For all the enthusiasm sports stadia elicit among fans, it is difficult to find people outside of the stadium equally enamored of these often-gargantuan structures. That is especially a problem when they are built not, as was the fashion for a while, outside of metropolitan areas in highway-adjacent spots where they can sit surrounded by acres of parking, but in the middle of urban neighborhoods. It is one of the reasons why I was particularly impressed by Hayward Field, the new track and field stadium at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Ore. The stadium seems exemplary in how it works with both its immediate neighborhood and with the larger landscape while also transforming local sports traditions into new forms. Unfortunately, it turns out that many locals disagree; the demolition of the old Hayward field sparked controversy for a range of reasons, from nostalgia and hope for historical preservation to the removal of trees for the new stadium's larger footprint.
The new building replaced a much beloved old facility and was paid for mainly by billionaire and Nike co-founder Phil Knight, an alumnus of the university’s track program who just happened to have started Nike with some of the innovations developed by his coach, Bill Bowerman.
“We were building on hallowed ground,” admits architect Jeff Yrazabal, AIA, of Seattle-based SRG in Portland. Hayward Field is the site of decades of dominance in track events by UO teams (Steve Prefontaine ran for the UO), as well as being the birthplace of early innovations in the sport such as the waffle sole (Bowerman’s wife’s waffle iron, which produced some of the early prototypes, is on display in the stadium’s museum) and its well-worn intimacy only served to preserve that aura. In the new, bigger, technologically tuned structure, performance rather than tradition takes center field.
That you can get very close to that field, that you can see it from the street, and that the stadium seating is designed in such a way as to maximize the number of people sitting near the start and finish line is part of what I think makes the new Hayward Field such a success. The sweep of those stands towards that culmination point brings to mind the Nike swoosh, which is undoubtedly an added bonus for Knight and his company. That you can be so close to the running track that the team calls the first row of seating “the tenth lane”—there being nine regular lanes—and that you can see the field from the adjacent street is a bonus for the fans.
The stadium is remarkably open and light from most perspectives. SRG clad the building with a translucent skin of ETFE panels, and that covering both reduces the building’s visual impact and lets you get a sense of the structure and its users from the street. The architects then clad the steel structure holding up the stands and the skin with a wood laminate, helping to blend the stadium into its surroundings. The building’s north side is also open, except for when extra stands are brought in for very large meets to bring the capacity to 12,500 spectators. When the stadium is at normal capacity, the open side puts the spectators on display from the street while giving attendees a view over the surrounding hills.
All of that makes Hayward Field remarkably light on its bowed and curved feet, even if its sheer size might still be a bit much for some of the neighbors. I did not feel as if it overwhelmed the student apartments across the way. In fact, it provides a soft buffer towards the larger masses of the institutional building of the main campus immediately to the west of its site. It is, of course, much easier to make such a relatively small stadium—most football stadiums are at least four to five times as large—fit in well, but SRG’s thoughtful nuzzling of the building into the sloping site, the rhythm produced by the curved seating, and the lightness of the structure all make it a much nimbler performer in the sports field than most of the recent new stadia built in this country.
The one discordant note comes in the form of a 188-foot tower, clad in a perforated metal mesh onto which photographs of some of OU’s winning athletes have been printed. It looms over the whole structure and has no actual function other than to express the ego and pride of the donors and administrators. It is meant, by the way, to resemble the Olympic flame runners carry to start those games.
On the other hand, the graphics, which serve the same goal and were designed by Nike creative director Todd Van Horne, also out of Portland, manage to give the inevitable stretches of concrete walls and service areas a sense of contributing to the creation of an identity with much more abstract and energetic means. Their green and yellow colors and the concentration on the italic version of the capital letters of “UO” contribute to a snazzy but not overly aggressive branding. That is in line with how UO’s graphics in general have helped the university’s teams stand out in the college sports world with forceful aesthetics that eschew aggression and animal references (but then again, what are you going to do when your team name is the Ducks?) in favor or the kind of modernist energy their main sponsor has monetized with such success.
There is a whole other part of Hayward Field that the public will never see: a semi-subterranean terrain of practice tracks, workout rooms, meeting rooms, areas to court prospects, and research labs for human performance where lord knows what goes on (I was carefully steered away from those locked rooms). Here as well SRG has created simple, forthright, and, above all, open spaces, even if they are only accessible to the athletes and their support staff.
Hayward Field is the House that Phil Knight built, from its sheer size (it’s the largest track and field stadium in North America) and luxury (padded seats in a college sports stadium) to its evocation of Nike aesthetics. It is prominent for its site and grand in its ambitions. What makes it work is the verve with which SRG has given form to all that aura without overwhelming the place where the building is located or the space it contains. If more stadia were as light as this one, I would be happy to accept some corporate evocation and even branding.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.