Berkeley's Renovated Memorial Stadium Review - A Spectacular Engineering and Architectural Achievement

Memorial Stadium, situated in scenic Strawberry Canyon at the base of the pine-forested foothills overlooking the Berkeley campus of the University of California, was designed by world-famous architect John Galen Howard. Construction commenced in December of 1922, and the stadium was completed in time for the “Big Game” between Stanford and California in November of 1923. With its multi-tiered arches, oval shape, and the cut-stone appearance of the concrete façade, it has the classic look of the Roman Colosseum, after which it was modeled. 

Due to the stadium’s architectural design, excellent sightlines for the fans, and idyllic location, it was rated by Sports Illustrated as one of the nation’s top venues for experiencing college football, and it is included in the National Register of Historic Places.

Memorial Stadium prior to refurbishment

In recent years, however, the stadium had become virtually obsolete owing to the passage of time, and to its location, which straddles both sides of the ever-dangerous Hayward Fault. Its interior corridors were constricted and dark, its paucity of restrooms Spartan, its narrow, wooden bench seats laden with splinters, its scoreboards outdated, and its exterior crumbling. In fact, due to “fault creep”, there was a nine-inch gap in Section KK dramatically demonstrating that the stadium was not seismically up to current safety standards. And so it was that in December of 2010, the venerable stadium was closed and a comprehensive $321 million renovation project was begun.

The scope and intent of the renovation were threefold: First and foremost was safety—the stadium would be re-engineered so as to be able to withstand a major earthquake. Second, the stadium would have refinements such as seats with seatbacks, aluminum benches, a multitude of easily accessible concession stands and modern restrooms, even better sightlines, wider, brighter concourses, permanent lighting, and luxurious seating located outside the exclusive University Club perched atop the new, state-of-the-art press box. Lastly, all of the enhancements would be in keeping with the classic design of the original stadium. As Bob Milano, U.C. Berkeley’s Assistant Athletic Director, stated, “The new façade and seating bowl will look like a restored antique, but brought up to modern standards to create a facility that will significantly reduce seismic risk, and ensure life safety.”

A schematic of the redesigned stadium

At a media tour of the stadium conducted on August 24, we were told by the construction engineers that the biggest challenge facing them was the time constraint—the university did not want the football team to be away from Memorial Stadium for more than one season (they played the 2011 season at AT&T Park in San Francisco), and so the construction that began when the 2010 football season ended had to be completed by the beginning of the 2012 season, which is September 1. This challenge might not have been so daunting if it were not for the problems presented by the fact that the Hayward Fault literally runs through the middle of the stadium, going north-south from one end zone to the other. In as much as this slip fault is capable of displacing the earth above it by as much as six feet, a creative solution needed to be found to prevent the stadium from collapsing. David Friedman, a principal with the San Francisco firm Forell/Elsesser Engineers Inc., explained that the stadium is now essentially built upon four seismic blocks with enough clearance between them to allow the stadium to shift and tilt without coming apart at the seams. 

While the engineering that provided seismic safety was invisible to the eye, what was visible was a spectacular modern stadium surrounded by the restored iconic design of the original one.

The preserved façade topped by a state-of-the-art press box

The new field is Matrix Turf, which looks as much like real grass as a synthetic field can look. Under the turf is a spongy-feeling Cushdrain pad that provides shock absorption, and under it lies a series of drains and many layers of compacted stone and sand. And, to improve sightlines for fans sitting in the lowest rows of seats, the field has been lowered by four feet.

Matrix Turf field has been lowered by four feet

One of the most notable improvements is to the main concourse which, prior to renovation, had been so narrow that gridlock was a common feature. Now, the western side of the stadium has been widened, the offices that obstructed the corridors and hid the open-air archways have been removed, and modern concession stands and an ample number of restrooms have been constructed along the concourse’s inner walls.

The wide new concourse

One of the most attractive features of the refurbished stadium is the new, 300 foot-long two-story press box, itself an engineering marvel that seems to float above the western seats.

The new press box that seems to float over the seats

Its first level is for the press, radio and TV announcers, camera crews, score keepers, and coaches. The top tier is the luxurious University Club that boasts several rows of large padded seats, and a spacious foyer that opens to a promenade commanding a sweeping view of not only the campus, but of San Francisco in the distance.

The view from the University Club looking west

In addition to the University Club, there is also a Field Club for those who have purchased premium seats near the field, and a Stadium Club for those with mid-field seats located higher in the bowl. Both of these clubs, plus the University Club, are replete with distinctive wooden paneling, enormous televisions, and numerous places to obtain food and beverages.

The interior of the Field Club

While the old stadium had more than its share of attractive features, it also had a fair number of warts. In the redesign, the wonderful architectural features were indeed preserved, and each and every one of the blemishes was not only removed, but replaced by eye-pleasing and up-to-date amenities. Without doubt, the 63,000 fans who gather together to watch the Golden Bears play football will be delighted by the multitude of modern enhancements.

Photos by: University of California, Berkley and Michael Litchenstein.


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