Flying high

Could the opening of the Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta usher in a new era of sports venue design? Tom Walker speaks to the people who made it happen

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The US$1.5bn (€1.24bn, £1.16bn) Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, US, opened on 29 August when it hosted an NFL pre-season game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Arizona Cardinals. Designed by architecture firm HOK’s Sports + Recreation + Entertainment arm – in collaboration with tvsdesign, Goode Van Slyke Architecture and Stanley Beaman & Sears – the stadium has been hailed as one of the most advanced sports venues in the world.

Designed to be both scalable and flexible in order to host a wide range of sports and entertainment events, the stadium will have two main tenants – the high-flying Falcons and a brand new Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise, Atlanta United. As well as hosting the two clubs, the venue has already secured a string of other premium events, including the Super Bowl in 2019 and the NCAA Final Four in 2020. It‘s also been designed to meet the criteria to hold FIFA World Cup matches, just in case the US decides to bid for the tournament.

According to Bill Johnson, HOK’s design principal and lead architect on the project, the venue design breaks away from the conventions of traditional sports facility design. He credits billionaire Arthur Blank, owner and chair of AMB Sports & Entertainment – the parent company of the Falcons and Atlanta United – for allowing the team to come
up with a fresh approach to stadium design.

“It was a unique and amazing opportunity that Arthur gave us,” Johnson says. “Many major league franchise owners will say that they want a venue similar to an existing one – or that they want a stadium which produces revenue comparable to ‘stadium X’ somewhere comparable.

“You don’t get many people saying they want something that people will want to come and see, not because of the football played in it, but because it has value as a piece of architecture.

“Arthur challenged us to come up with something totally fresh and innovative and that’s why we have the building that we have today.” For Johnson, the challenge to create something entirely new was a timely one, as he sees sports facility design in danger of being flooded with too many “cookie cutter” projects.

“The strength of sports venue design – the way designs are now driven by the need to produce functional buildings – can also be its weakness,” he explains. “There’s a huge focus on how the venue performs. Aspects such as fan comfort, excellent sight-lines, people flow and convenient amenities tend to drive the final form of the building.

“Concentrating on those elements and to ensure functionality is definitely a good thing, but the approach also has a flipside. I think that focusing solely on functional aspects can lead us to having very mundane and very similar sports stadiums.”

Mundane is a term which definitely doesn’t apply to the design of Mercedes Benz Stadium. Its distinctive appearance, says Johnson, is a result of the unique design process that the team adopted, which – literally – turned convention on its head.

“Stadium design tends to start with the seating bowl and the field of play,” Johnson says. “You design those two parts, put them inside a box and then close it all with a roof. “Sometimes the addition of the roof is treated as an entirely separate project. For a very long time now, the designing of the bowl and the roof haven’t really been connected.

“With the Mercedes Benz stadium, we wanted to reverse that, to use the roof as the starting point. We looked at the roof and asked ourselves ‘how can we make something beautiful and elegant, not only in the way it looks, but the way it operates’.”

Johnson says the answer was to design a retractable roof which would become the stadium’s signature element, rather than merely a cover.

HOK’s roof design for the Mercedes Benz Stadium provides a radical departure from other kinetic roofs seen at stadiums. Rather than one or two moving and closing parts, it features eight triangular ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) covered petals which move in unison along individual tracks. Due to their design, the tracks allow the roof to open and close like a camera aperture.

“The idea came to us that if this roof could open in the centre and move away from the centre, it would be as if we were taking a spotlight and letting it come through this tiny opening in the roof and shine on the team logo in the centre of the pitch,” Johnson says. “And the roof would then continue to open and the spotlight would grow until the roof was fully open.”

He adds that the geometry of the roof has influenced the entire design of the stadium – from the outside skin and the shape of the seating bowl to the circulation paths inside the building. “The beam of light, cast by the roof on to the field of play, is the centrepoint and we have designed the building so that it feels like it’s swirling and spinning around that centrepoint,” he says.

“The eight petals of the retractable roof move in a counter-clockwise way when the roof is opened. That movement is mirrored by the forms you see on the outside of the building. Everything in the design is always moving either towards or away from that centrepoint – the hole in the roof.”

The building’s skin is split into angular, winglike exterior sections (inspired by the wings of a falcon) covered by a semi-transparent ETFE facade, and acts as a continuation of the roof.

