The Gensler principal and global sports-practice lead on 21st-century sporting venues, and the groundbreaking Banc of California Stadium in the context of a rapidly changing downtown Los Angeles
By NOAH DAVIS
ND: What was your first memorable stadium experience growing up?
JE: I grew up in the North of England and I was a regular supporter of my local football team, Bradford City. I used to attend those matches with my dad and my family, so attending sporting events and football matches in particular have always been part of my life. No one moment stands out but that family experience was something that was a very important part of my childhood. Now, it’s something that I share with my kids here in Los Angeles.
What was the atmosphere like at those Bradford games?
Very intense, very different. It’s a working-class community, not the biggest or best team in the world by any means but it was a team that was very much ingrained into the lives and the culture of the city. It’s an urban team with a very strong, passionate fan base. Being able to attend those matches was a cultural experience as much as a sports one.
Turning to Banc of California Stadium, how do you see it fitting into the US sporting landscape now?
It’s a very unique project in some ways but also I think it’s very reflective of the trend of where MLS is headed. MLS is really a league that has matured over the last few years and continues to do so, and I think the fan base has really matured as well. We’re starting to have a second generation of soccer fans here in the US who have been brought up following the game. That’s really changing what that game day experience is, what the fixation of fans is. LAFC in particular is really trying to create a brand and an experience that ties more into the heritage and the success of the international sport. A lot of what they have tried to do is build a strong tie to the community, to build a strong grassroots fan base from day one.
It feels very authentic to the city. I think that that’s the trend that we’re seeing around MLS and I think that’s how I see the stadium really excelling at bringing that level of authenticity and community involvement to the team and the brand. As a designer, the challenge for us was to create a venue which really supports that basic goal and that basic vision of the team and ownership group.
How do you do that? How does that manifest itself in what you’re thinking about when you’re thinking about the design?
One of the first things is choosing a site. A large part of the success of this whole venue is going to be its location and Exposition Park. I think one of the real benefits of Exposition Park is its proximity to Downtown. As Downtown is developing along the Figueroa Corridor, Exposition Park is becoming an integrated part of the Downtown community and experience. I think we’re going to see that trend develop more and more, not only with the stadium but with the Lucas Museum that’s coming to the park and other developments that are happening in the area. Downtown Los Angeles has gone through a resurgence in the last five to ten years. In the design, we really opened up view corridors that capture the Downtown skyline to physically embody that connection so essential to the brand.
One of the other things that was clear in the development of the logo, the branding graphics for the team, and even the name was this notion of creating something that resonated with the LA community. The team talks about the grittiness and the realism of the streets of LA combined with the glamor of the entertainment industry and Hollywood. The stadium itself is designed to appeal to the diversity of Los Angeles. Los Angeles is an incredibly diverse community. I think it’s one of the most diverse communities, not only in the US but worldwide. So the stadium has been designed in a way that embodies that diversity. It creates a whole series of different gameday experiences for the fan base, something that really appeals to everybody.
How do you consider all of the different groups that you want to attract? You’re designing a stadium for the LAFC fan groups that want to stand up and bounce around but you’re also designing it for families and everyone in between.
One of the critical aspects of that is, yes, we are designing it for the diverse fan groups. Five, six, seven, eight different types of personalities. What we do at the start of a design process is really try to map out an entire game-day experience for each of those groups, to really understand what their entire day will be. It’s not just about the 90 minutes of sitting there and watching the game but how are they arriving at the site? Are they coming on the metro or driving? Are the spending time in the car or visiting other museums and doing other activities ahead of time? By looking at it through those different user viewpoints we can really construct the big picture. The other critical aspect of that is that we don’t want to segregate these groups, and I don’t think there’s ever a desire for these fan groups to be separate.
It becomes about allowing these different experiences to happen within a unified environment. We want to bring all of these people together to create this very unified experience within the stadium. One aspect of that in particular is the supporters group, which has just demonstrated incredible growth. It’s actually made up of six smaller groups. LAFC doesn’t have a player, they don’t have a coach¹, but they have this great, passionate fan base already. As we’re designing the stadium, we’re not thinking about that supporters section and that supporters group as being spectators. We’re thinking about them being part of the show as well. They are the heartbeat, the life, and soul of the all twenty-two thousand people sitting in the stadium. They become a part of the action. They’re almost on stage, and I think it’s going to be a huge, huge aspect of what creates the energy and makes this an exciting venue for MLS.
You mentioned that you want to bring that European or English soccer experience to the US. A lot of the marketing material references those points as well. But how you do that while also giving the stadium an American twist so it’s recognizable to fans here?
