Saturday, February 5, 2011

Matthew Knight Arena—A New Landmark for Eugene

Matthew Knight Arena (all photos by me)

My wife and I finally had our opportunity to attend an event at the University of Oregon’s new Matthew Knight Arena last Saturday, January 29. Despite forward Amanda Johnson’s game-high total of 26 points, our hometown UO Women’s Basketball team lost a hard-fought contest to the visiting Cal Bears. Regardless of the outcome on the floor, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and join those singing the praises of the sparkling new facility.

I won’t go to great lengths to describe our visit. Many others have already written expansively about how the new arena represents a quantum leap in amenity and accommodation beyond what old McArthur Court could offer. Fellow blogger and Oregon Duck fan Brian Libby did a particularly good job of reviewing the LEED Gold-rated design by TVA Architects and Ellerbe Becket through the lens of an architectural critic. I also wrote an earlier post after visiting the building during its construction.(1)

What I will do is share some pictures I took and observations from our game-day experience. I will then offer a few thoughts about what Matthew Knight Arena signifies for Eugene.

View from the intersection of Franklin Boulevard and Villard Street.

Viewed from Franklin Boulevard the arena makes a big impression. It is a landmark, a new gateway at the eastern end of the University of Oregon campus. It looms over its neighbors and yet at the same time is a welcoming presence. The pewter-like metal cladding and glass curtain walls agreeably reflect the character of the light that strikes the building’s sides.

Massive columns greet fans as they enter Matthew Knight Arena.

It’s immediately evident upon crossing the entry threshold that the new facility is light years removed from Mac Court. For one thing, the spaces that encircle the wood-clad walls of the seating bowl are generously proportioned.

Daylight floods the main concourse.

The concourse is brightened by daylight and offers panoramas of the surrounding neighborhood. The transparency of the curtain walls also allows views from the outside in, especially at night.

The interiors don’t seem fabulously lavish, as one might expect of the most expensive college basketball arena in the land. The finish palette features an abundance of gypsum wallboard, exposed concrete, and rubber base, rather than gold leaf and marble.

One of the two Duck Stores in the new arena.

There is a much greater variety of food concessions to select from, including a Voodoo Doughnuts outlet (yum!). There are nine toilet rooms for each gender, plus four family restrooms. There are not one, but two shiny Duck Stores!

The interior of the seating bowl itself is remarkably intimate. Ellerbe Becket crafted a cozy setting that compares more than favorably to the ambiance of McArthur Court’s snug confines.(2) The absence of enclosed luxury suites (that could have generated huge sums of revenue) and the steep rake of the seats bring as many fans as close to the action as possible. Matt Court will be intimidating.

Against the Oregon State Beavers on January 23, the Oregon Women’s debut in the new arena drew a Pac-10 record crowd of 12,320. The attendance for the Cal game was much more modest, only 4,011 fans; however, with the “room reduction curtain” in place, there were no large swaths of empty seats once the game started.

Too much visual stimulus.

The court floor—well, I guess I’m among those who don’t like the “Deep in the Woods” graphic. It’s gimmicky and vertigo-inducing. And where’s the center court line? It’s supposedly there but I couldn’t see it. I’d be surprised if players and officials can always distinguish it during the course of frantic play. No doubt there’ll be a few missed “over-and-back” and timeline violation calls.

I’m all for Oregon’s new “tradition” of thinking outside the box and standing out in a crowd. I love the fact that the football team has a bazillion different uniform combinations. I like the athletic department’s aggressive and flashy marketing. The shadowy forest painted on the court floor just seems inconsistent with the clean and sleek aesthetic that has become a hallmark of the Ducks.

The adjacent practice courts, here populated by kids and their parents during a pre-game event.

Overall, the spectator experience is first-rate, from the moment you catch a glimpse of the “Knightvision” video board through the entrance tunnels, to the comfort of the seats, and the unobstructed views of the action on the floor. It is truly a “theater for basketball.” I look forward to seeing many more games at Matthew Knight Arena in years to come.

Click to enlarge the photo so that you can read the "Matt" motto.

Now that the arena is complete, I’ve noticed that my perception of Eugene is suddenly changing. Previously, I never regarded the morphology of Eugene as particularly city-like. Its spatial structure lacked the rich layering that is characteristic of memorable urban environments. Landmark buildings are essential components of such environments, and until recently, Eugene’s collection was woefully small and awash in a sea of banality.

Aside from the many fine buildings cloistered on the U of O campus, it was arguable that the number of “landmark” structures in Eugene could be counted on one hand: 1) the Hult Center for the Performing Arts; 2) the Eugene Public Library; 3) the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House; 4) the downtown Post Office; perhaps 5) the Grain Millers silos. There are buildings that are more physically prominent; the unfortunate Ya-Po-Ah Terrace immediately comes to mind. There are noteworthy examples of ecclesiastic design, including First Christian Church. There are landmark neighborhoods, such as the East Skinner Butte Historic District. Until recently though, Eugene’s natural features—Skinner Butte, Spencer Butte, the Willamette River, and the surrounding hills—were its most memorable landmarks. The majority of the city’s architecture was unremarkable and ordinary.

Landmark buildings are significant for architectural, historical, or cultural reasons. The influence they exert upon their surroundings is not unlike that of massive objects in the cosmos. Their gravitational pull attracts other objects, combining to create systems greater than the constituent elements. As elements of a complex system (a city), landmark buildings function as centers, parts that are distinguishable from the whole system and yet cooperate with it. Matthew Knight Arena will warp, bend, and shape the future development of the city fabric around it. I view its completion as a “tipping point” for Eugene, an achievement of critical mass.

As the Register-Guard noted in a January 14, 2011 editorial, Eugene has in quick succession acquired three first-rate pieces of architecture, a necklace of modernist gems along Franklin Boulevard: TVA/Ellerbe Becket’s Matthew Knight Arena, ZGF’s Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes, and Morphosis’ Wayne L. Morse Federal Courthouse. A pattern is beginning to form and as it emerges, momentum gathers to sustain it.

This momentum includes budding efforts to revitalize the EWEB riverfront property, develop the mixed-use Walnut Station area on Franklin Boulevard, and breathe new life into Eugene’s moribund downtown. It is bolstered by the expansion of Lane Transit District’s EmX BRT system and an attendant increase in LTD ridership. The Envision Eugene process, currently underway, is identifying strategies for meeting the economic needs of Eugene residents, providing affordable housing for all income levels, planning for climate and energy uncertainty, promoting compact urban development, and protecting neighborhood livability and natural resources.

The combined effect of developments like Matthew Knight Arena, infrastructure improvements, and inspired planning heralds a new, emergent urbanity. After a protracted adolescence, Eugene is finally maturing as a city.

(1) My Matthew Knight Arena Sneak Peek has easily received the greatest number of page views of any of my blog posts. Over 7,000 unique visitors have clicked the page since I wrote it last April.

(2) As a specialist in sports facility design, Kansas City-based Ellerbe Becket designed the seating bowl and court. Robert Thompson, FAIA, of TVA Architects was the lead architect for Matthew Knight Arena.

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