Standing next to their extant 1969 Knights of Columbus building, the formally named New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum – four levels of parking garage above an arena and hailed as a major event in American urban design – was designed by KRJDA, completed in 1972 and demolished by implosion in 2007
Originally published in the AR in April 1973 and first published online in June 2019 to coincide with the Reputations on Kevin Roche from our June 2019 issue on The islands of Ireland – click here to purchase your copy today
It is the highway that dominates the Knights of Columbus Building and the adjacent New Haven Coliseum. In some ways this is obvious; in others less so. Even the motorist speeding past New Haven on the long waterfront curve of the New York to Boston turnpike can hardly miss the giant, four-decked, rust-brown bridge for parking, lifted on 70ft piers into the New Haven skyline, and spread for a length of 560ft. Nor, immediately adjacent to this massive horizontal, can he miss the equally emphatic vertical of the 23-storey tower, New Haven’s tallest. Leaving the Turnpike on the Oak Street Connector that provides the principal spur to the downtown, he passes the looming complex, ranged as it is beside the highway pre-cisely at the off-ramp that leads to the centre. In its size, in its positioning, in the dramatic manner in which both are emphasised, the Knights-Coliseum complex stands as the dominating monument of the city.
‘It is a major coup when the downtown redevelopment project manages to snatch the prized arena from the suburbs’
The tower, first to be built (its design predating the Coliseum commission), houses the national headquarters of a Roman Catholic fraternal organisation. The Coliseum is a sports and entertainment area, coupled with an exhibition area for trade shows – the latter facility, because of excessive costs, yet to be realised. These are tucked as discreet packages beneath the immense skeletal parasol for parking. Spiral access ramps appear at either end of the elevated garage as free-standing towers, chunky counterparts to the attenuated tautness of those at the corners of the Knights tower. The Coliseum reflects the proliferation of professional sports in the United States since World War II, when basketball and hockey leagues especially gained large new followings. Miserable indeed is the municipality, even one relatively as modest in size as New Haven, that cannot field its Bombers, its Aces, or (to be specific with respect to the local hockey outfit) its Night Hawks.1 Providing the sustaining glory for their respective arenas, the local gladiators are supplemented by an infill of trade shows and ‘spectaculars’ (ice shows, circuses, rock singers, and the like) that have already begun to revive the moribund vaudeville circuit. The mix of ‘fans’ and conventioneers drawn to these attractions, and to accompanying shopping malls and hotels, is meant to revitalise the sagging downtown. It is a major coup when the downtown redevelopment project manages to snatch the prized arena from the suburbs, and especially in a medium-sized city like New Haven where vast acreage for car parks can be a bigger boon than a central location. The looming prominence of the Coliseum complex immediately beside the main exit ramp to the city centre celebrates this victory.
Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo & Associates definitely intended their complex as something of a gate to the city. Moving up the ramp the motorist has a choice. Half way, a fork connects with a street that runs under the Coliseum. Straight ahead the ramp turns sharply around the Knights tower, sited as a diamond shape in plan with respect to the highway front of the Coliseum, and forward of it. The tower was oriented to the grid across the Connector which collides at an angle with the grid of the downtown. At the time of its design, Mies van der Rohe was to have placed two apartment towers opposite.2 Roche reasoned that Mies would have sited these to parallel the street grid of the area in which they were to have been located. He did not wish his own building to be out-of-kilter with Mies’ work across the way. Hence the initial reasoning for its angled siting. As for its thrust beyond the highway face of the Coliseum, Roche saw the tower as a visual stop, at the end of a wall of redevelopment in miscellaneous modern, just before the Connector makes a bend over a railroad marshalling yard heading for the Turnpike. Moreover, he wanted the out-thrust position to emphasise the tightness of the tower against the ramp – ‘hard against the road’ as he has said, ‘like the tower that might remain from the remnants of a medieval gate’. In conjunction with the massive rectangularity of the Coliseum the diamond positioning of the tower gives a dynamic fillip to the combination, magnified by the roller-like sensation at its corners as the oars swing around it.
