Allianz Field revitalizes a material approach that has a blemished local history

By Andy Sturdevant

Back when the Twins were at the Metrodome, they used to have a graphic that would turn up on the scoreboard when an opposing pitcher walked a batter: a dead-eyed ghost, rendered in glorious orange LEDs, who’d peek up and say, in a drippy, horror-movie speech bubble, “WALKS WILL HAUNT!”

It wasn’t just walks that haunted, though. Despite its cost-efficiency and—there is no other phrase for it—amiable idiosyncrasy, the Metrodome haunts the stadia of Minnesota from the grave. Not the beloved, 125-decibel thunderdome that hosted the 1987 and 1991 World Series, but the sad, old embarrassment whose final humiliation was the Teflon roof’s biblical rending in twain under the weight of a snowstorm on a live cable-TV feed during its final season.

The stadia of Minnesota have been haunted by fabric. It’s the inevitable elephant in the room when you talk about fabric and architecture in this state—an elephant draped in pillowy, white Metrodome Teflon into which baseballs disappear.

Which is maybe unfair to the old ’Dome, but that’s the way it is. Bruce Miller, AIA, knows this. The lead architect on Allianz Field for Populous, the Kansas City–based firm developing the stadium for Minnesota United, Miller had to break the fabric-related aspect of the project to Minnesotans gently. “There was strong sentiment, let’s say, against anything that had white fabric like . . .”

Here he pauses, choosing his words carefully: “Another fabric that another building in Minnesota used to have.” Teflon will haunt!

Miller continues: “There was a strong, almost visceral reaction when we said we were using fabric—we got a lot of pushback. We had to convince our clients that it would look different, that it would not be perceived in the same way, that the color would be different.”

Indeed, it won’t be perceived the same way. Fabric is a versatile medium, capable of being deployed in any number of ways. It doesn’t always have to billow. The signature design element of Allianz Field, in the final stages of taking shape at Snelling Avenue and I-94 in St. Paul, is its taut, shimmering crown of polytetrafluoroethylene (PFTE) screen. In daylight, it reflects the color of the sky above; at night, it glows when illuminated from within. It manages to look both elemental, acting as a link between earth and sky, and like some sleek, engineered surface from the not-so-distant future.

Appropriately for its use in a venue for soccer—the most international of sports—the PFTE screen gives the design a look that’s very much in conversation with stadia across the world. It’s a look that isn’t going for the sheer bulk and brutality of U.S. Bank Stadium, or the nostalgia of Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. A soccer stadium can be ethereal and cosmopolitan, using whatever materials might achieve those qualities. Go anywhere on earth, and you’ll find stadia with no allergy to fabric as a viable material. From South Korea to Brazil, the last 20 years have produced soccer stadia with Teflon elements that create all types of forms, ranging from organic to artificial, suggesting anything from massed sails to membranes.

Interestingly, the Allianz Field architects began with a concept, not a material. There was no sense of tracking Asian, South American, or European stadium trends, or echoing the design of a Busan Asiad Stadium or an Estádio Beira-Rio, to name two earlier buildings with noteworthy fabric elements. Instead, the earliest concepts for Allianz Field were meant to evoke and reflect the wide prairie sky and the movement of water on the surface of a lake or river. The architects wanted something expansive and elemental that would complement aspects of the surrounding area. In addition, they wanted something that motorists on I-94 would read as monumental but soccer fans coming from the light rail or A Line bus on the opposite side would experience as more human-scaled.

How this would be achieved was not immediately clear.

“We had these renderings, and we didn’t know what it was going to be,” says Miller. “We looked at a series of materials. A stainless metal panel, or this tensile membrane with sort of a cable-net facade, with something applied to it. We looked at changing the facade, but then we came across this fabric.”

It was the fabric that made the initial concept possible. At the same time, it was strong enough to resist wind and create a microclimate within the stadium. It could also shield the neighborhood from some of the crowd noise and direct it onto the pitch. The PFTE is a weave made of fiberglass that’s treated with an iridescent silver pigment and then laminated with polymer. It’s manufactured in New England, sent to China for cutting and seaming into panels, then shipped back over in rolls that resemble giant beach noodles. Onsite, the panels are lifted like a drape and stretched over the curving steel tubes that encircle the structure; that’s what’s been happening, panel by panel, over the past few months.

I take a bus down I-94 every day on my commute, and I’ve watched the fabric go up. High tech though it is, it reminds me of a very old technology.

In college, I worked at an art-supply and framing store. One of my jobs was to stretch canvases. If you’re a painter, you know this process well. You’ve got a wooden frame and a pile of canvas sitting in a corner—ideally neatly folded but usually not. Through a careful combination of brute strength and finesse, you start from the middle of each side of the frame and staple your way to the corners. Slowly, with expert folds in the corners and little tucks here and there, your flimsy, floppy rectangle with puckered edges morphs into a beautiful, sleek object. I thought of that task every day I passed the construction site—all that tightening and tautening transforming the structure from a loose, gray Christo installation into a smooth, streamlined halo.

I mention all this to Miller, and he chuckles with recognition. “That was a real trick—making sure the detailing had that adjustment in the field,” he says. “The process had to allow for a degree of adjustability that was unknown. You don’t really know until the final tense is done. It looks so perfect, and then you see you have a little pucker in the corner.”

When I zipped by Allianz Field this morning, there wasn’t a pucker in sight. In the gray winter sky, it seemed to hover slightly over the ground like a cloud—appropriate for a venue for a soccer team whose fan base is known as the Dark Clouds. Whatever haunting happens in Allianz Field when it opens in March will hopefully be the chants of thousands of United supporters echoing down on the pitch, reverberating off the stadium’s perfectly tuned silver wrap.