Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.
Valerie/Flickr via Creative Commons license Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.

One of the greatest pleasures of my five months living at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis., until a week ago (as part of our annual rotation between there and Taliesin West in Scottsdale) was that I was able to attend a Green Bay Packers game at Lambeau Field. I was not particularly a Packers fan, nor is this stadium a thing of beauty, but the experience was unlike any other I have had at another NFL stadium or, for that matter, at just about any sporting event other than the Olympics.

The original Lambeau Field, which seated about half of the current capacity of 81,000 and change, rose in 1957 over a natural depression in what was then (and is still) a residential neighborhood on the edge of Wisconsin's Green Bay. Designed by a firm called Somerville, Inc., it has since been expanded and renovated regularly, most recently a year ago, so that it is impossible to discern the hand of single author, let alone a clear plan to the stadium. The result of this history is a circle of brick façades that barely cover the concrete and steel innards of the original structure, the enclosures of the end zones, and the luxury sky boxes and large-scale screens that are de rigeur for any football stadium today.

The building, in other words, is a mess. Not only that, but it rises out of fields that during game day are covered with parking in the middle of a residential neighborhood. There is little to no landscaping, no grand arrival sequence, and no sense that the building fits into the context in any manner. In any other city, it would have been torn down, moved to the suburbs or an inner-city rail yard, or at least formed into something more logical or snazzy a long time ago.

Lawn parking outside Lambeau Field
Charlie Vinz/Flickr via Creative Commons license Lawn parking outside Lambeau Field

That it has remained is part of its charm. As the only NFL team owned by the community it represents, and the longest occupant of a single stadium in the league, the Packers are very much of their place, even if that is not immediately evident. Wind your way through the approach streets and you will find yourself parking, along with just about everybody else, on somebody’s lawn (for a hefty price). Most parkers are regulars, tailgating with the owners in front of their suburban bungalows festooned with every combination of green you can imagine. You already feel at home.

Walk to the stadium, and you find yourself moving towards an object that is so large, so without clear hierarchy, entry, or any of the other elements that you might associate with good architecture, that all you can do is to marvel at its messy massiveness. One of the Taliesin staff, deeply jealous of my tickets, told me to get there at least two hours early so that I could properly walk around the stadium and fully take in all its features. I found nothing to admire, and yet I did find myself wandering around, drawn through the maze of concrete, steel, and brick, of ramps and concession stands, of toilets and just expanses of bare and open space, feeling my pulse quicken.

Aerial view of Lambeau Field
MGoBlog/Flickr via Creative Commons license Aerial view of Lambeau Field

It was not that people were chanting so loudly, or that this was a particularly important game (for the record, the Packers beat the Detroit Lions; decisively in the first half, and then by hanging on in the second half); it was just that there was an atmosphere about the place that is difficult to place. Our seats were spectacular, seven rows above the 30-yard line, so that I was surrounded by the crowd and the bowl, and got to see quarterback Aaron Rodgers pacing back and forth while Clay Matthews, on injured reserve, just did his best imitation of a Norse god. The stadium was full and the noise was, when necessary, deafening. None of this was different from another NFL game.

What was different was that none of it seemed manicured, planned, or programmed. Not just the sense of community and ownership was palpable at Lambeau Field, but the unadorned and rough quality of American football at its best: the sheer gargantuan scale of everything from the players to the crowds (yes, I know, and of the concussions and the paychecks); the combination of intense and intricate planning and improvisation that make the game so different from any other I know; the appearance and collapse of space during every play—all of it stood out and found itself framed with a building of equal and similar qualities.

Most NFL stadiums are by now well-planned and designed. Some of them are even comfortable. A few of them even manage to fit into their context. None of them move and excite me—and obviously thousands of fans—more than Lambeau Field did. A living refutation of corporate aesthetics and overly designed buildings, this stadium took me back to the raw enjoyment of big building, big space, and big plays bringing people together for a few ecstatic moments. This is great architecture in every sense of the word, even if it is also bad architecture.