With an active outdoor culture, plentiful public park lands, and a strong environmental movement dating back to the 1960s, Austin has long viewed itself as Texas’ greenest city. Austinites are now celebrating a new shade of green — the verde of Austin FC, the city’s new Major League Soccer team. Q2 Stadium made its debut with the club last year and reflects the green character of Austin in three distinct ways: its inclusion of public green spaces, its sustainable green construction, and its deft use of the color green.
Austin FC, nicknamed the “Verde and Black,” is the first professional sports team in a city whose sports landscape has forever been monopolized by The University of Texas at Austin. The team (the league’s newest addition) tasked the architects at Gensler Sports with designing a facility that would provide fan experiences at multiple scales while capturing the culture and spirit of Austin — a diverse city with a growing population from many geographical areas. Since the outdoor livability of Austin is a draw for tourists as well as new residents, Q2 and Austin are expecting the stadium to form part of a growing trend in sports tourism. Since its opening last year, Q2 has already hosted several international events.
Although the City of Austin owns the property where the stadium is located, its construction was financed with private funding. One of the most successful aspects of this public-private partnership can be seen in the generous publicly accessible space outside the stadium gates. Adjacent to the entry plaza on the east side of the stadium sits a terraced, grassy amphitheater that serves both as a park and as a 2,500-person-capacity concert venue. The large, elevated terraces to the north and west are a balance of landscape plantings, lawn, and attentively detailed hardscape elements. Landscape architects TBG Partners created a sequence of soft-edged spaces that serve as functional amenities on game day but are also available to the public on other days for activities like dog-walking or enjoying the sun. A parking area to the north of the stadium utilizes a grass paver system and can be used as a secondary stage when Q2 hosts music festivals, farmers’ markets, or other community events. Traditionally, these types of well-intentioned public spaces located around sports venues are often deserted when an event is not being held, but significant residential development (both current and planned) surrounds Q2 Stadium and promises that these public spaces will be well used. Austin’s MetroRail line runs along the site’s eastern boundary, and a dedicated stadium station will open in 2023.
Q2 stadium is slightly rotated on its 24-acre brownfield site and thus does not align with adjacent streets. This results in the creation of oblique views of the stadium that allow for an understanding of the stadium as a whole — the vast overhanging roof and the distinct building volumes nestled under it. A layering of building elements creates apertures that pique curiosity about the excitement occurring inside. At the entry portals, space is compressed under a wood soffit canopy, where tickets are scanned, before the verdant expanse of the pitch is revealed. (No matter the sports arena, this is one of the most captivating experiences of architectural compression and release.) The stadium corners are both open and transparent, and together with the cantilevered roof canopies, they allow the space inside the gates to become part of the experience of the adjacent public spaces outside the gates.
At Q2, the four major roof canopies were initially designed with long-span trusses. However, in order for the turf to be planted in October of 2020 so that it could be well established before the inaugural game in June of 2021, the temporary construction cranes located on the infield needed to be removed earlier than planned. To shorten roof construction time, the local structural engineers at Walter P Moore proposed a redesign that implemented a cable support system for the two end canopies. This solution not only reduced costs but also helped the project reach its sustainable design goals, as the now flatter roofs and lighter cables reduced overall steel tonnage and embodied carbon. The changes proved fortunate, resulting in a design with more visual impact than early renderings. The cables and thinner roofs together create a sense of lightness which, when paired with the wing-shaped main roofs, evokes the form and construction of early biplanes.
The natural grass turf of the pitch sits about 23 feet below the concourse level and is fully enclosed on all sides by the seating bowl. The seats themselves are colored in a variety of green hues that create a visual effect reminiscent of dappled light on a lawn. The colors are so well aligned with the turf that the pitch almost appears to wrap up into the seating area, giving spectators the sense that they are on the field.
Jonathan Emmett, principal and design director for Gensler Sports, led the design team for Q2. Now based in Austin, Emmett grew up in England and played soccer (or as he called it, “football”) in addition to being a fan of the sport. MLS is a passion of his, and he has had the opportunity to work on the design of several other MLS stadiums. “One of the lovely things about the MLS is that most of their stadiums are in the 20–25,000 seat range,” says Emmett. “It is a really great scale to work at in terms of creating an intimate environment but still having enough critical mass in terms of fans that the energy is still there.”
Although “cozy” is not a word typically used to describe a 20,000-plus-seat stadium, the adjective is appropriate here. A sense of coziness is generated by the moderate seating capacity coupled with pushing the seats as close as possible to the pitch. Even the upper seating sections are relatively close to the action even if they do not fully wrap the field. Forming separate rectangles in plan, they leave the four corners of the stadium open, resulting in several benefits. First, the corner “porches” offer just enough enclosure to be perceived as distinct outdoor rooms. The perforated semi-transparent metal covering on the underside of the curving trusses aids in that definition. These elevated outdoor spaces create portals for viewing the sunsets during evening matches. They also allow architecturally minded fans to experience the building in section while contemplating it as a coherent composition. Perhaps most importantly, these open corners facilitate the funneling of prevailing breezes. Ensuring fan comfort was essential to the design, especially as the fan experiences at new MLS stadiums in Houston and Dallas are at times hampered by stifling summer heat. The long axis of the Q2 stadium is oriented to the southeast to maximize the air movement through the open corners, under the long roof, across the concourse, and into the seating areas.
In Texas, protection from the sun is the other major component of comfort. At the Q2 Stadium, all spectator seating is located directly under a roof, with a minimum of 70 percent of seats shaded at evening match times, according to solar studies. The 6,000 seats most exposed to sunlight feature an open mesh fabric like that used in high-end office chairs to help reduce heat build-up. These and other design strategies do not seek to establish dominance over Austin’s Central Texas climate, but rather to more harmoniously coexist with it — a stark contrast with recent retractable-roof football and baseball stadiums.
One of the appeals of attending a sports event is the collective experience; fans enter a communal space that encourages and demands emotional expression. Nowhere is this more evident than in Q2’s south seating area, known as the “Supporter’s Section,” where seats are secured closed during matches so that the more dedicated fans can stand throughout the 90 minutes of regulation play.
A variety of entertainment spaces encircle the stadium and can be accessed independently and used as separate venues. The prominent north building houses the team store. It sits under a large green oak tree graphic that serves as the team’s logo. The other ancillary spaces range from the exclusive Q2 Club, with its dark wood, brass accents, and green velvet curtains, to the casual interior Beer Hall that is cleverly lit by an assemblage of 60 beer kegs repurposed as pendant lights. The indoor/outdoor Captain Morgan Club opens to a crushed granite terrace that overlooks the amphitheater. The seating bowl is also equipped as a concert venue, with a full stage located under the demountable south grandstands and a permanent rigging grid built into the roof canopy.
Emmett notes that because Austin FC is an expansion franchise, the stadium designs and the team’s branding expression, logo, and color palette were being developed simultaneously. This presented a unique opportunity for dialogue between stadium design and the branding design and for the two to influence each other. The result is an overall consonance between the building and the club’s identity. Vibrant green is a color not always easily integrated into the built environment. By introducing a multitoned green palette (the “Verde”) and tempering it with a charcoal color (the “Black”), the Gensler team created a sophisticated design solution that resonates with the grass playing field and the oak tree featured in the Austin FC logo. A tree carries a different ethos than the oft-seen fierce animal mascot. It is more grounded, strong but not combative. It is also a little weird, which is fitting for Austin as well.
Kennedy Colombo, AIA, is a principal at FGM Architects in Austin.