It's fine for watching hockey, but what the new arena's best at is telling people to leave. | Architecture | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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It's fine for watching hockey, but what the new arena's best at is telling people to leave.

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Off Center: Its inhospitable entrances are one reason the CONSOL Energy Center disappoints. - KEVIN SHEPHERD
  • Kevin Shepherd
  • Off Center: Its inhospitable entrances are one reason the CONSOL Energy Center disappoints.

This building was not built for people like me, I slowly realized while riding the 61C to the CONSOL Energy Center to watch a Penguins game. Parking lot after parking lot along Fifth Avenue in the last half-mile to the new arena was filled with cars, but the two-thirds-empty bus let off only two people right at the venue's corporate-sponsored entry, amid throngs of car-driving fans.

Don't get me wrong. Although I am Penguin-ambivalent, I do wear a Hines Ward jersey for Steelers games. I know what it's like to root for the home team, and I could easily welcome a new temple of sport. But that means I expect architecture along with vicarious heroic achievement. The two always have some kind of connection, but not always what is advertised.

With a new arena, much of the delight comes from the pristine lozenge of ice at the center of it all, and the perfectly concentric expansion of seats upward and outward. This monumental, topographical experience of the bowl of seating is particularly architectural and very specific to major spectator sports. It seems invigoratingly unifying, but that is only part of the story.

Cheap seats are almost as old as sports arenas themselves, and I credit the Penguins and their architects with giving my very back-row seat (which I paid for) a good view of the ice. (The arena was designed by Populous, formerly HOK Sport, in association with Astorino of Pittsburgh.) I am not so convinced, however, that the view is significantly better than in the Civic Arena, despite published assertions otherwise.

But the other aspect of cheap seats connects to another real purpose of the arena, which is separating people by economic means and insuring that the underfunded don't mix with the higher classes of hockey fan. I poked around the Legends Level private corporate boxes during a press event, and they are indeed lavish. I don't think that I experienced the deep emotional connection that their palette of colors, fabrics and finishes, touted by Pittsburgh-based consultants Fathom, is supposed to provide, but that hardly matters. You can't even get to this entire level of the arena if you don't have a proper ticket.

What you can get is out. Entire banks of stairs are exit-only, no re-admittance. The message to get out is ugly in both sentiment and appearance. The upper Centre Avenue entrance (I refuse to call these by their corporate-sponsored names), which should be a monumental portal, is clearly constipated by the semi-hidden exit-only stairs nearby. But who cares about urban grandeur? The lower Centre Avenue entrance is an easy but lost opportunity for a real entry portal. And while the Fifth Avenue façade screams for a central entrance, it has one that is off-center, opening onto the comically homely and misplaced large glass atrium. Apparently, the problem of circulation, which is uni-directional, ticket-specific, multi-leveled and spatially constrained, precluded any bit of urban design or civic-minded architecture.

You could blame the architects, or you could blame the site. This building is absolutely stuffed into a very tight plot of land that surely drove the architects crazy. It belonged on the vast, still-empty swath of parking between Centre and Bedford, where it would have fit comfortably, and where a more gracious and resolved design might have been possible. Instead, the empty promise of future development held sway. So historic buildings on Fifth Avenue had to be de-certified and then destroyed in favor of a façade that vaguely mimics their profiles, absent key elements such as doors and windows.

Why not have a few of the dozens of restaurants and souvenir shops face out onto Fifth Avenue or Centre? PNC Park, designed by an earlier permutation of the same architects, at least does this.

We are supposed to think that the new arena is like Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby -- gracious and self-effacing, but undisputedly heroic champions. Unfortunately, what we have is more like Deryk Engelland. Though the Pens lost their Oct. 13 game against Toronto, Engelland drew a cheer from the crowd when he leveled the deserving Colton Orr in a fist fight. It should be illegal, but somehow, in a hockey arena, you can get away with it.

I don't mind that this building wasn't built for me. I do mind that if you are a neighbor, a bus-rider, a pedestrian or anyone who has hopes for a building other than the specifics of watching hockey, it wasn't built for you, either.

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