We worked with LAFC early on in this process to create that European and international feel. It’s really about the sense of intimacy. If you visit a lot of the old football grounds in UK and Europe, even South America for that matter, there’s a real intensity and a real intimacy even with 20 or 30 thousand seats. They’re not the huge venues of Liverpool or Manchester United but with the seats being so close to the pitch and very steep angle seating, they really create a sense of intensity. The fans are really close, almost on top of the action. Compare those to a number of MLS venues that were built in the early stages of the league. They often had a continuous lower bowl but were very open-ended. The noise and the atmosphere felt like it was spilling out. That’s in direct contrast to these older, traditional venues that we’re talking about. That idea drove a lot of the early conversation. We’re putting seats as close as twelve feet off of the goal line. We’re building certain seat sections literally as steep as we’re allowed to build them by code. We have multiple sections that are sort of stacked, so it feels as though we’re almost on top of the field, looming over the field. The roof canopy is the crown on the top. We’re using it for shade here as opposed to protection from rain, which is what I grew up with. But it also really helps contain that atmosphere. The physical presence of the roof canopy covering the entire seating bowl holds the sound within the venue.
That’s an interesting contrast to a lot of other venues in other US sports at this point. I know you did some work on the Dallas Cowboys stadium. You think about that monstrosity, where it’s as much about luxury boxes as it is about the game.
Right, right. You asked the question about what gives Banc of California Stadium an American twist. There are a couple of aspects. One in particular is technology. The integration of technology, whether it’s video or it’s the AV, that is an aspect that is fully a part of the game experience here in the US. It’s certainly very relevant within the NFL and the other major leagues but it’s worked its way into soccer in a way that it hasn’t necessarily done so in more traditional football countries. The other aspect is hospitality. There’s a very, very high expectation here in US markets, and in particular cities like Los Angeles, for a complete game-day experience. For food and beverage, the expectations are incredibly high and not just in the premium spaces. In the [general admission] seating areas, there’s just a different level of expectation now for people attending sporting events. To really have a great, complete experience is not just about the 90 minutes in your seat when you’re watching the game.
Of course. Going back to something you mentioned earlier: How did you end up with seats 12 feet from the pitch?
We’d looked at a couple of European models, including a favorite of mine, Queen’s Park Rangers. I think those seats are probably seven or eight feet away from the pitch. That’s the closest one I know. There is a point though where it gets too tight from a safety and a security standpoint, and also in terms of having enough space between the goal line and the stands for officials and press. We tried to find that sweet spot where we felt that we could push it as close as absolutely possible without it being detrimental to either the fan experience from a sight-line standpoint or from an operational standpoint. The seats will be as close as they’ll be in MLS for sure.
That seems fair. As a player, I think that 12 feet will be plenty close. And, for that matter, for fans, too. How does the stadium fit into the greater transformation of Downtown LA?
One of the early design decisions was about having a street presence throughout Figueroa, really having a street address. Unlike the Coliseum, which is set back a thousand feet from the street. Banc of California Stadium is going to be right on the street. You’re going to be able to walk right up along the sidewalk and touch the building. It’s not going to be buried back behind a fence where it’s inaccessible. That physical presence is not only going to be great in terms of activating the street, but it sends a broader message about LAFC’s commitment to the community. It stakes a claim and says, ‘We’re a part of redeveloping the Figueroa Corridor down at this end.’ It’s one of the most important streets in Los Angeles.
The stadium is going to host maybe three dozen games at most a year. I assume it’s going to host concerts and things of that nature. How does thinking about events beyond soccer factor into the design?
That’s a very important part of the stadium design and obviously the economics of the stadium. Soccer matches are one of the most important components but it’s a relatively small number of event days in a calendar year. The venue is certainly designed to accommodate other sporting events. I know that LAFC has already created some partnerships for other sporting events that have been announced, but the concert market is certainly a very, very important aspect of this, too. Given its location so close to Downtown, with the metro links and everything, this is an amazing concert venue. Exposition Park over recent years has become a great destination for a number of music festivals and cultural festivals so the stadium has been imagined as an integrated part of how the park itself as a whole.We have a stage location that’s set up for different types of events, load-in and load-out docks. It’s very, very much designed and configured in a way to facilitate concerts and promoters coming in and really making this a venue that is very appealing to promoters and artists. But at a smaller scale, a lot of the spaces in the building are thought of as smaller event spaces as well so all of the club lounges within the building are designed in way that they can be accessed and used for corporate events, parties, and gathering. Anything from 100 to 1,000 people for certain non-game day events.
Last question: If you had to describe the stadium in three adjectives what would you go with?
‘Intense’ would absolutely be the first one. ‘Dynamic’ would be the second. I think the stadium is going to have a powerful presence not only on Figueroa but also as a view from the freeway. As people drive up and down the 110, seeing the roof form is going to be a powerful statement on the LA skyline. The third word that I really like to use for the stadium is ‘authentic.’ We’re all creating an authentic home for not only the brand of LAFC and the supporters of LAFC but for the city of Los Angeles. This is really going to feel like it’s a stadium of Los Angeles and for Los Angeles.
That’s very good on the fly.
This is one of a running series exploring the crosscurrents of sport, urbanism and sustainable development. The interview first appeared in the Autumn 2017 print edition of Kit Magazine—a focus on Los Angeles