The Black Knight Of Michigan Stadium

Submitted by Brian on July 13th, 2010 at 1:13 PM

Michigan Stadium before renovations:

michigan-stadium-before2Michigan Stadium (almost) afterwards:


Cork boat enthusiast, political speechwriter, "Save the Big House" founder, Yale grad, and Hero of Tiananmen Square John Pollack on this transformation:

It’s a lot different and ironically it looks a lot bigger from the outside and it feels a lot smaller from the inside. Going to games there over the last couple years, as the boxes have risen–they are so out of scale with bowl itself that it makes the bowl seem small. And that’s not positive.

Before, as you approached the stadium there was this sense of anticipation whether you’d been there 100 times or never had been there.  Because even if you knew what was coming, you walk in and this mighty bowl unfolds before you. Now you’re walking up to two corporate-looking structures and when you walk in the bowl is diminished because the proportions are all wrong.  Those boxes are literally monuments to self-aggrandizement and unfortunately they diminish the stadium. …

The university has greatly diminished the iconic stadium in the United States of America.

That's from an MVictors interview of the HOTS himself. "Corporate-looking." What does this mean? It means Pollack is a certain kind of leftist. As the renovations have gone up the level of concerned emails in my inbox has dropped to zero, as the structures are both attractive and, with Newsterbaan, part of a unified look for the athletic campus based on Yost that cannot get to Crisler soon enough. The stadium now looks like something other than a hole in the ground. But if you're so invested you could see Michigan Stadium as "the iconic stadium in the United States of America" you clearly aren't going to ever back down.

This site's been over this before, making the case for luxury boxes when a reasonable questioner—of the variety that seems not to exist any more—wondered what that case was. In short, extracting exorbitant amounts of money from relatively few patrons is better for everyone because those people are funding the modernization of the stadium and making the place more intimidating than it was before because instead of their silence we get the fairly significant acoustic benefits of the structures. Also maybe they won't yell at me to sit down as much.

The case against the boxes as made by Pollack is a breathtaking combination of delusion ("One of the great things about college football, especially Michigan football, is that it is a great public space—a place where autoworkers and millionaires can come together to cheer on their team") and arrogance ("Michigan doesn't need to keep up with the Joneses. We are the Joneses") that rests largely on the idea that Bill Martin, who seemingly thought about nothing but money during his tenure at Michigan, is getting the money wrong. A source close to the project has convincingly debunked these ideas in a detailed post on the renovations and a response to a mailbag question. Michigan has to renovate the stadium after years and years of Duderstadt-inspired neglect. They can pay for this renovation by adding a surcharge to tickets for 20 years or by putting in boxes that will do more than pay for themselves and set Michigan up to compete with the likes of Ohio State and its massive spending.

Meanwhile, the "grass roots" effort to stop the renovations is as natural as the turf they just put in. Allow myself to quote myself:

There was one loud, PR-savvy group with no grassroots support that employed disingenuous political rhetoric in an attempt to stall a project that it seems like the vast bulk of the fanbase supports. Three guys with impressive names and a website do not a movement make, and when you are persistently, uselessly annoying you shouldn't expect perpetual fruitless audiences. Not once in this process did Pollack attempt to measure the sentiment of the fanbase, or if he did the results he got back were disconcerting and quickly buried; "but but but Fielding Yost" is not an argument that sways anyone with decision-making powers, no matter how many newspapers it appears in.

Unfortunately, no one has undertaken that measurement; in its absence all we have to go on are the constant "I was by the stadium so I took 20 pictures" posts that pop up on message boards across the Michigan internet and the almost-unanimous excitement about the addition on practical, aesthetic, and auditory grounds.

As for the sanctified tradition we're tossing aside, here's a quote from MVictors's HTTV 2010 (buy now!) piece on the construction of the stadium I wish I'd seen earlier so I could have put it in every post I've made on the subject. It's Yost speaking to Bennie Oosterbaan after the dedication game in 1927:

Bennie, do you know what the best thing about that new stadium is? Eighty-five thousand people paid five dollars apiece for their seats -- and Bennie, they had to leave the seats there!



July 13th, 2010 at 1:21 PM ^

Here's what I get out of all of this. Yost wanted all seats to be $5. I think that means we should make that permanent policy. All seats in Michigan Stadium should be $5. No more, no less.



July 13th, 2010 at 1:32 PM ^

As the renovations have gone up the level of concerned emails in my inbox has dropped to zero, as the structures are both attractive and, with Newsterbaan, part of a unified look for the athletic campus based on Yost that cannot get to Crisler soon enough.

Brian, you hit the nail on the head here. I was concerned when the renovations were first being discussed, but who could dislike how they've turned out?

