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MCI Center's Winning Ways

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 22, 1997; Page C1

The first thing to say about the MCI Center, the new downtown arena scheduled to host its first event 10 days from now, is that it is in the right place.

In deciding to build the $200 million structure on a key site in the heart of the old downtown, owner Abe Pollin and District authorities did the entire region a good turn. The central location, on F Street between Sixth and Seventh streets NW and smack atop the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station, makes the arena more convenient to more people in the area than any suburban location would have done. And it promises to stimulate business activity downtown, although the extent and nature of the revival remain unclear.

The second thing to say is that the architects took good advantage of the splendid site. The big building is not what you would call a triumph of civic architecture, but it is an unusually attractive, welcoming sports arena. In part this is because the design team of Washington's KCF-SHG and Kansas City's Ellerbe Becket found ways to reduce the visual impact of the building's true size and to fit it into its varied urban context. Arenas don't necessarily have to have pretty faces to perform their main function — entertaining thousands of people at live events. But this one does. In fact, it has four different, visually dynamic facades. What could have been a monolithic box was instead turned into an interesting urban collage.

Nor is it simply a matter of facades. This is one of the most inviting athletic buildings anywhere because it is not just an arena. Impressive stores, restaurants and even a sports museum — all saturated with video images and interactive displays — surround the center's F Street entrance. These will be open during the day (although not all of them will be ready for the Dec. 2 opening). Likewise, ground-level concourse concessions will remain open during the day, serving, in effect, as the city's most unusual food court.

Then, there is the center's principal reason for being — the spacious 20,000-seat interior, designed and engineered by Ellerbe Becket. The seating bowl is a handsome, commodious affair. Arranged in three tiers, it provides excellent sight lines to the playing floor even from the highest seat in the third tier (although the steep rake of those third-tier seats is discomfiting). At first, the coloration seems surprisingly neutral. The seats are a subdued purple, and even the spectacular steel trusses necessary to span more than 350 feet are rendered almost invisible by coats of gray paint and swooping, gray acoustical baffles. But the idea here is to look down rather than up. Animation and color will be provided by thousands of spectators, a 360-degree ring of signs on the bulkhead of the third tier, and a huge four-sided video scoreboard-one of those signature chandeliers of late 20th-century sports.

The concourses that ring the seating bowl — one at ground level, two at midlevel for suite and club seat ticket holders, and a fourth for the topmost tier — are designed not simply as corridors but as places in themselves. Painted with planes of brilliants reds, yellows and purples, Thanks to all the glass in the facades, on event nights the building will be like an enormous, vivid lantern.

They provide a festive blast of color. Thanks to all the glass in the facades, on event nights the building will be like an enormous, vivid lantern. And views to the outside world will be an important part of the experience of visiting this unusual building. Among the few benefits of the cheaper seats in the third tier are the wonderful vistas from the highest concourse-of the Greek Revival Old Patent Office Building (now the National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American Art) to the west, and the Old Pension Building (now the National Building Museum) to the east.

Inevitably, there are negatives. Foremost, to my mind, is the rigid stratification of the seating arrangements. This is something the MCI Center shares with all the new arenas, where money is permanently in the air. The economic engines that drive this latest wave of sports construction are luxury suites and club seating. In our new center there are 110 suites, adroitly fitted between tiers of seats (and with interiors crisply designed by the Washington firm of Devrouax & Purnell) and a mezzanine ring of 3,045 club seats. These zones of privilege and high prices will make the MCI Center, like all other contemporary arenas, a spectacle of wealth and display-entertaining in its way but also offensive.

Architecturally, there is one big flaw: As seen from street level the top of the building is discordant. Basically just a screen for mechanical equipment, it looks as if it were purchased at a sale of cheap metal siding. Contributing to this unfortunate effect are banks of exposed steel beams top and center on both the Sixth and Seventh street facades. Intended as decorative curves suggestive of the seating bowl inside, they look awkward and unfinished, as if they were as yet unadorned armatures for huge signs. Lesser disappointments, many attributable to cost cuts, include the rather humdrum quality of the glass walls, the use of tinted rather than clear glass, and the main MCI Center signs themselves — with their steel superstructures exposed at the top, they, too, look incomplete.

Parking is certain to be a temporary problem as patrons adjust. And it could become a long-term headache. The 500 or so spaces underneath the building are reserved for athletes, staff and a privileged few ticket holders, but the idea is that more built-in parking is unnecessary. There is plenty of parking within walking distance, the theory goes, mainly in downtown garages and lots that empty out at the end of the working day. It is a fine, synergistic argument, but we'll see. For it to work, nearly half the audience for a sold-out event will have to travel to the center by subway.

The center very nearly is two separate buildings — the arena itself and its 70,000-square-foot retail complement — and you can see this in the architecture. The restaurants and stores are in the metal-and-glass entry facade, and the arena is behind the bricks of the other walls. With its four towering steel columns, the entry facade is appropriately celebratory. With their explosive steel-limbed tops, the columns seem almost audacious in the conservative architectural context of downtown Washington, yet they do call to mind the omnipresent Washington theme of classical columns. Indeed, it is by opting for a cautiously modern aesthetic vocabulary, rather than mimicking historical styles, that the designers were able to create a building that is reasonably fresh, yet sympathetic to its surroundings.

By adjusting the cornice lines to coincide with those of nearby historic buildings, the architects did much to reduce the visual impact of the building's inescapable bulk. Note, for instance, how the 66-foot cornice of the F Street curtain wall lines up with the Greek entablature of the National Portrait Gallery to the west. Similarly, the striped brick facades of the Sixth and Seventh Street facades, topping off at 72 feet, do much to give the building an appropriate sense of scale. (The long north-south vault over the arena rises 116 feet at its highest point; this is visible only from a distance.)

„Excepting that horrible metal top, the lively Seventh Street facade is a wonderfully syncopated piece of work, from the glass niche separating it from the F Street structure to the wavy, copper-roofed canopy (symbolizing the Chinese silk dance) at its northern end, near Chinatown. The horizontal striping of the bricks gives this part of the building a pleasant, speedy sweep; in the middle, a curved glass wall reflects the shape of the seating bowl; there's even a large window (for administrative offices) at the northern end. An enormous embossed symbol, devised by KCF-SHG architects in collaboration with architect John Chen and based on an ancient script, is the final touch. It is said to signify long life.

The remaining facades are not quite so enticing, but as long urban walls go, they're pretty good. Even the exit-only doors of the north facade, facing a Chinatown alley, were enlivened with a pagoda-like structure and a paved plaza that could, in time, become a pleasant urban space. Because of a change in grade, the Sixth Street facade is not quite so open as its Seventh Street counterpart — you have to climb stairs or a ramp to get to the doors — but it is distinguished by similar scale-giving, context-enhancing devices.

All parties involved — from Abe Pollin to members of the 800-person work teams of the Clark Construction Group &1151 deserve sizable credit for the jobs they did on the MCI Center. The efforts to make it a welcoming urban neighbor are significant and largely successful. Faults and all, it is a very good building. I can hardly wait to buy my tickets, even up there in the nosebleed zone.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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