World-renowned sports design firm Populous was chosen in April of 2012 to embark on the historic redevelopment of Kyle Field. Just months after the construction began, Populous Founder and Senior Principal Earl Santee sat down to discuss his latest design project.
You have designed sports venues all across the world – from NFL and MLB stadiums, to NHL and NBA arenas, to Olympic sites. How is the Kyle Field Redevelopment project a reflection of the POPULOUS brand, and yet unique to Texas A&M?
"What’s reflective of our brand is that we created a look and feel that was extremely authentic to Texas A&M. At the heart of that reflection is the people who make the game what it is, so we had conversations with everyone who has a stake in the future of the stadium.
"In turn, this project is a perfect example of how our brand reinforces drawing people together for incredible experiences. This project has an impact that can't be measured by the number of fans in the stadium. It will be measured on how it impacts the entire campus, the state and the approach of all universities to projects of this type moving forward. The aspirations, for this campus, for this athletic department and the events that will take place at Kyle Field were extremely high, if not the highest in collegiate athletics.
"Like the aspirations of Texas A&M, at Populous, we aspire to be best architects in the world. Taking the time to listen and engage was important in our design process since this is what we believe creates unique and authentic experiences. We took the time to listen to students, to faculty, to administration, to athletics and to former students that love Texas A&M and Aggie Athletics. Their voices can be seen in the architecture, the planning and all of the amplified experiences that Aggies in the future will share together at the redeveloped Kyle Field. That is a true reflection of who Populous is and the work we do. We listen and collaborate to create something that is uniquely special for our clients and their fans."
How do you plan to incorporate Texas A&M traditions into the Kyle Field Redevelopment design?
"Kyle Field is an iconic part of Texas A&M’s campus and honoring the home of the 12th Man, the fans and the program were critical to the design. Many decisions were made in the design process that will uphold and honor those traditions.
"We spent months thinking, discussing and listening to others discuss this project before we designed it. We came to games and we watched and listened to the fans. We have always believed that to get this right we had to understand the school’s traditions and the core values. It wasn't easy, considering the unique culture and history as compared to other universities, and it took time. Many of the ideas were already here, our charge was simply to unify and create a cohesive story through design that is reflective of A&M’s game day atmosphere. The impact of the traditions, from Midnight Yell Practice to the Corps of Cadets march-in, impacted how we looked at the site and helped us better understand how important what happened on the outside was compared to the inside.
"Our inspiration for the arches at the towers came from the historic north end zone. We focused on the rich tradition of the campus by using brick that appears throughout the campus. We wanted to create a place for the past, present and the future by celebrating Aggie Athletics with a Hall Of Champions. We also wanted to acknowledge the past and current success with a North Plaza area dedicated to telling the story of A&M football. We wanted to reinforce and amplify the impact that 30,000+ students bring to Aggie games by giving them a special space on the east side, a place to honor them, to acknowledge them and to keep them for generations to come. We also wanted a place to remember those that have fallen, so we created a 12th Man memorial seating area. Above all else, we know what a unifying force the 12th Man is on game day, and as such, we wanted to create architecture that was inclusive, accessible and a true reflection of all Aggies. Aggies don’t go to Kyle Field to watch the game, they go to affect the game. Our design enhances that by bringing them closer to the field along the east and west sidelines, enclosing the south end zone, and sideline canopies to trap the noise. This idea truly gives the fans a sense of ownership and responsibility in how they can help their team and succeed together. The impact of the fans is what makes Texas A&M a dominant force and we wanted fans to walk through the stadium and sense the history and be excited for the future."
Your philosophy is that urban sites shape the buildings you design. How does the stadium design fit in with the existing architecture on campus? Talk about your use of materials and design elements.
"It was essential that the design of the stadium corresponded and complemented the existing architecture on campus while capturing the atmosphere of the original Kyle Field. We were careful to select materials that are used in other places on campus- we chose to use the historic brick that is seen on many campus buildings, while the façade features glass and other materials prominently used throughout campus. Our design is an intersection of the spirit of Texas A&M’s campus, the history of the program and the vision of the athletic department and 12th Man Foundation."