The transparency of the facade also creates a 16-storey tall ‘ Window to the City’ that brings natural light into the venue. It also provides spectacular floor-to-ceiling views of Atlanta’s skyline, connecting fans to the city’s landscape and offering them a natural visual impact.

While Johnson and the HOK team adopted an unconventional design process, they didn’t ignore the need for the building to be functional. Johnson says that while the venue can be seen as an architectural statement, the focus has always been on providing an unforgettable fan experience.

“The Falcons have been a great client, because they wanted to innovate on every level, all for the benefit of the fan experience,” he says. “What that means to me, as lead designer, is that you’re going to take everything that is out there and you are taking it all up a notch.”

One element which has been elevated is the technology at the stadium. Catering for a generation of connected fans, it has a total of 1,800 wi-fi points, connected by 4,000 miles of fibreoptic cable. The network’s immense capacity means that it can handle whatever’s thrown at it – even if all 71,000 spectators decide to start streaming simultaneously, which is increasingly likely.

The most impressive piece of technology, however, is the linear ‘halo board’ inside the stadium, which acts as the main scoreboard. At 1,100 -long and 58 -tall, it’s the largest video board in professional sports, and gives fans 63,000sq  of screen to view live action, highlights and iso-cameras.

“The screen o ers clear views from every seat, but it also preserves the beauty of the roof,” says Johnson.

Keeping fans connected to the action has been a priority and in addition to the halo board, there is an additional video display – a 100 -high mega column – wrapped with a 3D video board. There are also 2,000 large HD TVs do ed throughout the venue, ensuring that fans are kept up to date with the action wherever they are inside the stadium.

For Johnson, the Mercedes Benz Stadium represents the pinnacle in a long, distinguished career which has seen him design some of America’s largest sports projects, including the Atlanta Olympic Stadium and the MetLife Stadium, home of the New York Giants and the New York Jets.

“It was an amazing opportunity to work on the Atlanta Olympic Stadium; I thought ‘nothing will ever better than this’,” he says. “Then I had the chance to work on the MetLife stadium in New York – and again I thought ‘nothing will top this’. “But now, with the Mercedes Benz Stadium, I’m pretty sure that this really is ‘the one.’”


Construction cost:

Construction time:
39 months

Total structural steel used:
27,000 tons

2m sq ft (185,806sq m)

71,000 for NFL games
32,456 for MLS games
75,000 for large events

Roof area:
14.5 acres

Bars and restaurants:

673 points of sale

Mercedes Benz Stadium / Perry Mcintyre/Zuma Press/PA images
Mercedes Benz Stadium Perry Mcintyre/Zuma Press/PA images

Scott Jenkins,

General manager,

Mercedes Benz Stadium

Scott Jenkins
Scott Jenkins

What attracted you to accept the job to manage the MB stadium?
I think it’s the underlying values of Arthur Blank and of his companies. It’s the long-term view of things and the focus on giving back to the community.

At the Mercedes Benz Stadium, this vision is manifested in our community initiatives, through our sustainability schemes and by our ‘fans first’ approach to affordable pricing inside the stadium. It’s nice to see a business person who takes that kind of view and wants to make a difference in the community – and I really wanted to be a part of that.

What makes the Mercedes Benz Stadium so special?
I think it starts with HOK’s stunning architecture and the fact that we are in the heart of Atlanta. Then we have the one-of-a-kind retractable roof, the world’s largest scoreboard and a real focus on fan experience at every level.

Could you tell us about The Front Porch – the outdoor fan plaza.
More than 25 per cent of Falcons fans arrive by public transport and it’s hard to tailgate if you’re coming in that way [tailgating is the US tradition of fans organising pre-match parties at parking lots at stadiums and arenas]. Our intention is to extend the gameday experience by giving ticketed fans the opportunity to come into the stadium before the game and have fun with fellow fans.

The front porch will get programmed for that tailgate experience, and also activate at half time. There will be a variety of food and beverage options and plenty of gameday activities.

It will be really interesting to see whether we can change the game a little bit – and what people’s behaviours are. People love to tailgate and it’s a huge part of football, so we don’t expect it to go away – but we want to offer them an alternative to come inside our facility and enjoy themselves.

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Company profile: FaulknerBrowns Architects
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