I think that Pollack has such a big ego that he refuses to admit that he may have been wrong, so he continues to bitch and moan in any way he can, even if it involves using incorrect data.

Marley Nowell

July 13th, 2010 at 1:37 PM ^

Being a Civil Engineer (like myself) he designed the Big House foundation with the intention of adding many more seats. He even anticipated the addition of lights in the future and left the proper space for electrical conduits. Yost was a visionary (and apparently not as in tune with tradition as Pollack is).


July 13th, 2010 at 1:59 PM ^

True visionaries who create iconic masterpieces, like Memorial Stadium, plan ahead and expect evolution and improvements. It makes me think of the constitution and how some people are obsessed with being true to the original founders intent. The irony is that the constitution's greatest strength is its ability to adapt to the times, ie the ability to make amendments.


July 13th, 2010 at 1:38 PM ^

update the score board.  The score board we have now is ridiculously small in comparison to the stadium and out dated to say the least.  Maybe something like Texas has.  A big HD screen would be awesome plus it would hold in even more crowd noise. 


July 13th, 2010 at 6:49 PM ^

I think that the problem may have been...that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.

I don't care how many times I watch it, that line will always get me laughing, uncontrollably.


July 13th, 2010 at 1:43 PM ^



That comment says a lot.   People who were against stadium changes inevitably fell upon the good ol'  Ann Arbor leftism as the reasons for being against the stadium. I had an acquaintance and UM grad tell me that the fact that rich and poor alike had to sit in the elements together was, and I quote, " a great social equalizer."  I guess he forgot about the press box and the VIPs who got to sit there.

People forget that this is not the first time the stadium was expanded and forget that Fielding Yost himself had envisioned a day where the stadium would need to be expanded, and had the stadium designed accordingly.  Supposedly Yost wanted a stadium to hold 150k people originally.

I was ambivalent about the changes but the addition of vastly improved first aid station, restrooms, people traffic flow, etc.  make it worthwhile IMO.    If wealthy people want to donate big bucks to the UM so they can watch football, that's fine with me. 


July 13th, 2010 at 1:41 PM ^

I'd consider myself to be a bit of a traditionalist and was opposed to the expansion.  That being said, I think the renovation looks great.  I couldn't have imagined that the new work would look so natural.  It feels like it's been there forever.  The blue of the luxury box facade is a perfect match for the tradition of Michigan football.  It is, in short, the opposite of the dreaded Halo (or, for that matter, the tacky, low-grade, minor league baseball-esque piped in music).

The only thing left (ok, other than updated scoreboard/screens) is the return of the classic "MICHIGAN STADIUM" letters to the facade over the 50 yard line.  Go Blue!


July 13th, 2010 at 1:42 PM ^

I like the fact that the Towers make the bowl 'feel' smaller, more intimate.  I hadn't really been able to put my finger on this fact until it was pointed out (by Pollack no less).  But, yeah, his "arguments" are only so much bluster at this point.

st barth

July 13th, 2010 at 1:51 PM ^

...but I concede that, architecturally, the place looks cheap now.  They added some very large buildings (particularly with respect to the context of Main Street), that are of limited use (8-10 days per year) and tried to cover it up by using a whole lot of Ann Arbor's favorite panacea, brick!  Also, to me the pejorative use of "corporate" reads as a dig as the money-first tendencies of Bill Martin, local entrepreneur.  I'm glad they added the boxes, but I do think they could have done better.

With respect to the original/earlier versions of Michigan Stadium, its beauty was in fact a result of its hole-in-the-ground-nature.  It was very close to pure function.  If you stood in the middle of the field on game day, your vision would have been dominated by the players on the field and the sea of fans.  The only "architectural" elements that came into view were the pressbox and scoreboards, both of which are necessary for the event at hand.  In other words, Michigan Stadium was beautiful because it was the embodiment of the game distilled.  Nothing more, nothing less.  It was as pure as it could get.


July 13th, 2010 at 2:36 PM ^

What about the place looks cheap? I'm not an architect, so I have always been a bit perplexed at this accusation. To me, brick is a style that never gets dated and, if done well, can look excellent, which is how I feel the stadium looks now.

I'm kind of curious what the alternatives to brick would be. Concrete? Sheet metal?


Don't neg the guy for his opinion. At least he has some reasoning for it.


July 13th, 2010 at 5:16 PM ^

I actually misread his statement about the cheap looking nature of the stadium...I agree with that portion. I also understand his comment about the "hole-in-the-ground" nature of the original stadium as a purely functional response to the needs of a football contest.

