they will be asked for their input on the design of a new generation of uniforms.

(2) Sans the wings, these new uniforms are actually quite plain. On the other hand, the new “chrome” helmet is a buzz-worthy surprise.

(3) Brian also expressed his disdain for the new uniforms in a guest column for The Oregonian.

(4) TVA Architects designed Nike’s world headquarters in Beaverton. TVA also helped design the improvements to Hayward Field and is part of the design team (with Ellerbe Becket) for the new Matthew Knight Arena, now under construction.

(5) Still under construction, I hope to render a more objective opinion of the building’s design after it is complete.


Brian Libby said...

Even though we disagree on the uniforms, I appreciate your thoughtfulness in considering our mutual two loves: architecture and Ducks football. Cheers, ---Brian Libby

Randy Nishimura, AIA said...


Thanks for your comment. One thing about the Ducks, they aren't boring!

Love your blog, Portland Architecture. Keep up the great work!


Anonymous said...

I wish the local paper had a architecture reporter. These issues need much more investigation in Eugene.