Facility Focus: Northwestern University Walter Athletics Center and Ryan Fieldhouse

Sports facilities are about competition and recruitment as well as the nuts and bolts of space and equipment. They also can be about other things that cannot be planned with precision.

The Walter Athletics Center and Ryan Fieldhouse at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, is a case in point. Although the $270-million project opened in 2018, things have evolved there since then.

First and foremost is the complex itself, an impressive structure wrapped in glass, aluminum, and limestone on the northeast corner of the Northwestern campus, right on Lake Michigan—an enviable site not only for the dazzling lake view, but also for its proximity to the campus’ student residences, classrooms and other facilities. Further, the site is logical for another reason: it abuts related things that were already there, such as athletic fields, indoor tennis courts, a pool and some parking lots. It’s quite a change along those lines and others. Kennedy explains that the new building replaces an outmoded facility about a mile west of campus with limited indoor space.

Full Facility Aerial From North Credit Paul Kennedy

To create the response to that situation, Northwestern assembled a team that included Perkins and Will as the project architect, SmithGroup JJR as landscape architect with irrigation engineering, and 360 Architect as the sports consultant. HOK was associate architect. Importantly, department representatives visited 70 athletic facilities, and comprehensive input on spaces by the head athletic trainer and team physician, among others. The comprehensive, collaborative planning and design process resulted in what Perkins and Will has described in part as “transformational” and “a sleek, sophisticated destination.”

However, like the academic world today, the COVD-19 pandemic has placed the new facility’s status as a destination has been placed on hold. The exact way forward for the reopening of the Northwestern campus is unclear for the time being, but Kennedy and his colleagues, along with others across campus, remain busy. “We’re modeling a lot of different scenarios and you obviously hope that the reality matches up with one of them,” he says, reporting that related “guidance will be university-wide when we get there.”

Full Facility Aerial From North Credit Paul Kennedy

Student-athletes, faculty and others doubtless are anticipating a return to daily use of a facility that, as the university has pointed out, has many functions. For example, the Walter Athletics Center portion of the facility houses, among other things, “a football strength and conditioning center, meeting rooms and a sport performance center” as well as offices and a dining hall. The Ryan Fieldhouse section provides “one of the most versatile practice, competition and recreation venues in the nation.” The fieldhouse has locker rooms for various varsity sports programs and Wilson Field, which is an indoor athletic field for practice and competition in football, lacrosse and soccer. A pre-existing aquatics center has been upgraded.

Ryan Fieldhouse Interior Credit Paul Kennedy

The building, Perkins and Will has indicated, includes features such as “abundant ceiling-to-floor windows” that allow “in natural light at nearly every turn.” The facility, while “monumental,” yet also “seamlessly integrates with the surrounding campus, never calling too much attention to itself,” according to Perkins and Will.

Still, the complex has attracted some attention in media. Around the time of the opening, there was a barb or two about some use of space in the building, and one critic wondered whether the enormous facility actually would lead to Big Ten football success. That being said, accolades in the coverage included “spectacular,” “structural drama,” and  “sometimes breathtaking.”

There’s been a minor wrinkle or two, which is no surprise for a project of this magnitude. For example, more interior doors should have been equipped with windows—many have been changed out accordingly—and there are vibrations from weights hitting the floor of a second-story weight room; with staff working toward solutions, says Kennedy. On the other hand, decision makers purposely held back on fitting out every space with furniture and equipment, an adroit move in that, as Kennedy explains, they were waiting to learn precisely “how people would use and flow through the facility.”

Creating a hub of activity and integrating it fully into the life of a campus doesn’t happen overnight. Nor are all of the potential uses, both athletic and non-athletic, of a new hub known and set automatically. In other words, new facilities and capabilities generate new demands on spaces; a welcome problem, so to speak. Accordingly, scheduling the evolving use of the fieldhouse and the athletic fields is a work in progress, Kennedy explains. The approach at Walker-Ryan has been conservative, he says, in terms of volumes of non-athletic, outside functions. That being said, there have been a number of events, including an alumni gala hosted by television host Stephen Colbert, a Northwestern alumnus.

Football Locker Room Credit: Paul Kennedy

As mentioned, not everything that goes into a major sports facility can be planned with precision. And surprises can result. As Kennedy sees it, the most welcome development since the 2018 opening of the complex has been the extent to which people use it and the quality of the interactions there.

For sure, the complex at Northwestern was envisioned and designed to bring together student athletes, faculty, administrators and staff into an advanced facility at a prime location on campus with little room to spare for such a project. Accordingly, Walter/Ryan consolidated athletic team spaces. But something remained to be discovered: the extent to which interaction would take place—and precisely how building users would not just occupy the space, but embrace it. Kennedy believes that question has been answered.

Things have worked out. Exceedingly well, in the view of Kennedy, who notes, “the sense of community” among student athletes, who have immersed themselves not only in the sports facilities but every function and space of the complex. In the process, young people are forging strong relationships within and across teams. Simply stated, “student-athletes are spending more time around each other because they are there” at the new facility, attracted by what it offers. He says, in fact, “it’s been incredible to watch the way it has affected them in their preparations academically, socially, athletically, and for their professional development—in every aspect of themselves.”

As a result, Kennedy calls the athletic complex “transformational for our entire department, all 19 teams and 527 student-athletes. It’s just been a complete game-changer for us. This is not a minor upgrade. This is a dramatic upgrade for us.”

Some tips about creating the right athletic facilities:

  • Know what you don’t know and say so. Then get the experts involved. Such broadly defined experts include campus and outside architects, athletic department administrators, faculty, students, staff and workers: all will use the building and know its spaces extremely well.
  • Enable a sense of ownership for those experts. Start that process at the front-end of a project to renovate or construct a sports and fitness facility. Doing so will pay dividends through the life of a building.
  • Make lemonade. Got lemons, such as limited space on campus? Then welcome the opportunity to save space by consolidating functions within a quality, shared facility. In other words, create a sports and fitness facility that touches as many teams and students as possible.

This article appears in the July/August issue of Spaces4Learning. Photos by Paul Kennedy.