What was your design process – who was involved in the process, and what were some of the “must-haves” for the new stadium? What challenges did you meet?
"We started our process in early 2012 while under contract with the 12th Man Foundation. At that point, we attended dozens of meetings with individuals including student groups, student leaders, athletics, faculty, administration, former students and the 12th Man Foundation. Many of our meetings were well attended sometimes reaching 30 to 40 people. We were so impressed by the passion of each and every group we spoke with. It was evident how much people really cared about the future of Kyle Field, and their sincerity and commitment to the university was evident. The first few meetings were extremely emotional and personal. I really enjoyed the stories and the love for the university that was shared, and these stories served as a jumping off point for many of our design ideas. I believe in a lot of ways those early meetings made us work harder, because the sharing of ideas and experiences made us dedicated to capturing the memories, tradition and importance of the stadium in our design. It gave us purpose. We then created a list of powerful words which informed the design story, words like, “best”, “greatness”, “unity”, and “intimidation.” The core values expressed by many of the current students we spoke with were magnified when we discussed with 70 year old former students. After these conversations, the must haves became more clear and included: creating better value, increase intimidation factor, make the experience more intimate, improve the sight lines, create a place for great and unified experiences and develop various spaces for people to gather both inside and outside the stadium.
"With any existing structure, there are challenges and Kyle Field was no different. It was a tremendous task- particularly considering the magnitude of the project and historical significance- and most of all, we were concerned about doing the fans and university justice in the renovation. I’m confident we’ve done that. Kyle Field will be the most forward looking iteration of college football while still capturing the atmosphere and spirit that makes the stadium iconic."
What challenges did you meet having to design around an existing structure rather than from the ground-up?
"Designing a renovation is always a challenge. The stadium is an historic component of campus and one of the most beloved environments in all of college football, which in itself represents a significant challenge. We also decided early on that the stadium would remain open for the 2013 and 2014 seasons, which meant we had to figure out how to phase the construction process so we wouldn’t interrupt the team’s schedule. We also had to consider how we could enhance the fan experience without taking away from the immense tradition and atmosphere for which Kyle Field is known. In turn, we made use of materials that related to campus and the original stadium and kept the student section and other components fairly intact. During the design process, we also were challenged to think beyond what is currently out there; we didn’t want A&M to emulate what has worked at other universities- we wanted them to consider how they could set the new standard and pave the way for the future experience."
Are there any Aggies on your POPULOUS design team?
"We are fortunate to have an Aggie, Charlie Kolarik, as a Populous designer. For the rest of us who didn’t attend, we almost feel as if we have gone to school there since for the past few years we have been on campus so often and have absorbed ourselves in the culture and traditions on campus."
While other schools have faced declining attendance, Texas A&M is moving in the opposite direction. How do you design the stadium to ensure that fans keep coming in the future?
"This is a question we are always asking ourselves… how do we keep fans coming back? Texas A&M is in a unique position- in 2012 they sold out their tickets earlier than they ever have in history and they’ve shattered their own attendance records time and time again. But nevertheless, we wanted to make sure Kyle Field was designed not just for today but for the future. We’ve incorporated a variety of seating options, since we’ve seen more and more that fans are interested in being part of neighborhoods within a stadium where they can socialize. We also were sure to include ample tailgating space and public plazas in the design that will grow with the stadium and fan base. We’ve also lowered the field, which I mentioned earlier, which will enhance the home-field advantage. By doing this, we were able to move seats closer to the field so fans are more intimately connected to the game… something that is increasingly important to getting fans to a stadium. Kyle Field will represent the best of the best and as such, I’m confident fans will continue to come and enjoy the most intimidating stadium in all of college football."
For more information on the Kyle Field Redevelopment project, visit KyleField.com.
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