What the 'Shoe means to architects and engineers

Posted: October 28, 2022

Earlier this year, a small group of faculty and students from Ohio State’s College of Engineering and Knowlton School of Architecture toured Ohio Stadium with Bob Long ’73, a retired civil engineer and expert on the stadium who worked on its 1999-2001 renovation.

A group of three people stand in front of a football stadium.
From left, Benjy Flowers, Anthony Massari and Abi Atteveld

The tour took them into the bowels of the ‘Shoe, onto the field and into the locker room, providing a glimpse into the features that make it a century-old jewel of Ohio State’s Columbus campus. Ohio State Impact spoke with these engineers and architects to get their unique perspectives on the stadium’s history, its marvels and its importance to the Ohio State community.

They are Abi Atteveld, an undergraduate majoring in civil engineering; Kori Caughenbaugh, a graduate student in architecture; Benjamin (Benjy) Flowers, professor of architecture and associate director of the Knowlton School; and Anthony Massari, associate professor of practice in civil, environmental and geodetic engineering in the College of Engineering.

An edited version of the discussion follows.

Question: Benjy, it was your first time in Ohio Stadium. As someone who studies stadiums, what were your first impressions?

Benjy Flowers: Most of my work focuses on soccer stadiums, and in the world of soccer stadiums globally, a large stadium has a capacity of around 65,000. There’s a handful of stadiums that get close to 100,000, but really, American collegiate football stadiums are unique in their scale.

I have to say, having been in a lot of big grounds, walking out onto that turf field and being surrounded by that scale, it really is overwhelming. And it’s hard for me to imagine what it’d be like as an 18-year-old or a 19-year-old, being asked to perform at an elite level in front of 104,000 or 105,000 people — absolutely terrifying.

Imagine yourself as a competitor, as a visitor — terrifying. As the home team, a huge asset in terms of performance, potentially, if you’re doing well. But it’s hard to overstate the impact of scale. Most humans don’t ever find themselves in spaces of a congregation of 100,000 people. And so the psychological impact really is amazing.

Q: It really is an almost unfathomable number, isn’t it? Where does Ohio Stadium rank in total capacity among stadiums around the world?

Flowers: It depends on how you count seats, but it’s currently the fifth-largest stadium in the world on most lists. There’s a constant back-and-forth between several collegiate stadiums of between 200 and 300 temporary seats they might jerry-rig at any time in order to jockey for a higher spot.

India just opened a new cricket oval that seats about 130,000, which took the No. 1 spot from North Korea’s May Day Stadium.

Q: Abi and Kori, you’ve been in the stadium as fans, but what was different about walking through it without the crowd there?

Abi Atteveld: The first time I was in the stadium was ... for accepted students’ day. We got to walk onto the turf and see it from that perspective. Kind of like Benjy was saying, it’s amazing to just be standing down there and looking at the empty stands, and then imagining them packed full of people.

But I’ve been in those stands as a student at every game I could be at, and it doesn’t feel that big at all. You’re surrounded by everyone you know and it’s such a home-like feeling with all your friends and family, and everyone’s cheering for the same team for the most part.

So it was really neat to see it empty and hear the history of it. But just to see both sides of it — not everyone gets that experience.

Kori Caughenbaugh: The stadium's scale and nostalgia left not only me but many of us at a loss for words. It was much more staggering in that position.

Q: Anthony, from an engineering perspective, what impressed you about getting to see the finer points of how it was put together? What separates a stadium of that size from other large structures?

Anthony Massari: For me, what was interesting was the story of its initial construction, but also its growth.

Nowadays, growth is pretty limited. You maybe put a press box in, maybe you change out the scoreboards. But this was a unique structure where they added extra stands up above, they added the Horseshoe and closed it off.

There’s this idea of dealing with historic structures, that you don’t want to change things too much. You want to keep the history of it but still be able to modernize different things.

So some places you walk around and it looks old. And some places you walk in and you see this incredibly modern facility. So walking through those two extremes in the same place was interesting.

Five people stand on the 50 yard line of a field in a football stadium.
From left, Benjy Flowers, Kori Caughenbaugh, Bob Long, Abbi Atteveld, and Anthony Massari stand on the field inside Ohio Stadium.

Q: Abi, as a civil engineering student, what do you learn from that experience of walking through and seeing how everything comes together?

Atteveld: It was a super unique experience to be surrounded by people who understand so much about it. I’ve never had that kind of tour where you go into a building and you’re able to recognize those things and point out some of the details of where the new construction was and how it changed so much.

It was also interesting to hear about the design process and why certain decisions were made because that’s not something I’ve experienced yet. To get the practical reasoning for why certain beams aren’t placed there — because you can’t see the field and stuff like that — that you normally don’t talk about in a class because it’s not as relevant was super cool.

Massari: What’s unique about the stadium is that it is this big, open space where everyone wants to see things, and look toward the field. There is something about this bad seat behind a column and trying to prevent that from happening that is sort of different. And we don’t talk about that in class, it’s 100 percent true.

Q: What decisions were made in the stadium’s construction that you think helps it stand the test of time? What would be different about it today?

Massari: There was some sort of a rail system that was involved to move materials around this long construction site. This is 100 yards here, 100 yards there, and you wrap around this large circle, so you’re moving construction materials and they built, almost like a mining system for moving materials around, which I thought was interesting and helped facilitate speed of construction… That was sort of different to me.

Another unique thing: It’s 26 separate sections sort of leaning on each other — that’s very, very different. Surely that allowed them to build each one scaffolded individually, work their way around and kind of make it a self-supported thing as they cascaded around the system.

Q: Benjy, you’ve made an analogy of the stadium as a secular cathedral. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Flowers: The modern-day stadium is descended from two earlier Roman and Greek classical types — the amphitheater and the stadion — and the idea of these spaces both as performance spaces and martial spaces, and spaces of display and spectacle. In the history of western architecture, those were largely supplanted in Europe, in cities, by the cathedral. And it’s only in the late 19th century that you see the return of the stadium as a monumental urban form.

But more broadly if you think about the way we occupy them, we go to stadiums on specific days of the week. We wear specific kinds of clothing. We affiliate with certain groups of people on the basis of their shared kinship with the team. We eat certain kinds of food. We sing certain kinds of songs — they’re like secular hymns. We make vast assumptions about people and their goodness or awfulness on the basis of what jersey they are wearing and in which part of the stadium they are sitting. And we pass these rituals onto our children, much in the same way we do with religious rituals.

So if you look at what Howard Dwight Smith did with the stadium, he then went on as the campus architect to make sure that the stadium occupied a visually central role, much in the same way a church or cathedral would have done for a town or a city.

Q: The stadium is something that does make Ohio State, simply put, very unique. Most universities do not have one single structure that means so much to its community and that has so many personal experiences tied up with that. And you’re reminded of this every day, I imagine, with the Knowlton School of Architecture being right around the corner.

Flowers: That’s a large part of why I’m here. When Knowlton called and said, ‘Would you be interested?’ I said, ‘You're literally the only school of architecture in the world next to one of the world’s largest stadiums, so obviously this makes sense.’

Caughenbaugh: It’s astounding to have a structure such as the ‘Shoe directly beside the School of Architecture. What is the most inspiring is what the ‘Shoe has built and what it stands for to Ohio State. The relationships, community and tradition that have come from the structure show the power of architecture and the influences that it carries.

 - by Jacob Carozza

Categories: FacultyStudents