Home of the Preseason No. 3 University of Kentucky Wildcats
Our tour continues south, a three-hour drive from Columbus, OH to the University of Kentucky in Lexington, a place where basketball is worshiped and Rupp Arena is its cathedral. Lexington is a city of just over 300,000 and the centerpiece of its downtown is the Lexington Center, a mixed-use commercial, hotel and sport facility built in 1976 and location of Rupp Arena, a 23,500-seat facility, home to the Kentucky Wildcats.
Rupp Arena is home to the nation’s winningest college basketball program and is named after longtime coach Adolph Rupp. The Arena is part of a larger mixed-use development that includes a 70,000 sf (6,500 m2) convention center, a three-level shopping mall, the 350-room Hyatt Regency Hotel and the historic, 1,000-seat Lexington Opera House.
Designed by Ellerbe Becket and opened in 1976, Rupp Arena is a refreshingly simple building whose size and large seating capacity are directly proportional to the demand that this successful program commands. Rupp Arena is the largest arena in the country specifically built for basketball and runs neck and neck with the Carrier Dome for top average annual attendance. Unlike Ohio State’s Value City Arena, Rupp Arena is big but always full. There are no luxury suites and the entire upper deck is bleacher seats that enable attendance to increase to over 24,000 for big games.
The exterior of Rupp is a simple box building that sits within the larger Lexington Center complex. Its no-nonsense metal sided exterior, with ribbon-windows at the corners and horizontal air grilles, doesn’t try to do too much but it works. It would be nice if the building opened up a bit more on High Street but the fact that it functions as part of a large, mixed-use development and is used so much means it is not a white elephant, unlike some other sport facilities.
The Arena underwent a modest renovation in 2003 that included four new video boards above the upper deck, new lower bowl seating and new locker rooms. The result is still a simple, straight-forward building whose simplicity is best exemplified by Big Bertha – a cluster of speakers that hovers over center court and pumps out sounds to the viewing crowd. Probably not the most state-of-the-art sound system; Big Bertha is a wonderful relic of the 1970’s and a reminder of Rupp Arena’s ageing infrastructure.
The ageing, lovable Rupp Arena seems like it might be reaching its thirty-year lifespan as major plans are underway to renovate or possibly rebuild it as part of a larger downtown master plan. The open design competition was won by Oslo-based architecture firm Spacegroup. Although Spacegroup partner Gary Bates has ties to the UK, a year teaching at the University of Kentucky’s architecture program gives the firm a unique insight into Lexington’s downtown and campus architecture.
In addition to the extensive site research and ideas on how to regenerate the area around the arena, what I like most about Spacegroup’s concept for the new Rupp Arena is how they cleverly retain the box-like shape of the original by preserving the four corners, while the curved elements imply an inner force pushing out. The funding for this project is currently in the works so it is yet to be seen when or if this new scheme will move ahead. Until it does the current building will do just fine.
The simplicity of this building works in part because of the passion the fans bring to the game and the importance of this team to the Lexington community. It is not a stretch to say that basketball is a religion in Kentucky and Rupp Arena is the cathedral. Not a cathedral in the sense that it is an architectural wonder, as this is by no means the case. Rather, Rupp Arena is a cathedral in the modern, practical sense of a place where people gather en masse to celebrate an institution and idea they hold sacred. It is a place you regularly visit and gather with your community to support something important to you. The complete lack of commercial enhancement – no luxury suites, no club seating and the bleacher style seating – only enhance the feeling that this building is a hallowed ground, open to all and everyone who wants in.
The success of UK basketball and the dominance of the Wildcats in this building will in all likelihood continue this season, and 24,000 faithful will be there to watch – seat backs or not.