‘The Knights-Coliseum complex challenges, by such over-whelming scale and position, the city to ‘move up’ to a new future’
At the time that design began on the complex, in 1965, Louis Kahn’s image of the centre of Philadelphia ringed with outsized cylindrical towers for parking and other uses was pervasive. It would seem that Roche – uninfluenced except in a very general way – here attempted his own version of this hard-to-escape image at the time, daring, like Kahn, to make a colossal statement. Of course this automotive ‘gate to New Haven’ is somewhat schematic. Such a gate implies something dense inside and, preferably at smaller scale, a clearly defined perimeter (such as Kahn’s Philadelphia scheme did in fact possess), and possibly something looser outside. To be sure, there is some sense of the edge of the New Haven downtown coming to the Connector. But the siting of buildings around is too porous, scales are too varied, styles too discordant, to carry the image of the gate-in-the-wall very far. The Knights-Coliseum complex seems rather more a gigantic anchor and marker, through sheer size and scale pinning a corner of the downtown, with the city loosely drifting around it. When reached, however, the complex is decidedly felt as the point of arrival, and it is really only after one has gone under or around it and knows that one has reached the centre of the city that it is thought of as a ‘gate’. In effect, it commands by such over-whelming scale and commanding position that it challenges the city to ‘move up’ to a new future, even though the city it challenges has just been rebuilt at a scale that overwhelms what was there before!
From an urbanistic point of view it is the vast parking bridge that most immediately impresses. This might be characterised as a modification and enlargement of Mies’ already immense girdered roof for his familiar 1953 project for a convention centre. But because the width dimension of the bridging is not readily apparent from its most conspicuous view – as an elevation running along the Connector – it appears rather as a narrow longitudinal element. As such it will remind British viewers of longitudinal extremes for urban projects such as the Park Hill housing in Sheffield, the new university buildings at Leeds, or the town of Cumbernauld, which, somewhat surprisingly, have been more fashionable in Britain than America. All of these, moreover, give some sense of being elevated through hillside siting, skied walkways, and some stilting. But, compared to these British examples, the sense of lift is greater in the New Haven example; its scale is larger; its use by automobiles rather than for human occupancy more extraordinary; its geometric severity more awesome. In all of these respects it seems rather to be related to similarly formidable bridgings in such latter-day descendants of El Llssitzky’s 1924 project for his Cloud Hanger sky-scraper as the vast bridged building schemes of the early ’60s by Kenzo Tange, Yona Friedman or John Johansen. Not that any of them specifically influenced the Coliseum; but they represent the milieu of discussion and design in which the Coliseum was born, and to which the future will relate it.
Within Roche’s own career, the big horizontal recalls Eero Saarinen’s love of a building space embraced in a single sweeping horizontal: closest at hand, the swooping arch of that other New Haven arena at Yale; closest to this design, the bridged vigour of the Deere & Company headquarters building in Moline, Illinois, as it both settles into and sails over the shallow valley it crosses. (The latter is also the first major example of the use of an exposed skeletal structure of oxidising metal, and a building in which Roche’s designing talents played a major role.) But these are matters more of resonance than influence. The closest progenitor to the Coliseum parking bridge is Roche’s own scheme of 1964 for an arts centre for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Just now nearing completion after a long delay, here is a decisive bridge with the major functions of the complex independently housed under and around it. If it is the spreading parking garage that marks the urban significance of the Knights-Coliseum complex, it is the uncompromising opposition of the immense vertical element against the immense horizontal that galvanises the experience.
‘The design draws one into the complex, making one eager to join in an architectural experience that – even from a distance – indicates that participation is of its essence’
It is not an image with specifically human connotations. One confronts instead an image at first sight less of buildings than objects. The Knights turreting, for example, possesses a thin tautness, with such a widespread rigidity of cornering, and so abruptly cut at top and bottom, as vaguely to suggest the legs of some colossal piece of furniture. The severed quality of the legs, in conjunction with the dynamic siting of the tower, even suggests that, like some lumbering object, it might at great effort be moved. Even the handsome sombreness of the complex – the brown of weathered steel combined with a purplish-brown silo tile for sheathing the tower turrets and arena walls – is likely to intensify the formidable quality of the image to the layman. And yet, even at first sight, the mechanistic aura of the image is countered by the sense of a forceful personal quality to the design. The paradoxical nature of this first impression is reconciled in the emblematic intensity of these large components – comparable, to adjust the comparison, to much object-sculpture. Here, however, the emblem makes concise the nature of the human activities that inform the conception, and this in the double sense of suggesting, on the one hand, the laconic functionalism of the complex, on the other, the exhilarating sense of drama in which use becomes vivid. So, if the initial fierceness of the image may be off-putting, the very intensity of the emblematic quality of the design draws one into the complex, making one eager to participate in an architectural experience that, even from a distance, indicates that participation is of its essence.
