CINCINNATI -- Dan Meis tries to keep up with what is going on in the sports world, and FC Cincinnati caught his attention as he was following the Major League Soccer expansion headlines.
He didn’t know he already had a connection to the team at the time, but when FC Cincinnati President and General manager Jeff Berding called to ask him to help in the club’s expansion bid, it wasn’t a difficult decision.
The MEIS Architects founder and managing principal had gotten to know Berding while working on the designs for Paul Brown Stadium -- when Berding was with the Bengals and Meis was with NBBJ Sports Entertainment.
The chance to help FC Cincinnati, a second-year United Soccer League club, potentially win an MLS bid was intriguing, so Meis agreed to design a soccer-specific stadium that could do so.
“After having worked on Paul Brown, the opportunity to do another building in Cincinnati, particularly one to help the vision of the club to win an MLS bid, was exciting,” Meis told WCPO.com the week after his FC Cincinnati stadium designs were released. “Because I follow these things, I was already impressed with what the fan base had done with FC Cincinnati.”
Berding said FC Cincinnati spoke with other firms but the club liked the familiarity with Meis, who brought a reputation of being a leader in sports architecture.
Meis’ team also includes several principal architects from Detroit-based Rossetti Architects, which designed five MLS stadiums among its wide array of projects.
“My familiarity and comfort with him and the desire to have a transformative, iconic stadium design and his ability to create that was something I was very attracted to,” Berding said. “… Combine his experience and the rest of his team and you are talking about some of the creators of the most architecturally intriguing buildings, particularly in the soccer world.”
A quick turnaround
The relationship between Berding and Meis was rekindled back in mid-December when MLS laid out its expansion process details and set a Jan. 31 deadline to apply.
In less than six weeks, Meis and his firm -- which was founded in 2007 and has offices in Los Angeles and New York -- developed designs for a $200 million, 25,000-seat stadium to be built on eight to 10 acres of land in one of three potential sites in Newport, Over-the-Rhine or Oakley. FC Cincinnati is competing with 11 other cities for a bid, and two of the expansion clubs will be announced by the end of the year with plans to begin play in 2020.
“That was a pretty quick drill to do a specific stadium for them,” Meis said. “It was a fire drill of sorts but an exciting one.”
Meis said one of the benefits of having a “smaller, slightly more nimble practice” is that the firm can turn its full attention to projects that really need focus.
Meis, 56, has been designing sports venues for about 30 years and had always been a part of larger firms, including co-founding the sports and entertainment practice at NBBJ, until going independent in 2007 with Meis Architects.
Normally, a project like this takes several months, allowing for more back-and-forth discussion with the club, but Meis said FC Cincinnati’s request came at a time when the entire practice could turn its attention to it.
“In this instance, we had to look at multiple sites very quickly and really bring some ideas together quickly,” he said. “It's easier when you're really passionate about something. It came out pretty well, and we're pretty excited about it.”
Meis described the stadium design as “really dynamic,” while engaging fans in the history of the game worldwide and activating the local neighborhood at the street level through the architecture itself. That includes a fan plaza and Brew House along the exterior that would connect the community to the club even outside of games.
The facility would be a sort of horseshoe shape with a berm in the open end that could later be used to expand to 30,000 seats. It would also highlight Cincinnati’s “innovation as a city” through the use of Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), a translucent material that through LED lighting can make the building glow and change colors. Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena is well-known for its use of ETFE.
“It's a process that's driven by a lot of things: the history of the club, if there is such a thing, and the history of the site and the architecture of the city and the context around it,” Meis said. “It doesn't start as a fully formed, 'this is what it's going to look like,' kind of thing.
“Because we were initially looking at the site on the river (in Newport), the idea of it being this iconic lantern was something that was interesting because of the importance of the bridges and the skyline views and all of that. The use of that material and the idea the colors could change and really light up became a neat thing.”
Berding said FC Cincinnati wanted something that would be architecturally significant to the Queen City and Meis delivered. He had presented a few ideas but the use of the ETFE lighting struck as the most exciting option.
“Dan has taken it to next generation of ETFE with the ability to light it in the manner we will with the LED lighting and video board literally on the face of the building,” Berding said. “The technology involved is very cutting-edge. It’s not just a soccer stadium. It’s another community asset that gives us the opportunity to promote the city globally while getting high functional use.”
Work reflects cities, cultures
Meis’ designs have evolved since he did Paul Brown Stadium, which opened in 2000. That was the first NFL facility to win an American Institute of Architects (AIA) Honor Award, and soon after, he was featured in Time Magazine as one of its "100 Innovators in the World of Sports."
He also designed the first soccer-specific stadium in Major League Soccer with Crew Stadium (now Mapfre) built in 1999, and he’s now working on new stadiums for Everton and AS Roma in Europe. His projects -- with a combined value of well over $15 billion -- also have taken him into Asia and the Middle East.
“I think I work pretty hard to never be stylistic, that every building really is different and the design really responds to the particular culture of the fans and the club or the location, the site or the city,” Meis said. “I've always believed in architecture that is really dynamic. That was important with Paul Brown, too, that it wasn't a static, heavy building. It was really about being light and evocative of movement.”
The technology behind architectural plans has changed over the years, too, but Meis still does his designs by sketch. He has hundreds of sketch books he’s kept over the years.
Meis always starts with researching the site and once he’s come up with his drawings and notes, others at his firm recreate them on the computer to get images that look like photos of an already built facility.
“It's amazing to me sometimes that I can sketch something, and very quickly the talented people I have can turn it into images that look like that,” Meis said.