Designing an Icon
I met architect Hideaki Taguchi up in the VIP section during the KISS concert in 2011 that was held on MacDonald Island. He had traveled to Fort McMurray from his home in Kansas City along with several other colleagues from 360 Architecture (now merged with HOK). They were in the final stages of design for the redevelopment project that would soon break ground on MacDonald Island. We got along famously as we talked about the vision of our community, the energy of the event, and the potential for the facility that would be known as Shell Place. Once in awhile, we stopped to watch Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer work their magic on the gigantic stage that had been erected on the site.
Something must have clicked with our brief visit, screaming into each other’s ears to battle the enormous sound coming from the stage and the 12,000 rabid fans enjoying the biggest concert that Fort McMurray had ever seen. Hideaki reconnected with me last summer to see whether I would be available to join him on a tour of the construction site. It would be his first glimpse of Shell Place and the iconic Nexen CNOOC Stage canopy, his first time back in the community since his inaugural visit three years earlier.
The design for the stage covering evolved as they went through the process. I remember the look in his eyes as he talked about being challenged to go bigger and bolder. He had been empowered to stretch the limits of his imagination and his technical know-how.
“Our original design was a dome-shaped canopy, inspired by an image of a tent glowing in a pristine northern winter night landscape,” recalled Taguchi.
“Although the concept was functionally effective for the events that the venue intended to host, we felt that the shape was not unique enough to be an icon for the new development. As we explored the history and culture of the region further we learned of the importance of the river for development, which led us to the idea of incorporating movement and ultimately the Northern Lights. It is the combination of these two elements that led to the shape and design that you see today. We truly appreciate the commitment of our client to create something that was unique to the community. Their vision and the support of the community is what enabled us to make this one-of-a-kind design a reality.”
The structure itself is approximately 100 meters by 30 meters, formed by a series of 5-metre wide strips of tensioned fabric. From the stage to the peak of the canopy is about 20 meters. It is designed to cover a large concrete pad below that can be used to accommodate a full size ice hockey rink, a concert stage or a myriad of possibilities. The 5-metre wide truss sections provide rigging points to support lighting equipment for year round use as a concert or event venue. There were also many practical considerations in crafting a structure that needs to withstand the dramatic changes in temperature and precipitation inherent to our northern climate.
“Through the collaborative expertise of our engineering and design team members we were able to overcome the challenges that the waved, ribbon-like structure of the canopy,” said Taguchi.
“One of the most sensitive challenges was to make sure that the canopy achieved the necessary water and snow management. A simple arched structure naturally allows water and snow to shed to the ground but wavy ‘ribbons’ create some low spots where water could potentially accumulate. We overcame this issue by carefully tilting the fabric roof surfaces around the long axis of the ribbon to guide water to strategically place downspouts.”
“Another challenge was how to structurally stabilize the canopy along short axis,” he continued.
“A typical arched canopy has a continuous roof surface that is deep enough to prevent it from turning over. Since the Shell Place canopy is a series of ribbon strips, we designed them to connect in a way that they work together as one structural element. We designed the truss intersection in a way that they line up with one another where one ribbon intersects with another. This creates connections that are secure and efficient without additional weight or visual clutter.”
An important element of the design of the Nexen CNOOC Stage canopy was its ability to allow for a multitude of uses, and to be an iconic feature of Shell Place, and indeed, the entire development on MacDonald Island.
“The venue is designed to accommodate a wide variety of uses throughout the year,” said Hideaki.
“In addition to protecting the patrons from the elements, the canopy can also be illuminated at night to provide a source of light. LED lights allow the various events and concerts that will be hosted beneath it to create dramatic effects and a truly unique experience for patrons.”
Beneath the canopy is a dual-facing stage surface that has a large open area on one side (SMS Equipment Stadium) and a smaller, more intimate seating area on the other side. This innovative approach provides flexibility to house a greater variety of events and create an atmosphere that is appropriate to each. An adjacent building houses support spaces such as restrooms and storage, in order to accommodate the varied events and activities that will occur at Shell Place.
“The spaces between the undulating, white ribbons are enclosed with clear ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) film in order to provide overhead protection from rain, snow and sun while maintaining the visual effect of the design concept. According to Wikipedia ETFE is “a fluorine based plastic, designed to have high corrosion resistance and strength over a wide temperature range.” That certainly hits the mark for the spicy hot summers and bitter cold winters that we experience in Fort McMurray.
For the most part, an architect like Hideaki Taguchi lives in a world of design sketches, computer renderings and technical drawings. Getting the opportunity to fly up from his Missouri base of operations to see the construction progress in 2014 was pretty special.
“What was it like standing there, seeing the finished product for the first time?” I asked.
“I was speechless,” he said.
“I knew it was going to be large, elegant, airy and sophisticated but the finished canopy exceeded all of my expectations. It was no longer an object on my computer screen but magnificent flowing ribbons in the sky. In person, the structure feels even lighter than it appears in the renderings and the nighttime illumination truly blew my mind. It is as though the northern lights descended on the ground. Our partners at Architecture | Tkalcic Bengert (ATB) and Clark Builders with design build assistance from Birdair did an incredible job executing the vision for the canopy.”