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Architects Say Levi's Stadium is Ready for Its Big Close-Up

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Levi's Stadium was born almost 10 years ago, at least on a conceptual level. Back in 2006, the York family commissioned design firm HNTB for what was then supposed to be a new Candlestick Park. HNTB heads say that the stadium we eventually got was more or less the vision they had a decade ago, even if it landed 40 miles away. And this Sunday is the biggest test of what they built, when Levi's hosts 75,000 fans and 100 million plus viewers at home for Super Bowl 50. How will the design stand up?


From the outside, Levi's has almost a cubist look. The old Candlestick was shaped like an oblong bowl, while Oakland Coliseum is a giant ring, but from the air you can see that Levi's is an irregular dodecagon. "It's a steel structure, so you want segments rather than curves," says Tim Cahill, chief designer on the stadium. "We wanted it to be simple, geometric, and non-retro."

That straight-lines-and-steel look is partly a seismic concern—concrete and earthquakes are bad mojo together. The support columns are only 32 feet apart, and they slope outward as as they rise to the upper deck, making the whole thing a fairly solid and compact unit. They even went so far as to forego any exterior skin on the building, leaving its gridded steel interior exposed just to show off the work.


"The plates, the tie rods, it's all right there," says Cahill. Look closely and you can even make out the giant, white, tube-shaped braces installed to absorb the force of an earthquake—a comfort, perhaps, for our Super Bowl visitors anxious about visiting such a famous seismic zone.

The stadium is fond of touting its LEED gold certification, a first for a sports arena. "LEED was not meant to be applied to stadiums," Lanson Nichols, project manager on the stadium, points out. "We got creative looking for small ways to get extra points."

The oft-cited living roof, solar panels, and recycled water (used for irrigation and to fill the toilets, since it's not yet legal to sell recycled water for drinking in Santa Clara County) were big factors, but little things like reclaiming redwood paneling from an old hangar at Moffett Airfield to use in the clubhouse added up in the margins.


Cantankerous sportswriters sometimes poke fun at Levi's Stadium's luxury suites and VIP lounges with their five-star cuisine, mostly consolidated into a multi-level block on one side dubbed the "hotel." But the designers shake off the teasing, saying that one of the principal goals was always to take advantage of Bay Area food culture, and that putting all of the suites in one place—closer to the kitchens—was just more efficient.

Still, if you're a grumpy purist who doesn't think anyone should be munching grilled artichokes and wedge salad during the big game, you might at least appreciate that moving all the hoity-toity stuff over to the "hotel" freed up design room down below. Levi's was meant to evoke the feel of a college stadium, with the biggest bowl as low as possible. Luxury lounges would normally form a strata between the upper and lower decks, but pushing them all to one side left that space open for, well, everyone else.


It chips in a little on the acoustics, too. "Since Levi's Stadium has no roof, you have to find other things to reflect the sound off of," says Nichols. "Putting all that glass and those hard surfaces on one side helps contain a lot of the noise the fans can make."

Of course, a stadium is just a big empty bowl without the game. That's the puzzle of designing one: It needs to be huge and it needs to offer fans everything they could want, but it also all has to get the heck out of the way so that everyone can see what they came for. Cahill states—repeatedly, even if you don't ask—that there's "no bad seat in the house," citing the relatively small size of the upper deck as putting you deceptively close to the game and the big, wide concourses down below that help you still see the game over your shoulder if you go up to the concession stand. Is he right? Well, if all 75,000 visitors on Sunday want to drop us an email, we'll see. In the meantime, enjoy the game, and if you're a visitor to those luxury lounges, don't be afraid to take seconds on the grilled artichokes. Nobody's looking, and you only live once. —Adam Brinklow

· HNTB [Official Site]