New arena aims to pull Sacramento into new era without clashing with skyline

Golden 1 Center architect says arena has 'muscular athleticism'

Rob Rothblatt of AECOM talks about Golden 1 Center arena's massive front hangar doors and balconies.
Up Next
Rob Rothblatt of AECOM talks about Golden 1 Center arena's massive front hangar doors and balconies.

The challenge facing Sacramento’s downtown arena designers two years ago was as technical as it was artistic: How do you design a building monumental enough to pull Sacramento’s downtown into a new era architecturally and economically that can also squeeze into a tight space and not clash with the city’s modest skyline?

Golden 1 Center – price tag $557 million – is days away from its debut. After two years of construction and design tweaks, the architects say they believe they’ve achieved that balance.

On Saturday, as many as 100,000 Sacramentans are expected to descend on the arena for a daylong open house (you need to be pre-ticketed to enter, but the event is free) and a team practice in the evening that will serve as a soft opening. Then, on Tuesday, the doors open for the building’s inaugural paid event, a Paul McCartney concert.

Sacramento architect Jason Silva, whose firm Dreyfuss & Blackford bid unsuccessfully for the arena design contract, has watched the half-billion-dollar building emerge from the ruins of Downtown Plaza. He said the building and its plaza appear to connect well to the downtown grid. That in itself is an important achievement. And he’s pleased, in fact relieved, that the style doesn’t mimic anything that exists here.

“If you try to reflect Sacramento like a mirror, you are only looking backwards,” he said. “My hope is this is part of new Sacramento. More of how our community sees itself in the future.”

The building’s sheath of silvery-white aluminum and glass panels draws on the Sierra Nevada mountains, particularly Yosemite’s Half Dome, for inspiration, its designers say. The panels jut in and out to give the building a sense of movement and a hint at the action inside.

The facade’s aluminum panels are embossed with thousands of leaf designs. Step back and squint a bit, and those leaves merge to form billowing oak canopies on the building’s face. Near its base, the building is softened by rows of greenery planted on the walls, offering an homage, its architects say, to the vegetation of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

At many points, the building was designed to be transparent. Triangular glass facets on the walls let sunlight in during the day and create a lighthouse effect at night, spilling interior light onto the city streets.

Rob Rothblatt, the building’s lead architect, said his creation has “a muscular athleticism.” Rothblatt, who was raised in Berkeley but now lives in New York, led an architecture team from AECOM, an international firm that helped design venues for the London and Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

If the building were likened to an athlete, its designers have aimed more at point guard than power forward. The 750,000-square-foot building is not large or tall by recent National Basketball Association standards, but its owners say it is more nimble technologically, advanced environmentally, and versatile in its potential uses.

The building is not modest, though, especially at its front entrance. There, it boasts a row of aircraft hangar doors that can fold away, exposing a half-block section of the building to the outdoors, similar to the way sliding glass doors connect Sacramento living rooms with backyards.

Rothblatt said he is delighted by the effect of the hangar doors and the way the building skin curves in above them to bring the outside in.

“A little touch of monumentality can do a person good,” he said. “When you get to the entrance, it says, ‘I am a big building and I am important.’ I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. You want your main civic buildings to have some sense of gravitas.”

The Kings call Golden 1 Center the first indoor-outdoor arena in the NBA. If the hangar doors are open and the Delta breeze is blowing, it can serve as the arena’s cooling system.

Kings officials say they hope to get league approval to play some games with the hangar doors open. If the weather allows, the team will leave the hangars open for Saturday evening’s team practice. The Kings may also host some concerts with seating out in the plaza. On each side of the main entrance, concession stands open onto the plaza, providing service to patrons outside.

The look and feel inside the building is surprisingly airy, modern and spare. Most walls are white. Seats are simple black, albeit with purple stitching. The main concourse is wide, and there are no walls separating it from the lower seats and the court. Fans can stroll the concourse or stand in line at a food outlet and still watch the game.

Above, a dense ecosystem of exposed roof girders gives the building’s ceiling an industrial look, a conscious reminder that the arena, for all its whiz-bang technology, is really a modern version of a big barn.

Team co-owner Mark Friedman said the openness of the arena and its plaza make it a better place to see people and be seen. “We wanted to create a reason for people to get off their couch and come downtown,” he said.

He cited two skyways high in the building – just behind the hanger doors – as good places for viewing. The top skyway – which will be open to all ticket holders – doubles as a Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. ale house. The lower skyway is reserved for occupants of suites and lofts, smaller versions of suites.

Stand against one railing and you oversee the plaza and the entrance. Friedman envisions people shouting hellos and waving to friends entering below. Stand against the other railing and you look down on the basketball court. Fans looking up at the skyways will see a row of human silhouettes against the west sky, adding a touch of drama to the scene.

At the other end of the building, a row of original neon signs from former Sacramento businesses perches above a food area, including the original Tower Records and Shakey’s Pizza Parlor storefront signs. The signs offer a strong dose of nostalgia for longtime residents, as well as a statement: Sacramento has given birth to enterprises that have made an impact on American pop culture.

The arena offers a big dose of exclusivity as well for monied patrons. The arena’s lower seating bowl is topped by 34 suites and 48 lofts. Several private clubs are tucked away behind or below the seating areas. “Just giving people a chance to connect, a chance for business to happen,” team President Chris Granger said.

One, the Lexus Lounge, is available only to people who buy seats in the first three rows. It has a quiet club feel with sheer white curtains and a silky chandelier over the bar.

Form is one thing. Function is another. The building gets a big test Saturday during the team open house. Kings officials say the arena is ready to wow. But they and designers acknowledge issues will come up as people begin to use it.

Already, there are questions. The upper deck is steep, surprising some ticket holders, and seats there don’t have cup holders. The cup holders on seats in the lower bowl are short, which could lead to spillage. A few season ticket holders who have checked out their seats said they aren’t as spacious as they expected, although designers say they are slightly wider than the ones at old Sleep Train Arena.

There is uncertainty about where people will park and how they will enter the building. Disabled fans are complaining about having to be dropped off more than a block away. The Kings will be monitoring crowd flows at the three main entrances, and may keep two of them closed early on, and funnel more fans to the larger main entrance.

Standing in the arena’s polished cement front porch, taking phone pictures of the hangar doors, Rothblatt offered a sports metaphor when asked to sum up the building.

“It punches above its weight,” he said. Sacramento is not big like New York or San Francisco, he said, “but you can ... give those guys a run for their money.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

Related stories from Sacramento Bee