A King’s crown? A crushed can? Architects analyze arena designs

Nicholas Docous says it looks like a king’s crown. Another Sacramento architect, Steven Johnson, dismisses it as something closer to a crushed aluminum can, discarded downtown. Rob Rothblatt, head of the team designing the arena, offers a grand view, likening it to Half Dome with its reach-for-the-sky profile.

Last week was a big one for architects and urban planners around Sacramento with the release of drawings for the new $448 million Kings arena proposed for the city’s Downtown Plaza. With a court fight looming, it’s unclear the arena will even get built. But the handful of color renderings depicting a see-through edifice perched on K Street sent a jolt through the design community: Could this be the moment Sacramento shakes loose from its historically conservative approach to civic structures?

“Sacramento is not one to push any boundaries,” architect Jason Silva of Dreyfuss & Blackford said. “This is an opportunity to do that. I am hoping Sacramento won’t shoot itself in the foot” by trying to tone down the building.

Sacramento City Planning and Design Commission member Phil Harvey said the openness of the design reminds him of the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis or another recent effort that was also well received: the see-through entrance to the new CalPERS building on Q Street.

“One of the biggest challenges is these arenas tend to be big boxes plopped down, but this has the opportunity to be visually interesting, inside and out,” Harvey said. “I am fairly blown away.”

Others said they need to see more before they know whether the building can achieve a primary goal: enlivening a dreary stretch of downtown.

David Mogavero is the architect and builder credited with launching the return to urban living in Sacramento two decades ago with his midtown Metro Square project, a block of tightly packed homes. Mogavero said the drawings don’t show him what he wants to see: an arena with outer-facing retail and other uses built right into its flanks to stimulate activity there during the days and nights when the building interior is unused.

Bob Chase, deputy state architect and former chair of the city’s Design Review Commission, said he too wants to see more details, including plans for the K Street plaza and the L Street side of the building, which are in critical need of commercial activity. But he said he is pleased the architects are striving to make a statement.

“I am encouraged,” Chase said. “It’s a good concept. It doesn’t look like anything else. Not that we are sure what Sacramento regional architecture is.”

Johnson, who called the building a crushed aluminum can, said he doesn’t like that the design team chose a look that’s “overly alien” to Sacramento.

“Sacramento does have wonderful architecture,” he said. “It seems they tried too hard to create something brand-spanking new without taking a good look (at buildings) around them.”

A play on light and sky

The building’s architect is AECOM, the Los Angeles company that created the venue master plan for the 2012 Olympic Games in London and has a similar role for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. It has been lead architect for 11 NBA arenas, including the recently opened Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The company, with offices in midtown Sacramento, also designed Aggie Stadium at the University of California, Davis.

Rothblatt, the exuberant Berkeley-born head of the arena design team, said his group did not borrow from existing architecture in Sacramento. He described the arena exterior as more of a reflection of the physical environment in Northern California, especially the sunny climate. Its silvery-white eight-story facade on K Street will change hues, depending on the light.

The arena’s “biggest (design) move,” Rothblatt said, is the four-story-high glass hangar windows, just above the entrance doors, that will fold upward to create a half-block-long opening. The entry way is unique in the NBA, making the arena an indoor-outdoor amphitheater. (Birds won’t roost in the rafters, he said. Engineers will probably use noise-emitting devices or netting to keep them out.)

The building’s “skin” will be a series of vertical panels, consisting of folded plates of glass, perforated aluminum and Sierra limestone. The glass will be patterned with the shapes of live oak leaves made from baked-on ceramic that will double as solar insulation.

The design reflects the sensibilities of the new Kings owners themselves, notably Silicon Valley entrepreneur Vivek Ranadive, who made his fortune by using technology to stay a step ahead of the crowd, and Sacramento developer Mark Friedman, who frequently travels the world searching out the latest urban design ideas.

Friedman said Rothblatt’s design “speaks to who we are in a way that is fresh.”

Architect Docous, a principal with Lionakis and head of the recent remake of the DMV Broadway headquarters, sees it more concretely: like a crown. “I like the metaphor,” he said, “the circular design with articulated facets, the in-and-out movement, allowing inside light out and outside light to come in.”

Although it doesn’t directly borrow from other local architecture, the building is thematically similar to Sacramento International Airport’s new Terminal B. Both buildings emphasize Valley light and sky. The arena also references two iconic California buildings: the de Young Museum in San Francisco, with its perforated copper sheathing, and the undulating metal skin of the Disney Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles.

Among NBA arenas, it shares common ground with AECOM’s Barclays Center in Brooklyn, another modern structure that tries to connect to its gritty surroundings with its pre-rusted façade and a swooping front overhang that evokes an elevated Brooklyn subway track.

Hoping for a catalyst

A building’s looks only go so far, several local architects said last week. The key to a successful arena in downtown Sacramento will be whether it is designed in a way that helps launch a renaissance in the core area.

“Architectural styles come and go,” Mogavero said. “In 10 years, it will be dated. But that is not important. What is important is, how is it going to animate the community and catalyze housing?”

Chase echoed that comment, saying a successful arena design starts with active edges that cause people to gather. “Give me a great urban space,” he said.

In that effort, seemingly small touches will be critical, designers said. Will there be enough usable commercial space along the building’s L Street side to invigorate those neglected blocks? And can the city and Kings make good on their promise to create a K Street plaza at the arena entrance that attracts crowds on Tuesday afternoons as well as Friday game nights?

Longtime Sacramento residents know from experience that K Street is where many grand urban renewal ideas have come to die. The Kings’ owners say they believe they have a formula to solve that riddle.

The K Street plaza will be large, about a city block, but not pure open space. The design calls for a hydroponic garden, possibly growing tomatoes and other Valley crops. There will be a sloped amphitheater area, perhaps a lawn or small grandstand like the one in New York’s Times Square. There will be what the architects call a “bosque,” a sunken area among trees where people can go for some quiet.

The designers plan a restaurant on a terrace at Fifth and L streets, and say they want to have robust retail along the building’s L Street side. Kings architects point out one of the big successes of the design involves something you will not see: There is no ugly “backside,” no loading docks, no Dumpsters. Those are hidden underground, accessed via a truck ramp from somewhere along L Street, and exited onto the sunken portion of Fifth Street.

The drawings will be circulated in coming weeks and reviewed at public hearings. Kings officials said they hope to start demolishing parts of Downtown Plaza in May and begin construction in the fall.

One of those who will be asked to comment is Planning Commissioner Edmonds Chandler, who manages a landscape architecture firm. He’s pleased with what he sees so far, but wants more details.

“They seem to be headed in the right direction,” he said. “We’re all holding our breath.”

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