The 2016 US Open is finally here. One hour after this post is published, the first matches of the tournament will be played. Over the past year, much of the grounds, including all but three of the field courts, were completely rebuilt. Many of the paths around the grounds were widened, and the confusing circle around the statue of Arthur Ashe was replaced. Courts 8, 9, and 10, and Courts 13-16, now have connected viewing galleries at one end, allowing fans to easily walk between courts (not during play, though; that’s bad manners) and view two or three matches simultaneously. Court 12’s stand has been significantly expanded, and now mirrors that of Court 11. All courts now have designated areas for wheelchairs and elevators for those who need them. Each court is still in the same location as it was previously, so although it looks very different, it all feels familiar to US Opens of years past.
All of it, that is, except for one thing.
The new Grandstand.
Constructed over the better portion of two years, the new Grandstand is part of the second phase of the US Open’s renewal, which includes the previously mentioned field court renovation and the roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium. It is an 8,125-seater stadium located in the southwest corner of the grounds. Designed by architectural firm Rossetti, the stadium is an asymmetrical bowl that seats more than the old Grandstand, yet is designed to supposedly retain the same intimacy and quirkiness of the old stadium.
If you delve into the blog’s history, you’ll find that I wrote a long-form piece two years ago on the impending closure of the old Grandstand and its attached bigger brother, Louis Armstrong Stadium. It turns out that my timing was off by a little bit–Armstrong will close after this year’s Open, with a grand send-off on September 8th that is free to the public. The Grandstand held its last competitive matches last year (excluding this year’s qualification rounds), and will be practice court P6 for this year’s Open unless emergency dictates it be pressed back into service a final time; to that end, the video scoreboards and the Hawk-Eye ball tracking system were reinstalled, just in case. (Update, 12:22PM: They are using the old Grandstand as a tournament court, since Court 10 has been deemed unplayable.)
Although the timing of that piece was off, the sentiment expressed in it still remains for me. I welcome the new changes to the grounds (except for the removal of many trees and shrubs and the replacement of real grass with artificial turf), and having visited the new Grandstand I must admit it is a marvelous new house. However, I have my doubts that the new place can actually replicate the same intimacy and quirkiness of the old stadium, as the architects claim. Can the new Grandstand live up to the hype?
A Spurious West Ham Connection
Before we break down the similarities and differences between the Grandstands, I’d like to talk about a similar event that just took place in East London. West Ham United is a professional soccer club that plays in England’s Premier League, the highest level of soccer in England and probably the most prestigious “football” league in the world (although fans of the German and Spanish top flights will undoubtedly take umbrage with that). They plied their trade at the historic Boleyn Ground, also known as Upton Park based on its location. However, the old 35,016-seater stadium could not keep up with increased demands for tickets. Structurally, it was not strong enough to survive an expansion, and could also not be expanded without significantly altering some of the neighborhood around it. The owner of the club, David Gold, admitted that traffic around the stadium was a nightmare on game day, having been through it personally numerous times. Although West Ham were a historic club, they were not really an iconic one, playing second fiddle to the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, and the Manchester teams. Taking all this together, the club ownership decided what was needed was a move to an iconic stadium.
This past summer, then, they moved “down the road” to the Olympic Stadium, beating out city rivals Tottenham Hotspur for the location. Yes, the same Olympic Stadium where Mo Farah and Usain Bolt made history in the 2012 Olympics. The building now simply known as London Stadium underwent a massive renovation to accomodate West Ham’s arrival; the entire roof was replaced with a larger one, and the lower bowl was replaced with massive movable sections since the running track and athletics field had to be retained, yet the architects didn’t want the seats to be too far from the pitch. (An aside: Tottenham’s nickname is Spurs; the pun in the section header is unintentional.)
No sooner had the Hammers moved into their new home than the criticisms of the new ground flew. Despite the efforts of the architects, the seats were still too far from the pitch, especially on the sideline with the benches and the technical areas. The acoustics were terrible. The views were terrible. Some of the seats hadn’t even been installed in the top tier, forcing fans to stand when standing is actually heavily discouraged in English soccer.
Perhaps the most repeated criticism was that it was soulless. Although very beautiful, it was all concrete and metal and steel and oblong and not a proper football ground.
Why do people criticize new stadiums as soulless? Simple: memories. The more memories and great events take place in a stadium, the more and more people love them and willfully block its flaws from their opinions. Visiting a precious old stadium brings back the memories of people who were in attendance for the most iconic moments in the home team’s history, and inspires awe in those who weren’t there personally but maybe saw it on TV or read up on the history of the team. David Gold, who has been a supporter of West Ham from birth, himself wondered what would happen to all the memories after the move.
But then he realized that memories don’t fade. Memories are taken by the fans to the new place even though the old stadium may not exist anymore. We have seen this with my hometown baseball team, the New York Yankees. People still criticize the now seven year old “new” Yankee Stadium as soulless and corporate, but they still fondly remember the great teams that called the original Yankee Stadium home. And the new stadium has made its own memories, which include the 2009 World Series victory and Derek Jeter’s walkoff single during his last home game before retirement. No doubt the London Stadium will fare the same for West Ham.
