The Mercedes-Benz Superdome
Home of the New Orleans Saints and 2013 Super Bowl XLVII
Capacity: 73,208 (expandable to 76,468)
New Orleans, LA
On Sunday the National Football League (NFL) holds its 47th annual championship game as the Super Bowl comes to the city of New Orleans and the cavernous Superdome. The 73,000-seat dome was completely renovated in 2006 following damage suffered from Hurricane Katrina and the shiny new bronze exterior, revised exterior plazas and updated interior have helped modernize this hulking relic of a bygone era in stadium design.
In addition to being home to the New Orleans Saints, the Superdome has previously hosted six Super Bowls, four BCS College Football National Championship Games, five NCAA College Basketball Final Fours, Tulane University College Football home games, the annual Bayou Classic between Louisiana’s two historically black colleges Grambling and Southern, was the site of Muhammad Ali’s third heavyweight title victory over Leon Spinks and Sugar Ray Leonard’s rematch with Roberto Duran and has also provided emergency shelter for New Orleans residents after Hurricanes Georges, Ivan and most famously Katrina. Located in the heart of this tourist mecca, the Superdome is a cog in modern-day New Orleans’ economic engine and an integral component to the culture of this wonderfully complex city.
The Superdome opened in 1975, during a time when big, multi-purpose, climate controlled stadiums were the vanguard of sport facilities. The Astrodome in Houston, the Kingdome in Seattle and the Superdome are quintessential of this era. In addition to football, each of these buildings were also designed to house basketball and baseball – albeit with varying degrees of success – the multiplicity of uses of these buildings is a forgotten benefit of this much vilified era of stadium design.
The Superdome was built with hopes to secure a new football franchise for New Orleans as the NFL was expanding its number of teams and fan base. Then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was enamored with domes and was said to require such a facility before he would award New Orleans a team. Days after a new team was given, financing was approved for construction of the Superdome.
Unlike many of the other stadiums from the late ’60s and ’70s which were located in suburban areas far away from urban cores, the Superdome is sited in New Orleans’ central business district. Surrounding amenities like the 18,500-seat New Orleans Arena and the newly updated Champions Square fan plaza connect to blocks of office buildings and hotels that make for an urban complex beyond just the dome itself.
Local modernists Curtis and Davis Architects were hired to design the new dome and of the three big domes, the Superdome is the most successful and elegantly conceived. The Superdome sits atop a multi-story, rectangular plinthe that houses several levels of parking. The arena proper is circular in plan and set within a slightly bowed square base. The vertical surface of the arena is a C-shape in section and sweeps around the entirety of the stadium. The exterior has a uniform, anodized aluminum cladding whose bronze sheen beautifully catches the New Orleans sun. A white, rubber-clad steel roof, with a diameter of 680-feet – the largest in the world – caps off a remarkably clear, simple scheme.
The interior is equally simple in organization and monumental in scale – soaring to a height of 273 feet, the Superdome roof is one of the largest interior spaces in the world. Seating is organized in three tiers with a modest club level tucked under the upper deck along each sideline. Unlike the Astrodome, whose glass and steel roof ushers natural light inside, the Superdome roof is completely opaque and the result is an interior completely reliant on artificial lighting.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped several holes in the roof allowing rain to pour down on thousands of residents who had taken shelter inside. This was the third time the Superdome had been used as a hurricane evacuation center, but was by far the most extensive as 9,000 residents spent the night of August 29th in the Superdome and as many as 20,000 ended up sheltering in the massive dome in the storm’s aftermath. The lack of preparedness, both by the city and inside the Dome itself, has been well documented and the scenes inside were remarkably bleak. Despite the inadequacies of supplies and security however, as an evacuation center, it is humbling to realize the importance this urban building has for its community – providing shelter when needed – even if grossly overwhelmed during Katrina. This model of a multi-purpose sports facility doubling as a community’s emergency shelter is being copied on a smaller though more extensive scale in small towns in Texas; seeing replicas sprouting up nearby can be seen as the ultimate compliment to a building.
The Superdome has just completed a $300 million, 3-phase renovation. A team led by AECOM/Ellerbe Becket and Baton Rouge-based Trahan Architects developed plans to repair all damage inflicted by Katrina, which has also seen the exterior aluminum siding replaced and returned to its original champagne bronze color, exterior LED lighting system installed, landscaping and fan-zone plazas updated, lower seating bowl rebuilt, new lounges added, club levels revised and synthetic surface replaced. As a result, this once ageing facility is now state of the art.
Of the big three 20th Century domes, the Superdome is the only one still in operation. The Kingdome was demolished in 2000 and the Astrodome sits vacant as the retractable roofed-Reliant Stadium was built next door. Like a victorious prize fighter, the Superdome has emerged from its nadir, having endured tremendous blows, and is now a remarkable example of a well-used, major urban sports venue whose presence extends beyond its walls. One hopes authorities have considered how the dome will handle the next major storm when it comes; perhaps that will be the new Superdome’s ultimate test, as it is quite evident that its well equipped to handle Super Bowl Sunday.