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Vibrant Venue

Metal adds fluidity and balance to the Ford Center indoor arena in Evansville, Ind.

By Henry Burke

The city of Evansville, Ind., had been home to an arena for some time. Built in 1956 in the heart of the city, the old Roberts Municipal Stadium had long been part of the fabric of the community, playing host to sporting events, concerts, and public events of all kinds. However, by the mid-2000s, it became clear that the old stadium had passed its prime. To size up the situation, the Evansville City Council brought in Populous, a firm on the forefront of sports architecture, to work on a new design.

“The city knew it needed to do something, and replacing Roberts Stadium was probably the only option, considering the age of the facility and ongoing problems they had there,” recalls Brent Roberts of Populous, project manager for what would become the Ford Center. “We’ve had a long-standing relationship with the city of Evansville, having done a baseball facility study for them years ago, so when they were interested in doing a new project, they gave us a call.”

Practical matters came first, as Populous went over the physical needs of the arena with the city. “We sat down and worked through a basic programmatic road map for the project, such as number of seats, spatial requirements and adjacencies, and designed to that,” says Brad Clark, design principal with Populous. “Armed with that road map, it was up to us to create an aesthetic vision for the project, not just for the exterior but also for the development and execution of the interior space.”

Transparency

But the design team didn’t stop with the basic physical requirements. The city wanted a real addition to its urban fabric. “We got a sense that we weren’t necessarily looking for just another old field house,” Clark says. “It’s a unique city sitting on a horseshoe bend in the Ohio River, so we looked at creating a building in that image that was of the city and reflective of its culture.”

Materiality was part of the thought process, as the designers sought a balanced approach to the look and construction of the arena. “Being in Indiana, a lot of the city’s iconic or landmark buildings make use of beautiful native limestone, so we were looking for a way to integrate that material in a way that projected a sense of quality and permanence and also find a way to augment that with a more contemporary look and feel,” Clark continues. “That led us to use some of the lighter-weight metal panels to offset the mass of the building.”

A Play in Contrasts

To help offset the heavy mass of the limestone and give the new arena its more modern aesthetic, the design team at Populous specified a number of metal wall components from CENTRIA, including 45,000 square feet of Formawall® Dimension Series® insulated metal panels (IMPs), 20,000 square feet of single-skin Profile Series MR3-36 exposed fastener panels and IW Series concealed fastener panels, and 15,000 square feet of 4-inch Versawall® IMPs.

“We work with CENTRIA all the time,” Clark says. “It’s always good to leverage relationships you have and, in this case, utilize products we knew were going to deliver and with which we knew exactly what we were getting.”

Metal was chosen for the Ford Center for both aesthetic and functional reasons. “One of the signature pieces of the building is on the Martin Luther King Boulevard side,” Clark explains. “It has a variegated color approach to the gently curving wall along that high-speed street, and we really liked the fact that we could get similar colors to create a more interesting visual for the building on that side. The color gives it an almost textural appearance. That was one of the things that attracted us to metal.”

Also inherent in the material is a kind of fluidity that served the designers well on this project. “On the other side [opposite the Martin Luther King Boulevard side] we have an overhanging concourse above,” Roberts says. “The roof becomes the wall on that space as the walkway curves over and becomes the elevation of the street. The same kind of metal expression ran through that element.”

“Those two major elements in the design lend themselves to metal,” says Gabe Braselton, project designer with Populous. “If you’re speaking to the metal, it’s the sort of material that allows us to make sweeping moves that are continuous. These are the types of things that you have a hard time doing with a heavier or more rigid material.”

Site Makes Plight

Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by the project team was working with the narrow site. “Most of our challenges were related to the site,” Roberts recalls. “We had a building that was bigger than the site. That really drove the design and was our big challenge.”

In the first stages of the project, there had been plans to renovate and connect to a hotel next door, which drove a lot of the early planning and design concepts. When that idea was scrapped, the Populous team had to rescale their design to fit the physical parameters they were dealt. As with most anything, there was a silver lining.

“The site, while challenging, also had a lot of advantages,” Clark says. “The front door faces Main Street, which is not something we get to do every day. We do a lot of large projects in urban areas, but in this case we had a front door to face the community. I think it’s brought some vibrancy and needed foot traffic to the community and downtown, which has been a very positive thing.”

The Ford Center opened in December 2011 and has been well received by the residents of Evansville. “There was some skepticism early on because people really enjoyed the existing facility and hated to see it go. But when the building opened, it became very successful for Evansville,” Clark says. “It was a great project, we had a great client and a great team working on it.”

Henry Burke lives in Chicago, where he writes about architecture and construction.

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