On the other hand, think about the theatrical nature of football, America, and man in general. Human beings love theatrical spectacles. If they didn't there would be no 4th of July fireworks and Avatar would have flopped at the box office. Like it or not, a Michigan football game is a theatrical spectacle and the building serves an important function in that spectacle. I believe that the new brick facades will serve to enhance the spectacle of Michigan football for all involved and are therefore a welcome improvement.

st barth

July 13th, 2010 at 6:42 PM ^

Okay, I should probably clarify my use of the word "cheap".  It is not that brick is inexpensive, or even necessarily looks inexpensive.  But from a design standpoint, it is easy.  It's as if AD Martin told the architects* "Do whatever you need to do to meet the handicap requirements, fit in our 80 lux boxes and then just cover it with lots of brick to make it feel old-timey.  Trust me, that's what works around here, don't give me any of your fancy 'design ideas'.  That's a waste of my and your time.  Just use brick.  We need to get this done so we can start bringing in the big lux box $.  Brick.  Got it?  Brick."

Or think of it this way:  when Walmart wants to build near an "upscale" community, what tactic do they choose?  Throw up their typical warehouse but cover it in brick.  On some level, that is how the renovation reads to me:  Walmart designers meet M football = yuck.

Of course, I don't know what a better architect might have used instead of brick, (hell they might have used brick) nor am I saying that they should have used something wildly contemporary  (think ETFE panels at Allianz Arena in Munich)...rather, what I am saying is that there really didn't seem to be much discussion about design and it's implications.  As probably the most iconic building in the community there should have been more dialogue.  Questions to ask could have been in the vein of:  How will this building represent us to outsiders?  How does it convey where we have been?  Where we yet have ambition to go?  There could have been multiple proposals put into play to decide if the design direction was the right one.  Obviously this takes time and time is money.  And that is the origin of my characterization of the renovation as "cheap".

Rather than striving for something of deeper cultural value, we took the easy way out by building something very nice, but in a kind of soulless Disneyfied manner.  And who doesn't like Disneyland?  It's easy to like (even I like it!).  So sorry if this sounds snobbish, but the fact that the average Buckeye or Spartan fan will visit and admit that the new stadium "looks cool" makes me want to die a little inside.


I understand it could be argued that as the stadium nears completion and most criticism has faded, that this might very well represent the type of community consensus that I suggested should have been sought out.  And maybe that's true.  And most likely once the games begin, nobody (including myself) will be complaining.  I might wonder about it but I've now said & written my piece of mind on the subject plenty of times and will leave it at that.


*The design firm, HNTB, is primarily an engineering outfit (rather than architectural firm) that got its start by building railroad bridges.  They now seem to be experts at renovating Big Ten football stadiums having worked on the recent upgrades at Ohio State, Purdue, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan State.


At the risk of sounding elitest again, I can't help but wonder if we couldn't have done better than to hire the same firm that half of the Big Ten has already used.  So much for being "leaders and the best."


July 13th, 2010 at 6:53 PM ^

...that get you things like the Halo.  It needed to be pretty, and functional.  Which it is.  Anything more, and you're setting yourself up for something half the people hate, and half love. Or worse, something architect geeks love, but everyone else hates.


July 13th, 2010 at 9:52 PM ^

Um, correct me if I'm wrong, but the reason why they used brick and the architectural style they did is because they were specifically told to model it after Yost (which is brick) so that there was a cohesive look. It's kind-of pissy to say the designers took the easy route when they were just doing what the client wanted. And I like that Yost, Michigan Stadium and (soon) Chrisler look like they belong together.


July 14th, 2010 at 1:12 AM ^

While it would be cool on some level to have a big name designer  turn the Big House into an architectural icon, there's a huge risk in that. Sometimes you get a masterpiece, sometimes you get an eyesore (which would have been a quarter billion dollar eyesore, in this case). All too often, buildings with architectural significance sacrifice function for form - okay for an art museum, but a potential disaster for stadium goers. This is far from inevitable of course, but a real risk nonetheless. In the best of times, "significant" architecture is often polarizing, and, especially with "modern" (at the time of their creation) designs, may well look hopelessly out of date in a few years (see Schembechler hall). The oversized nature of a stadium can overstate this and end up looking cartoony. Ultra-modern stadiums are all the rage these days, but I wonder how we'll feel about the Bird's Nest, University of Phoenix Stadium, or whatever that thing in Johannesburg is supposed to be in 2050. Too me, those designs, in all their forced iconic glory, are far more "corporate" and, dare I say, "cheap", precisely because they tried so bloody hard to make a statement.

For better or worse, understated red-brown brick is the defining feature of many of Michigan's most iconic buildings - the Union, Hill, Yost, the Grad Library... It suits the athletic campus, and it suits the fall colors and rolling hills of Ann Arbor.

