THE GREAT ARENA ROOF: Part I (Madison Square Garden)

Madison Square Garden. New York. NY

The third iteration of Madison Square Garden opened in 1968 and the imperfect building’s now famous round, cable-stayed roof was designed by structural engineer Fred Severud. Essentially the Garden’s roof works like a giant bicycle wheel lying on its side: pairs of inversely arched steel cables stretch between an exterior compression ring and an interior tension ring. This suspension cable roof system is less heavy and less expensive than a comparable steel or concrete roof would be, good since the 20,000-seat Garden sits above Penn Station below. At the time this was the largest ever steel cable suspension roof covering over 3 acres of column free interior, allowing for completely unobstructed views inside.

That is the engineering, now the architecture. The high point of roof is at the perimeter of the building, each cable gently arches down to connect with the tension ring above center court. This subtle slope of the roof has the effect of directing energy toward the playing field. Between each cable, light brown panels form an alternating pattern that both accentuates the dynamic quality of the roof and creates a warm, comfortable interior.

Concentric circles of lighting, speakers, miscellaneous tech equipment and retired Knick and Ranger jerseys continue the rhythm established by the seating bowl below to create a completely immersive experience; watching a game in the Garden you are as close to being in a Julie Mehretu painting as you’ll ever be. It is all pretty spectacular and I was happy to see that recent renovations haven’t touched the beautiful Garden roof. I still missed the single-tier seating bowl that was ditched in favor of the more normative two-tiers with suites between, but the datum line formed by the upper deck helps reinforce the concentric pattern inside. Apparently this idea is based on the much smaller Utica Memorial Coliseum also designed by Severud.

The Garden roof is a duality, like much great architecture: its bold yet subtle; its grand yet intimate; it compresses space and expands it. That it hasn’t been replicated at other venues is perhaps a testament to its iconic nature, doing the same might be considered a copycat. But if all arena roofs did just that, they’d be much better off.

In this series we are collecting and dissecting the world’s great arena roofs. Let us know your favorite in the comments below – I know they are out there. Next up, Zaha Hadid’s London Aquatic Centre >