The initial gasp at the scale of the Knights-Coliseum complex at close view is the more fascinating because the view readily includes Paul Rudolph’s nearby parking garage. On its completion in 1962, Rudolph’s garage was heralded as a building scaled to the automobile; its narrow width, thrusting the length of two blocks and bridging a street midway, mimicked (so it was claimed) the highway. Yet only a few years later, Rudolph’s garage seems positively small in scale, and rather discreetly set against the nondescript, bill-board-like enclosure of the pair of department stores it serves. So it appears at least when compared to the aerial assertiveness of the Coliseum bridge. Rudolph tucks the cars away; the nesting folds of his thoroughly ramped floors seem to digest them. Roche minimises the ramping of his garage, concealing it from exterior view in order to present an uncompromising stack of levels rigidly contained by its truss construction, thereby making a flatter, brusquer statement about the necessity of car storage in rows and racks. But what is more than merely of visual consequence in this comparison, Roche has also used the highway to inform his design in a much more specific manner than Rudolph. Logical as the folding and bends may be as an expression of the movement of cars within Rudolph’s garage, and of the most compact manner of storing them, the ultimate effect of such sculptural (even decorative) concern is to set the building apart from the highway. Roche, on the other hand, has taken a ‘dumb’ look at the highway. (He himself has used the Venturi adjective.) This look, in turn, has determined the most spectacular aspect of the Coliseum. Only exceptionally is the American highway of one material, and as sculptural in appearance as Rudolph would have it. Typically , the highway is of two materials: massive reinforced concrete abutments and supports only as sculptural as needed for the jobs to be performed, plus steel spans comprised of linear components. As Roche puts it, ‘When the highway engineer carries, he tends to use concrete. When he spans, he tends to use steel.’ Precisely the recipe for the Coliseum.
Of course the combination of materials in such a manner as to make the work done by each explicit is a cardinal theme in modern design, but the Roche, Dinkeloo analogy to the highway is a bit more than putting old thoughts in a new metaphor. Their interest in the use of the two materials for building (and in problems of this sort the technological brilliance of Dinkeloo is as important as the design brilliance of Roche) did not start with the Coliseum. It began with the Ford Foundation Headquarters Building in New York, on which design began in 1963. There, pier-like bearing functions were relegated to reinforced concrete; spanning functions to steel. In the Ford Building, a major problem showed up during the course of construction. In the complex and handsome interweaving of the two materials, co-ordination of the jobs of the concrete and steel trades was difficult. The work of one group of trades repeatedly got in the way of the other. If the two materials were to be combined efficiently, therefore, the partners saw that the design must provide for the separation of these two groups of trades – as they are separated in highway construction. Hence the Knights tower. Its corner silos and rectangular elevator core could be completely poured with slip forms, which were then post-tensioned against lateral wind pressure3. (Its inspiration, according to Roche, was in fact four soot-blackened smokestacks in an old industrial quarter of Springfield, Massachusetts, subsequently demolished.) Only after the concrete workers had finished the spectral towers did the steel crews begin.
The Coliseum is even closer to highway construction. Here concrete crews poured the 18 piers, 70ft high, in a double row 62ft on centre, for the support of the garage. Only then did the steel workers take over on the framing of the ramps and the garage (based on nine lateral trusses, 33ft deep, three storeys in height, with a clear span of 184ft between the piers, and projecting in a deep cantilever, again 62ft, on the long sides). Then the concrete crews returned to pour the arena underneath and the flooring for garage and ramps.
Different as the Knights tower and the Coliseum appear, therefore, the structural rationale was the same for both, one building emerging from the other. If both depended on the mixed use of reinforced concrete and steel, in both the steel is exposed. Again the highway analogy holds good. But of course buildings present problems with respect to fireproofing that do not occur in highways. With respect to the Coliseum this problem was relatively simple. The exposed situation of the metal frame and its purpose as a garage substantially separated from the arena meant that a fireproofing paint that foams when subjected to heat sufficed. For the Knights tower, however, the problem with respect to fireproofing was more severe and the solution more interesting. Three factors permitted the exposed metal structure here that Roche, Dinkeloo would like to have obtained in the Ford Building, where cover plates conceal conventionally fireproofed structural steel. First, the perimeter girders at each floor are set 5ft outside the windows, sufficiently removed from the interior to meet fire ratings, and tied into fireproof columns (the silos) running to the ground. Second, each of the four principal floor supports runs diagonally as paired beams from the silo at the outside corners of the floor to the lift core at its centre. Each silo, as well as the lift core, is fireproof and self supporting. The exit from each floor leads directly into these fireproof shafts, so that the tower may be considered as 23 one-storey buildings. Finally, a sprinkler system mounted in the interior lighting troughs prevents distortion of the smaller floor joists in the event of fire. As a result steel in the Knights tower can be exposed inside and out. When it was opened, the Knights tower seems to have been the only tall office building in the United States with completely exposed structural steel, the new United States Steel Building in Pittsburgh with water-filled columns being then not quite finished.
