Bryan Trubey, principal/director of HKS Sports & Entertainment Group, talks slowly with a Southern drawl. He’s a specific brand of Texas gentleman, a combination of humility (he calls awards “kinda nice”) and acute thoughtfulness. And it’s only the latter that might give away the enormity of his projects, which include the Cowboys Stadium, Lucas Oil Stadium, and Liverpool FC Stadium. His most recent design, Minnesota’s Vikings Stadium, got the green light this spring. But, like many major public projects, it kicked up controversy: Too bold? Too big? Too modern? Of course, you’d be remiss if you think Trubey hasn’t already asked himself those questions. Madeline Nusser goes over a few of them with the architect.
Madeline Nusser: How does building stadiums differ from designing other structures?
Bryan Trubey: Normally, and this has not always been the case in the past, it’s the most important civic structure that’s going to be built in a region for a few generations. That comes with an enormous responsibility to create something that’s emblematic of the time and place it’s being built. Secondly, but just as important, we want to ensure a phenomenal fan experience: being in the facility itself, watching the game, and staying connected even if you’re not in your seat. Also, we had back-to-back Super Bowls in two of our buildings. Each event was a totally different, unique expression of the way the building reflects the team as the primarily tenant.
If stadiums have become emblematic of our culture and our most important civic structures, how do you react to that?
The stadium must be a catalyst for urban development. We make it a good urban building by taking into consideration the urban quality around it. For instance, does it meet the street the correct way? Is the street level activated? Does it make adjacent properties more valuable? Minneapolis is probably the best example yet. The day after we rolled out the Vikings Stadium design in May, there was an announcement about an equally valuable development. Right alongside a linear park we planned, Wells Fargo is doing a headquarters-type building.
At one time a football stadium meant a big, white doughnut-shaped thing surrounded by parking lots. Do you think you’ve helped usher in a new attitude?
For the longest time, stadiums, ballparks, and arenas were very practical things that were more of a technical accomplishment. Can we get all the seats to where they can see the field? Can we get people out of the building safely if there’s an emergency? To a certain extent, the revenue streams for sports only supported that kind of structure. In the last 30, 40 years, the amount of events held in these facilities has increased dramatically—that increases the revenue if we design the facilities correctly. But you’ve got to be careful patting yourself on that back with each building, because you always got to do better the next time.
I can tell one of your driving forces is betterment. Partly because your stadiums contain a lot of firsts, especially when it comes to technology. Why is that important to you?
As exciting as it can be to be with 70,000 other fans, it also can put you not so close to the game itself. What we do with video technology—especially with high-definition video boards—is present a perspective of the game to every spectator, which really no one, even on the sidelines, has. The replay and 3-D technology features individual events from all different angles simultaneously. It changes the experience, just completely changes it, so you really feel like you’re more aware of what goes on in the field.
You’re integrating the largest-ever ethylene tetrafluoroethylene roof in the Vikings Stadium design. What will that be like?
We think it’s going to be phenomenal. It’s a material that’s had a lot of research, development, and use. The reason we ultimately decided on it is that it performed the best for us in the climate of Minneapolis, instead of spending a lot of money on a retractable roof we weren’t certain we could operate a significant chunk of the year, because you can’t operate one under certain wind, cold, and snow conditions. Without really thinking about it, we presented the idea and said, “We think clear is the new retractable.” You know, the retractable roof thing has been going on for quite a while, and it’s really debatable how practical it is. Everyone thinks they need one because other teams have them. But the clear roof really gives huge advantages and none of the downside. You literally feel like you’re playing outdoors all the time.
What are some other unique aspects about the design?
The structural system itself is pretty extraordinary. Almost every building I’ve done so far has either a twin or two pair super-truss, or monumental arches. Although our structures look totally different in concept, they’re similar in this way—and most buildings do have a twin super-truss system. On Vikings, we figured out a way to use a single super-truss, which provided an enormous amount of efficiency. It’s arranged asymmetrically along the northern sideline, which allowed us to get a huge roof expanse on the south. It’s a major contributor to the building’s iconic formal look, the real edgy look.
Did the Vikings come to you and say they wanted that angular aesthetic?
The Vikings were very comfortable with a modern aesthetic. So we didn’t have to ask ourselves if we needed to go in a historicist direction. We developed the look of the building in response to a host of things. There is a history of significant civic structures being done in a modern, progressive way in Minneapolis, including the building we rolled out the stadium design in, the Guthrie Theater, by Jean Nouvel. That lead us in the right direction, and with the rest of the building we responded to climate, which is for us the most meaningful kind of sustainability. For example, the east-west slope of the roof ensured it did not retain snow. The pure aesthetics, like the angular forms on the side, allowed us to do something functional: create some parts of the building to back up services and interior environments against, and then create glass concourse areas opening up to the exterior. We did it in an abstract way, and people see what they want to see there—nautical things, references to Nordic, Scandinavian culture.
With these big structures, people always see something. “Hey, it’s a UFO!” or “an iceberg!” How do you deal with that as the architect?
Well you always want positive connotations. If you’re good at what you do, you’re creating an abstract enough form and not projecting a literal likeness. That’s where things can get risky and, frankly, sophomoric. What you want to do is evoke the character. When you create an original form, there’s an original thought behind it—that keeps you from being too cartoonish.
How did you start making these mega-event structures? It’s such a specific profession. How did you get interested in it?
I was working for a firm in Chicago that did a lot of work with HOK, and around 1989 I had a job opportunity in the sports office of HOK. I got to work on a new, national stadium in Hong Kong, which was the first design project where I authored the whole facility. It won a national AIA award, which was kind of nice. I grew up in Dallas, and had a lot of friends in HKS. HKS decided it wanted to be in the sports practice, and I came to work here and we started our sports practice in 1992.
I take it you’re a sports fan. Do you integrate your memories or interests into your work?
I am a sports fan to some degree, but not the most vehement fan. I actually love the structures themselves, more than the actual sport. That gives me a pretty unique perspective of things. Being a giant sports fan does not make you a good architect. I’ve always been more interested in architecture and doing something that creates a furtherance of thinking in our profession—I think that’s probably the highest thing you can ever aspire to do.