Beyond the Press Box is a regular feature profiling the folks who color outside the lines of sport.
Interview by Kyle Magin
Architect Matt Taylor designs college and pro sports facilities for ROSSETTI, a Detroit-based architecture firm whose portfolio includes college and pro sports stadiums, airports and museums. Taylor is the mind behind Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena, Daytona International Speedway’s new grandstand, high-rise residential work and football stadia. The Detroit resident was educated in the city and lives nearby with his wife and two sons.
Kyle Magin: Matt, you’ve designed college and pro stadia and arenas in addition to architectural work on everything from airport terminals to memorials and corporate buildings. Could you give our readers the Cliff’s Notes version of how you got to do what you do?
Matt Taylor: My passion is designing projects that effect how people experience architecture. The project type is less important to me as long as the project has the opportunity to link people to their physical environment. I never sought out a career in sports and entertainment architecture but about a decade ago I was looking for a firm that valued high-quality design, realized creative projects, and welcomed critical thinking. I found ROSSETTI to fit my interests and career path perfectly. It was really coincidental that it was an industry leader in sports architecture. I worked for a few years without touching a sports project but once I had the opportunity I quickly realized how challenging and rewarding the project type can be. Now it’s almost exclusively what I do.
KM: You live in the Detroit area now and attended Detroit Mercy. Does the city and its architecture have any influence on your work? Are there any buildings in the city you’re particularly enamored with?
MT: Definitely. Detroit is one of the most unique cities you’ll find. I’m influenced not only by the architecture and environment but also the people. We have some of the most creative and hardworking people in the world here and our firm taps into these phenomenal resources by reaching out and connecting with local artists, automotive designers, fashion designers, videographers and creative directors. As the saying goes: Detroit Hustles Harder. We live and die by that mantra. In addition to that Detroit is driven by sports so it’s a natural fit for a stadia designer. As for a particular building that I admire I would have to say I’m biased in this subject. A year ago ROSSETTI moved to the Federal Reserve Building downtown, a building that we designed extensive renovations for. Having worked downtown earlier in my career the building had always been one of my favorites. Part of it had been designed by Minoru Yamasaki (architect of the original NY World Trade Center) so it has historic roots in Detroit modernism. I love it because it’s right in the thick of things downtown but boasts a great human scaled plaza at grade and of course we had to add a 4th floor rooftop terrace right outside our studio that allows us to work and play.
MT: I love our two stadiums here, Ford Field and Comerica Park. Both are downtown Detroit and well connected to the urban fabric of the city. Ford Field is actually physically connected to a former warehouse building and utilizes that space for premium suites and clubs. It’s very authentic. Comerica Park is the type of baseball stadium that is extremely open at the street. It feels like you could walk up and see part of the game without even buying a ticket. It is also super family-friendly with many activities for kids; my two little guys love it. The first time they went we got to go on to the field for batting practice. The second time they were randomly picked to be the “the luckiest fans of the game” and got to go by the dugout and have their faces on the big screen. It’s that type of one-of-kind memories that connect you to a place. But at the same time my boys had pretty lofty hopes for the third game…
KM: What is good stadium/arena design? What’s your goal when you go into a sports project?
MT: Good stadium/arena design is when the building is highly functional for multiple events, when the building provides sustainable revenue for the client, and provides fans a pleasant experience from street to seat. Great stadium/arena design does all of these things plus provides fans life-long memories and truly authentic experiences unique only to that venue. That would be our goal going into a project. We do it by applying a proven process that involves discovering our clients’ passion and purpose. We then go through steps to translate that vision into a unique solution adding value along the way with our extensive expertise. I think this is the true strength of an architect, the ability to listen to people and respond with creative solutions that match their vision, even when they don’t know what that vision looks like.
KM: Getting to Compton Family Ice Arena: I think it’s probably one of the most beautiful hockey arenas I’ve ever seen, college or professional. What was your reaction when you first found out you’d be working on such a prestigious project?
MT: We had to deliver a design almost immediately so there was very little time for reaction. In fact I think we began designing even before we won the proposal. It wasn’t until then that UND alumni, who are friends and family, discovered we were working on it. Then everyone wanted to know about it. That’s one thing that blew me away about working on a project at Notre Dame, the alumni are the most loyal I have ever encountered. That type of infectious pride and devotion really pushed us to another level. It’s sort of odd, but after working on projects like this, and for other Universities, you really start to feel a connection. You get to know the people, the campus, the team, it’s almost like you become an alumnus yourself (although without all the debt).
