Home of the Preseason No. 1 Indiana University Hoosiers
Bloomington, IN, 1971
The final stop on our tour, Bloomington, IN, a college town of just over 80,000, is, along with Lexington, Louisville, Lawrence and Chapel Hill, one of the great meccas of college hoops. Assembly Hall is home to Indiana basketball and has been since it opened in 1971, the same year that legendary coach Bobby Knight took over. Though not perfect or without its deficiencies, this enigmatic yet wonderful modern building is in a class of its own and potential future plans to rebuild anew should have us cherishing and studying Assembly Hall while it’s still here.
The limestone-clad Assembly Hall was designed by New York based Eggers & Higgins Architects, former associates in the office of John Russel Pope, designer of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC. Eggers & Higgins designed most of the IU campus post-1970, including the adjacent 52,000-seat Memorial Football Stadium which along with Assembly Hall make up an athletic complex that sits within large patches of surface parking lots.
This is not an urban campus building like Cameron Indoor Stadium, nestled within other academic buildings, rather, Assembly Hall sits like a great modern temple on the flat Indiana campus and its sculptural, fluted facade and soaring roof are meant to be seen from all four sides. Assembly Hall is unique, abstract, a little weird and totally unlike any other sport arena.
The seating for both the basketball and football facilities at IU are focused along the sidelines, a decision by University officials to maximize the best viewing angles. The vertiginous effect of this decision on Assembly Hall is a steep seating configuration that soars above the court and minimal bleacher sections are behind the baskets. Two arching walls stretch between the two bleacher sections and serve as retaining walls to the expansive sideline bleacher sections. These walls are one of Assembly Hall’s most identifiable features, especially when viewing a game on TV.
Two upper tiers of seats are clipped to the top of the arena roof, impossibly high above the court. A video board added during renovations in 2005 is a welcome upgrade, although Assembly Hall’s unique configuration means that the board obstructs the view for some seated in the building’s upper reaches.
Eggers & Higgins’ sculptural interior is a thing to behold. They used the expansive sideline and low baseline seating, along with inward tilting end walls and elliptical roof, to create a dynamic, elegant arena interior unique to this building. The bold, muscular forms of Assembly Hall are Zaha Hadid, before Zaha Hadid was making buildings. In an era when sport facilities increasingly look the same – two-tiers of seating separated by luxury suites, black-painted roof and scaffolding with speakers and lighting clipped on – Assembly Hall stands out.
A sharp departure from the KFC Yum! Center, Assembly Hall is anachronistically ad-free. In the years since Bobby Knight left the program, some commercial elements have crept in on the new video board, but this is largely a brand-neutral building. The interior is sporting purity at its finest – the minimalist design of the court is demarcated with the simplest of lines and arcs painted in Hoosier-red, the IU logo sits within a red-outlined Indiana state at center court, and the crisp arena walls define the angular expanse, rising from the baseline seats to reach the soaring roof above. These elements combined with the red-and-white clad Hoosier fans make Assembly Hall, as Knight put it, “a sacred place where students come to play and students come to cheer.” The simplicity of this mission gains value when juxtaposed with the complexity of modern-day arenas that are jammed full with extraneous stuff.
The forces of modern culture are felt in Bloomington, however just as they are in Louisville or Raleigh or Ann Arbor. In 2010, Indiana University officials approved the demolition of Assembly Hall “when necessary” and Populous were enlisted to develop schemes for a new facility. Keeping an ageing arena going today is becoming close to impossible, the charm and importance of places like Assembly Hall are no match for the lure of potential financial gain and entertainment value in a slow economy such as ours. How Populous and IU choose to renovate or rebuild and how they will honor – or not – the current building remains to be seen.
For now, however, Assembly Hall is open and possibly poised for a big season. As we have seen, national championships often result in major building campaigns and a Hoosier title in 2012-13 would most likely be no different. So let’s enjoy it while it lasts.