Inside, exposed floor beams at 10ft intervals are cut to permit the lighting troughs to run through them as a series of progressively enlarged squares in plan, taking their cue from the 30ft square of the lift block. Principal electrical leads and sprinkler lines come from the corner silos in the space between the paired diagonal support beams running from silo to lift block, and branch to the troughs. All tube lighting is concealed and directed up against the underside of the floor slab which is coated with acoustical plaster painted white. Sprinkler heads poke through the troughs below. If fault can be found with the ceiling it is in·the slightly wavy quality of the thin sheet metal troughs, giving their punch through the beams an incongruous quality, But the completely exposed ceiling, handled with straightforward elegance, provides a spaciousness to the interior that dropped ceilings would have denied. Moreover, it visually ties the forceful module of the ceiling beams to their support by the bridging girder outside. This structural visibility appears the more intensely within because all floors (except for that devoted to top executive offices) are, if cubicled at all, glass partitioned toward the centre of the floor, with open corridor space around the perimeter. Thus office floors become open rooms, containing between 8000 and 10,000 sq ft, which would be somewhat small for a comparable building designed for regular office rental. Here, however, all share the common space in a manner appropriate to the exceptional use of the building by a fraternal organisation. To be anywhere on the floor is to sense the rigidly radial quality of the Renaissance-like figure made by the plan: roughly 30ft for one side of the central lift block, 30ft (actually a little more) for floor depths from lift block to window plane, 30ft (actually a shade less) for the diameters of the service towers.
Plan and key
Outside, the outrigging of weathered steel with its emphatic opposition of supporting and supported elements goes back to Roche’s work on the Deere Company headquarters. It reappears in the handsome vigour of his factory and office building for the Cummins Engineering Company in Darlington. In the Knights tower the floor joists project to set squarely on the spanning girders, rhythmically measuring the span in 10ft intervals, with the interval between girder and window partly as a sun shade, partly for window cleaning. Behind this metal outrigging spanning the 80ft interval from silo to silo, Roche originally had a mullionless window, one sheet of glass joined to the next by an epoxy compound on the edges. And again the highway analogy obtrudes, because he wished the steel to present a clean, absolutely uncluttered, bridge-like appearance from support to support. Winds blew out some of the glass, however, and narrow mullions had to be inserted. But even these do not seriously disturb the transparent effect of the interior, made by the bridge and preserved by the lack of interior partitioning – a quality that is especially evident in high views looking through the building or in evening views when the building is lighted. A three-storey inset at the base of the building (indented 13ft from the girder) contains a bank and the lobby. It brings the corner silos to the brown glazed brick terracing at the ground as visible columns. It also emphasises the bridging of the floors above, and creates a quasi-colonnade around the base of the building. Rectangular tubes, bridging the depth of this colonnade at the corners to connect the second and third floors with the silos, also work to preserve an open, leg-like look for the silos as they come to the ground, while preventing any sense of their spindly isolation. A ‘pocket’ at the comers of the three-storey base, inset at a diagonal, handsomely receives these tube-like bridges, and echoes similar pockets within the silos for the girders.
‘Parking – enough to fill six full city blocks of the downtown – became, instead of the peripheral problem it might have been for a suburban site, the starting point for the planning. Its solution, in turn, determined the most dramatic aspect of the project’
As for the steel of the Coliseum, with the minor exception of some guard railing, it is pretty much straightforward structural engineering, more ‘dumbness’ (to cite Roche once more). Originally there had been some thought of a more architectural treatment, but estimates forced the abandonment of any elaboration. Silo tile cladding was also to have enclosed the access ramps; but these too have been left as the steel engineer fabricated them, and perhaps without loss to the building. Certainly the wind up and down the open ramps is a more exhilarating spatial experience than it would be if encased.
Programmatically, the Coliseum is the more complicated and interesting building of the two. As already indicated the principal requirements were three, all to be met on a 4½-acre site. First, an arena: this was finally fixed at 9,000 seats for hockey, ice shows and circuses; 10,000 for basketball; and around 11,000 for pop singers and other events occurring on a small stage. Second, an exhibition area: this to be 38,000 sq ft and sacrificed at this stage because of rises in building costs. Third, and the principal problem, parking: this was to accommodate 2,400 cars, close to twice the capacity of Rudolph’s garage. Parking – enough to fill six full city blocks of the downtown – became, instead of the peripheral problem it might have been for a suburban site, the starting point for the planning. Its solution, in turn, determined the most dramatic aspect of the project. Most dramatic, but most sensible too.