That said, they could have gotten away with a bit of flair without going overboard - maybe take some design cues from the Union or Hill - a bit more contrasting color, maybe a more interesting roofline (am I the only one who'd like a bit of limestone and some nice copper splashes fading into a rich green patina over the years, a la Hill and Hatcher?). But it fits very nicely with the style of Yost and the IM building, though a more modern interpretation of these. Not least of all, it also matches the look of the brick that's already around the field.  Actually, my least favorite part of the redesign is the solid, flat, metal and glass facade of the boxes - the look of the interior, particularly those vast expanses of dark blue sheet metal, is a bit jarring compared to the brick exterior.

All that said, the place looks like a football stadium and will still look like a football stadium 100 years from now - and that's the important thing. Is it "iconic"? Not really. Is it "safe"? Certainly. But I kind of like that it just blends in - until it's filled with 110,000 screaming Wolverines. Its look will never outshine its purpose, which is to host Michigan Football - and isn't that as it should be?


July 13th, 2010 at 3:04 PM ^

I think the renovations make the stadium more imposing and the brick is a classic look.  I don't know what else they could have done.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion but I sometimes wonder if people are criticizing simply for the sake of doing so.  I can't wait for the first ABC/BTN flyover right before the beat down of UCONN. 

Number 7

July 13th, 2010 at 11:03 PM ^

I've got nothing against brick (as opposed to what? Stalinist poured concrete?  Office park chic I-beams-and-glass? Perhaps something with a Spanish feel to it: clay tiles and stucco . . . )

But I do like the way you capture the essence of the pre-luxury tower days.  Something may have been gained by the boxes, but something was lost, too.


July 13th, 2010 at 1:54 PM ^

Everybody is entitled to their opinion, but John Pollack has consistently presented himself as though he were somehow directly connected to the University of Michigan. Somehow he never seems to find the time to mention he attended Stanford, not the university he purports to be such a supporter of.


July 13th, 2010 at 2:02 PM ^

I am delighted with the renovations that have been made to date, but not for aesthetics. They will help pay for the renovations that will FINALLY be made in the coming off season that actually matter to me -- more butt space in the bleachers and more shoulder room in the aisles.

I will come to two games from Chicago this fall, as usual.  But my level of enjoyment has degraded significantly over the last few years and it has nothing to do with the quality of football.  I'm sick and tired of standing sideways for a whole game.  And, leaving my low-end-zone seat at halftime, peeing, buying a hotdog and missing the third quarter kickoff!

These were not designed capacity problems the last time they painted numbers on the benches.  It's just that our fellow americans didnt' have such big asses back then.

Halleluia for seating and aisle renovations in 2010/11.  Only then will I truly love the stadium again.


July 13th, 2010 at 2:06 PM ^

You use the word "concede" as though you are wearily admitting the final awful, uncontestable truth which the whole world has long accepted. You're simply stating your own opinion, and it's one that many, many people disagree pretty strongly with.


July 13th, 2010 at 2:19 PM ^

Brian, how did you fail bring up this piece of douchebaggery:


Pollack:  I haven’t bought a [plane] ticket for the UConn game–it’s not as compelling of an opponent as I’m accustomed to. I don’t have the good fortune to go back to every game since I live in New York so I try to cherry pick the old favorites.

Every game that I go to, I generally go with my parents who are season ticket holders. We have our ritual—we walk from campus, we stop by my uncle’s tailgate, and then we go touch our brick which is right by the eagle and not far from Desmond Howard’s brick. We say ‘Go Blue’, and then go to the game. You know what? I’m still going to do that and I’m still going to cheer for the Wolverines whether the stadium has been diminished or not.




July 13th, 2010 at 2:24 PM ^

...tomorrow's Big House open house will feature its own twitter feed.

Follow @UMNewsService 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Wednesday, July 14, for live tweets and photos from the Michigan Stadium renovation open house.

The public can also view the Big House renovations in person between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. Wednesday, and join in on the Twitter conversation using the hashtag #BigHouse.


July 13th, 2010 at 2:24 PM ^

Call me a big supporter of the renovation.  Now we can have modern conveniences and a more comfortable environment.  The life cycle of the Big House has been extended 25-50 years.

To me, the most important component of the renovation?  Pardon me for shouting, but, ahem -- IMPACT ON NOISE!  We all know Michigan Stadium has a reputation for being the home of the quietest 110,000 people you'll ever find, and I've got to think that the new suite towers will give the team the kind of SurroundSound experience that translates to a bigger home field advantage.

Honestly, IMHO the first time a visiting QB (not from tOSU, ND or Little Brother) has to burn all their TOs because they can't call a play, the renovation investment would be worth it.