Garden State of Mind: Architect Murray Beynon on the Renovation of Madison Square Garden
Gus Delaporte Oct. 29, 2013, 10 a.m.
Last Thursday, Madison Square Garden debuted the final phase of its three-stage transformation process to the media. The arena has now been thoroughly transformed into a modern facility befitting its self-styled title as the World’s Most Famous Arena. The process, which added two bridges suspended above the event floor, was not without controversy. Many fans, especially those die-hards seated in the arena’s upper bowl, were concerned their sight lines would be obstructed by the innovative additions. The project’s head architect, Murray Beynon of BBB Architects, spoke with The Commercial Observer last week about concerns over the Chase Bridges and insights into the unique challenges presented by creating a modern arena inside a nearly 50-year-old structure.
Having introduced the Garden’s transformation to the press and with the arena opening to the fans for the Knicks final preseason game, how do you feel about what you’ve accomplished?
We’re definitely excited. It’s been a lot of work, and we’re certainly proud of it. We think it’s an incredible transformation. With new people coming in, both employees and media and guests yesterday, I would have to say the reaction has been overwhelmingly: “Wow, I don’t know how you did it.” Those initial accolades are positive, but as architects we look at it and say it’s exactly what we set out to do.
What were the biggest challenges you encountered during the transformation process?
There were three or four. The first, which is the least exciting, is getting the new infrastructure in. The electrical wiring, broadcast cable, fiber optics and all of the systems had to get into the building.
The second challenge, when mapping out the hospitality areas and enhancing those spaces, was finding ways to fit those spaces efficiently in the building. It was a Rubik’s Cube. We only had so much square footage, and we had to find how to use that in the best way for the customers. That was really the No. 1 priority.
The third challenge was improving operations. We have a huge number of people that make things tick at the Garden, and the building was designed in the mid-’60s when labor didn’t cost as much and speed wasn’t as important. We had to take that into account.
Lastly, we had to break the transformation up into coherent pieces at the end of each phase. The logistics of that was a challenge.
Can you elaborate on the ways you were able to find more space within the existing structure of the building?
We realized very early on that we had the MSG Network in the middle of the building, and the Garden agreed to move that across the street, which allowed us to move event storage to that level—one level below the event floor. That freed up space and gave us a lot more flexibility on the event floor to add things such as Delta Suites.
Additionally, the concourses were some of the narrowest in the country due to the presence of the building’s mechanicals. By relocating that, we were able to more than double the amount of public space.
And as we were attempting to put in the lower bowl suites, we realized we had a double benefit of both moving the upper bowl closer to the action and creating a wider upper-bowl concourse.
The Chase Bridges were perhaps the most controversial part of the transformation. Were you ever concerned that they wouldn’t be well received?
We did two full-scale mock-ups, not just to try out the bridge but also gauge the impact on all the seats underneath and behind. We did countless renderings and were absolutely sure the sight lines would work. It was really the full-scale models that gave us the confidence that these were an enhancement and did not interfere with the seats behind.
As part of the construction of the bridges, you needed to install dampeners to control movement. Can you describe those and how they work?
First of all, there is no structural issue here at all. People could jump up and down, and there would not be an issue. What we installed were tuned mass dampeners and applied them on each of the bridges. They weigh approximately 9,000 pounds each and move in countermotion to crowds jumping up and down, etcetera.
They have been used now in the industry for 20 or 25 years. The Grand Canyon Skywalk—they’re in that. They’re at the top of the Bloomberg Tower. They’ve never been used on bridges in an arena, because there are no other bridges like these in an arena. But they’ve been well tested, and they’re an amazing mechanism.
How challenging was it to essentially create an entirely new arena within the bones of the existing Madison Square Garden structure?
You do the same thing as any new building. You work out exactly what the client’s objectives are. Normally, with a new building, you then start laying it out. But obviously it’s different here, because you’re dealing with a set structure and a set budget. The problem is essentially double in the level of difficulty, because there are some things that you simply cannot move. I think it doubled the amount of meetings with people, because we are big believers that the best input comes from many sources. It’s one of the reasons it took longer in the planning stages.
No. There are a few—or some—that can’t see the full scoreboard, but we have put in a large screen on the back of the bridges, and in some corners we put quite large televisions to duplicate the information on the scoreboard.
There is quite a bit of the Garden’s history celebrated throughout the building. How important was that to the process?
The Garden with its history and its iconic stature—there was no question ever that we weren’t going to celebrate the past. We realized we couldn’t just create a Hall of Fame and we realized we probably didn’t want just a single room. The fact is we just had too much. We wanted to celebrate the history, the events and the teams’ histories. That quickly became a major theme and something that has been done very well.
Did you incorporate fan input?
The thing that the Garden insisted on at the outset was that we talk to New Yorkers. I went through 33 hours worth of focus group sessions, and we did it with Ranger fans, Knick fans and Liberty fans and with people that never come to the Garden. We went through 33 of those probing what the Garden meant to them, and I can point to many things in the building that came from that—I really can. That, I think, was a key starting point that got us on the right track.