There were four possibilities for the parking:
1. Parking might have been placed with the arena/exhibition area at ground level. This would have required expensive excavation and ventilation for the four storey garage, doubly so because bad water conditions would have demanded elaborate waterproofing.
2. Parking might have been placed at ground level, with the arena/exhibition area above. This would have destroyed the relation of the event areas to the ground. It would have additionally required difficult climbs from the street to lobbies, as well as cumbersome and expensive ramps and hoists for trucks and equipment.
3. A revised version of the second projected solution might have brought the arena/ exhibition area closer to the ground by partially sinking it into the ground-level parking facility. This would not have removed many (if any) of the difficulties with scheme two, while the interlock most certainly would have complicated both areas structurally and functionally.
4. So the seemingly theatrical solution became the sensible solution: the arena/exhibition area at ground level with parking above. The event areas are thereby linked to the pedestrian life of the city. They are serviced from the ground. Cars can readily climb to an open-framed structure which is, compared to the other solutions, as cheap or cheaper to build (about four times cheaper than the underground solution).
Four parking solutions
At ground level, on the street that passes through the Coliseum, facilities for advance booking are conveniently available; across the street are service areas for the exhibition area. The main lobby entrance to the arena is lifted a full storey above street level. A bridge over the street at this concourse level will accommodate a portion of the block housing the exhibition area. This, in turn, will have its principal approach up a broad ramp from the plaza for the Knights tower, with walks completely surrounding the exhibition area at the concourse level linked to the lobby entrance of the arena. The completion of the exhibition facility and the addition of a contemplated ground-floor restaurant will bring more life to the area around the entrance, and will link it to the shopping centre across the street. With the entrance to the arena occurring above street level, spectators are brought into the middle of the tiers of seating, thus providing convenient access to all seats.
Source: Hearst Connecticut Media
The most exceptional aspect of the arena is its rectangular shape. Roche began his designs with the conventional oval enclosure. But it did not fit with the basic rectangularity of the parasol, nor with the piers. By eliminating one pair of piers and hanging the roof of the arena (and the parking decks above it) from exposed bridge construction, a clear span of 128ft results above the playing floor of the arena. This is powerfully cornered by the massive piers which act to focus the spectators’ view. Instead of feeling oneself in the totally grasped space that results from a circular or oval plan as, for example, in Eero Saarinen’s nearby arena for Yale – the sensation is rather (to use Roche’s analogy) that the tiers of seats have been drawn up to the spectacle like four gigantic armchairs. Blocking portions of the audience from view, the piers contribute to the impression of vastness, not because the whole is seen, but because the full extent of a very large space cannot be grasped.
‘Possessing both drama and force, it wins these qualities with a straightforward precision of design which is the ultimate badge of its integrity’
The square plan provides another dividend. At the level of the entrance lobby, refreshment stands are placed in each of the four corners. Here they are easily found, conveniently distributed, provide minimal disturbance to those who are seated, and give some possibility of looking from the refreshment area to catch glimpses of the action below. Clarity and compactness of circulation are, in fact, cardinal virtues of this arena. In a preliminary study of comparable facilities recently built in five other American cities immediately prior to this one, Roche, Dinkeloo discovered that the greatest variable in the percentage of space devoted to the major functions of arena/exhibition facilities occurred with respect to meeting circulation. The Coliseum adopts a compromise among these percentages: compact, but sufficiently spacious to ease the crowding. Two escalators rise from the outdoor platform fronting the lobby entrance to the garage above. They funnel the crowd in a controlled stream to its automobiles. When eight lanes of ramps (four in each helical) are completely devoted to emptying the garage, a capacity audience can evacuate the Coliseum in 15 minutes.
Parking lot on the site of new haven coliseum2 source arnold gold slash hearst connecticut media march 2009
Source: Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media
If urban building that integrally incorporates highway and automobile has been a favourite theme in postwar projects, here is an example that considers the highway theme at every level. It does so in a manner that respects the pedestrian at one extreme and provides a colossal urban monument at the other. Possessing both drama and force, it wins these qualities with a straightforward precision of design which is the ultimate badge of its integrity These are qualities that set it apart from the megastructural posturing characteristic of so many comparable multi-purpose urban schemes proposed at the time of its conception, and mark it as a major event in American urban design.
1Comparable facilities, if architecturally less distinguished, have recently been built at the nearby New England cities of hartford, Connecticut, Springfield, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island, all cities about the size of New Havenand Boston.
2Instead of Mies’ towers, Charles moore eventually filled the area with low housing development, including a tower that is not well related to Roche’s.
3The apparent cross-bracing shown in the construction photograph is merely part of the slip-form apparatus and actually played no bracing role.