Even with the new memories, usually the new place will never fully replicate the experience of the old place. I was never able to visit the old Yankee Stadium, but even today many fans who regularly attended complain that the atmosphere is different from the old Stadium, despite the dimensions of the field nominally being the same and some longtime missing elements of the original Stadium design being returned to their historical places. The new Grandstand is just the latest in a line of stadiums that profess to retain some of the most important features of the stadiums they replaced. How well can it do that?
A Step-by-Step Comparison
First off: the shape of the stadia. The old Grandstand was a rectangular 1/3 of a full stadium, being physically within the same building as Louis Armstrong Stadium but with the east stand of Louis Armstrong between the two courts. However, the new Grandstand is a standalone bowl stadium. This means that the new Grandstand takes up much more space than the old, with about 133% of the capacity.
The seating arrangement in the old stadium was straight terracing with bleacher seats on three of the four sides in the upper tier, and seats on the fourth side with chairs on all four sides of the tiny lower tier. The new Grandstand, in a nod to the old, mostly repeats this arrangement, with the upper tier all bleachers and the lower tier all seats. However, the rakes of the tiers are different. The original stadium has a steeper rake, which places fans closer to the court but higher up. The new stadium is exactly the opposite: a lower rake places fans lower to the court but farther away.
The positioning of the seats in the lower tier is also different, shape of stadium notwithstanding. By modern standards, the size of the court, including the green “out” areas, in the old Grandstand was tiny, with players often forced to the end boards behind the baseline to make plays, sometimes mere feet from the crowd. The first row of seats was situated below the top of the very thin boards, which created a unique player-level perspective not found anywhere else on the grounds. Any hard hit ball that would go all the way to the end boards would hit them with a satisfying thunk. By conscious choice, the architects did not replicate what was a necessity back when the original Grandstand was designed and built. The end boards are now quite thick, and there is a fence between them and the fans; also, the distance between the side boards and the sidelines has been increased.
In an attempt to create a more “intimate” atmosphere, the court is actually sunken into the ground. The concourse that rings the stadium is on the ground level, instead of elevated above the ground level as in the old Grandstand. This, along with the sheer number of exits, is a much needed improvement, especially for wheelchair-bound fans, who can now simply roll into and out of the stadium without having to take a special wheelchair lift or an elevator.
The new Grandstand has a small roof over the west side. The roof is designed to keep as many seats as possible in the shade during the hottest time of the day. To that end, the stadium is lopsided to the west, with significantly more seats on that side. This differs from the old Grandstand, which originally did not even have seats on the shady side; its largest tier was in direct sunlight for much of the afternoon. The roof also replicates the infamous late afternoon shadow line of the original stadium, although it is cleverly designed to keep as much of the court in the light for as long as possible to minimize disruptions.
Although the shadow line was kept, one thing that was sadly not replicated in the new Grandstand was the thing that created the shadow line: the ledge above the court that was actually a part of Louis Armstrong Stadium. Spectators standing here would literally be on top of the action, which also was a unique perspective not found anywhere else. Although physically separated from the rest of the Grandstand, it contributed greatly to the atmosphere of the place. The imposing structure to which it was attached made the entire place feel much, much smaller than it really was by towering over the rest of the stadium and, more importantly, retaining much of the crowd noise and reflecting it back towards the court.
Old Name, New Memories
The new Grandstand is a larger stadium, both in area and in capacity, and, in my opinion, in feel. The old Grandstand is a bandbox that attempted to crunch as many people as possible into a tiny footprint. Watching a match in that cramped stadium was uncomfortable yet amazing. The closeness of the fans to the players was something all parties enjoyed, and really made for an immersive experience that Arthur Ashe, in all its bigness, could not hope to touch. The new stadium is designed more for fan and player comfort. It’s also not as unique as the architects made it out to be–the basic design is that of an expanded Court 17, which was opened a few years ago as part of Phase One of the US Open’s renewal. Because of the bowl design, Court 17 feels much larger than it really is, and the same can be said of the new Grandstand. Sinking the court into the ground really doesn’t do much for the intimacy of the place once you’re inside, although it does contribute to an impressive view of Arthur Ashe Stadium. The placement of the majority of fans farther from the court removes them from the action as well. I will say, though, that the asymmetrical design and the roof are two things the architects designed really well. (Speaking of roofs, the USTA really dropped the ball by not placing canopies over the new galleries on the grounds, but that’s for another article.)
Although it contains some key nods to the original Grandstand, it fails miserably in the intimacy aspect in comparison. I don’t think the new Grandstand will be able to replicate the original’s atmosphere. But then again, it doesn’t have to. It’s located completely across the grounds from the old stadium to a completely different, modern design. The memories of the old place, long after it is demolished, will never fade in the minds of those who were there, while the new place will create its own memories and write its own history, and perhaps in the future will even have its own name. And in that way, it will be a smashing success.
Some of the information about West Ham’s move to the London Stadium was sourced from the Daily Mirror.
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