KM: Compton really complements ND’s gothic aesthetic on the exterior. If you didn’t know it, you’d think it would have been there a lot longer than it has. Was it constricting at all to have to match the arena to the campus’s look?
MT: We loved the challenge. We focused on some of the great fundamentals of gothic architecture, lightness and reaching toward the sky. We had lots of help from the university architects by touring us around the campus and introducing us to great examples of collegiate gothic buildings. We were given a crash course in Notre Dame’s architecture. A major goal was to avoid creating an uninviting fortress. The site was important because it is right on the edge of campus, making it a gateway from public to private. That’s why we introduced as much glass and windows into the façade as possible, creating a lantern effect on game night and beyond (the facility is used extensively for community hockey and skating).
MT: I’m glad you noticed. The entrance is one of the spaces I’m most proud of. We agonized over getting that sequence right, not only from a reveal of the ice sheet, but also trying to create multiple levels of experience within the large volume of space. With people circulating up and around on game night it is a space that is really full of life. I know it is the ultimate sport’s cliché, but there truly is not a bad seat in the house. If I had to choose I would say center ice in the club. It’s a great way to see the entire hockey game, plus have access to premium food and beverage. I’m amazed at how intimate and close to the action you feel even in the upper bowl. Of course this wasn’t an accident; we maxed out the stadia riser height to allow the upper seats to be closer and practically on top of the ice.
KM: There’s a lot of program in the building that the normal fan doesn’t see—practice ice, weight room, classrooms, offices, training facilities, etc. Are there any particular features behind the scenes that you’re proud of?
MT: The weight room is a monster! We were asked early on in the design process if any of the spaces were larger than similar facilities. We stated that the weight room was larger than most collegiate weight rooms. The response was to make it even bigger. However, from a design perspective I’m proud of the Irish locker room. Every detail of lighting, millwork and technology was painstakingly thought-out and it shows. From the very start of the process we would try to see the locker room as through new recruit’s eyes. We designed the lighting to spotlight the center ND custom carpet logo and individual lights for each jersey hanging in the lockers. It has to be one of the coolest spaces that most of the general public will never see.
MT: Yes absolutely. Unfortunately when I go I don’t see much of the game. I’m more interested in observing how people are using the space and learning how the facility truly operates. I spend most of my time in the concourses and entries. However, going to the first game that was played at the arena was the most rewarding opening I’ve been to. That’s the fun thing about sports stadia, one minute you are scrambling to get the thing designed and built, the next minute it’s full of screaming fans. It is somewhat surreal.
KM: What trends in sports design irk you?
MT: It’s a tough question to answer. Any time you start chasing a design element based on trends without regard for whether it’s appropriate for the specific project you are probably making a mistake. Trends like enormous video boards, field-level suites, loge boxes, roof-top pools all have to be weighed against what makes sense for that particular venue. It’s the one-size-fits its all mentality that can lead to unsuccessful projects.
KM: What’s your favorite sport to design for? What would be your dream facility to design?
MT: I really enjoy collegiate hockey design. The fans are so dedicated and the spectating experience is very communal. But I guess the ultimate facility would be an NFL stadium. Truly it is the world’s largest stage. Being the lead designer on the Daytona International Speedway Grandstand has been a dream come true. In some ways it’s as big, if not bigger, than an NFL stadium. I can’t wait to see part of it open at this year’s 500.
MT: In reality cycling is more of a mode of transportation then a sport for me. We have a group of 6-7 staff that lives in the same neighborhood about 12 miles from the office and we bike in to the office two or three times a week in the summer. It is a great way to see Detroit. We also do a lot of group runs. Our office is full of young, active people, and I just try to keep up. My passion is golf; unfortunately I’m a better architect than a golfer.
KM: What book(s) are you reading?
MT: I’ve just finished All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and I’m always reading and rereading the architecture books I’ve collected throughout the years. Right now it’s Steven Holl’s Parallax.
Photo credits, from top: Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena, photo by Barton Marlow; Matt Taylor, photo courtesy ROSSETTI; ROSSETTI’s Downtown Detroit office; Compton Family Ice Arena’s exterior, photo by Barton Marlow; Notre Dame lockerroom, photo by Jim Haefner; Daytona International Speedway, rendering courtesy ROSSETTI