‘Million Trees’ theme sprouts on downtown arena facade

What's that on the Sacramento arena facade?

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The Sacramento Kings promised two years ago they would build a downtown arena that would be dynamic and dramatic but also would tell the city’s story. Arena construction has passed the halfway point. Are they pulling it off?

Amateur architects, art lovers and downtown visitors should be able to come to their own conclusions in the next few weeks. Crews are installing the building’s aluminum “skin,” offering a solid sense of what the final product will look like. Next month, they will add the building’s front entrance, its 60-foot-tall glass hangar-style doors opening onto what eventually will be a plaza at Fifth and K streets.

As the metallic facade goes up, a subtle and whimsical City of Trees theme is beginning to emerge. The undulating arena walls are etched with 3-inch modernist leaf designs. The leaves, hundreds of thousands of them, will merge to create the illusion of billowing valley oak tree canopies on the arena’s exterior.

The design, called the “Million Trees” panels, will soften the otherwise space-age appearance of the aluminum sheeting. The arena design team worked from a photograph of a leafy street in East Sacramento. (They considered patterning it after live oaks, but decided they liked the look of valley oak canopies better.)

Arena chief architect Rob Rothblatt is effusive about what is emerging. “Sacramento is going to get something unique,” he said. It isn’t dressed up in its final “prime-time finery,” he said, but “I go to the site now and it looks pretty exciting.”

The arena’s colonnaded walls angle in and out rhythmically, giving a feeling of movement, he said. The base of the building has not yet been built. When done, though, it will be covered by what the Kings call a “living wall” of climbing plants, literally rooting the building in the earth.

The structure’s unique overall shape already has invited clever descriptions. Rothblatt has suggested it looks like a Scotch glass. He’s also said its vertical lift depicts the Sierra Nevada. Other local architects are watching the project with interest. One suggested it looks like the Kings’ crown. Another, less impressed, called it a crushed soda can.

Jason Silva, an architect with Dreyfuss & Blackford, is pleased so far. He sees a building that is successfully battling the “banal” architecture that surrounds it. “I welcome the complexity that the arena design is using,” he said. “I believe architecture should be remarkable, and the arena is a step in the right direction for Sacramento.”

Architect David Mogavero, however, said he will judge the project more on its functionality than its form. His concern is whether the arena site will attract people during days when no events are happening inside the arena.

The project is on a tight deadline to be finished by the end of September 2016. The facility, known as the Golden 1 Center, will hold an estimated 17,500 people – slightly more than Sleep Train Arena in Natomas, the arena it is replacing.

Turner Construction is the project contractor. Kovach Building Enclosures is the panel manufacturer. ICON Venue Group is the project manager, and AECOM is the architect.

Construction documents put the finished cost of the arena and adjacent plaza at $509 million. The city of Sacramento, owner of the arena, has agreed to put in $255 million in cash and land value. The Kings will pay the rest, including any budget increases; the original estimated cost was $448 million.

The building is billed as technologically savvy, with sophisticated cooling and heating systems. Project officials say they are designing the building to win LEED gold certification, an acknowledgment for using renewable energy and for taking other environmentally friendly steps during and after construction.

About one-fourth of the arena’s exterior will be glass. That glass is dotted with tiny ceramic dots, or frits, invisible from a distance, that serve to partially block heat from the sun.

Kings President Chris Granger, who launched the project two years ago with a series of public brainstorming sessions, said the building will change in appearance and color throughout the day and into the night.

“Given where the sun is, the shadow on the leaves will look different,” Granger said. The building, silvery in the day, may turn to gold at night when lit from within. “We hope it is interesting to look at regardless of whether there is an event,” he said.

The design team was wondering how the aluminum panels would look when placed on the building, Granger said, but the first installations in recent weeks have erased any concerns.

“We’ve had some test panels up for some time in Woodland, but never at the scale we’ve seen now,” he said. “There was a time we were collectively holding our breath to make sure it turns out as interesting and as beautiful as we hoped. I think it is. It’s spectacular.”

But the facade assembly hasn’t been without issues. The installation of the aluminum and glass panels onto a ladder-like framework has proved to be a challenge technically because it involves connecting materials that have different expansion and contraction rates. Crews made minute on-site adjustments of the framework, using lasers, before welding the panels into place.

“The panels are as dynamic as the athletes that will play in the arena,” architect Rothblatt said. “They really move. A building can expand and contract by 6 inches. You have to pay close attention.”

The building’s exterior look has evolved over the past two years. Early designs included some pre-cast concrete columns alongside the glass and aluminum columns. Those were eliminated to simplify the design, Rothblatt said, and to allow the Million Trees concept to be more expansive. Now, 12-foot-wide aluminum columns will cover about three-quarters of the building, and glass columns will cover the rest.

Transparency is a major theme for the building. The arena’s two main entrances, at Fifth and K and at Fifth and L, are walls of glass, creating what Rothblatt calls an “extroverted” building, connected to the neighborhood around it. The aluminum portions of the facade have diamond-shaped windows that bump out at right angles, allowing people inside to see the skyline. The glass hangar doors on K Street roll up, and may remain open during some events, eliminating the division between indoor and outdoor.

“We are turning this thing inside out,” Rothblatt said, “and opening it up to the city.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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