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Growing up in central Iowa, Mark Williams rooted passionately for his Minnesota Twins and Vikings.
Game after game, season after season, the boy from Marshalltown wore the colors, donned the caps and studied the stats of his favorite teams. Once a year, and sometimes more, he and his family hopped into their station wagon for the four-hour drive north to catch a game at Bloomington's Metropolitan Stadium and later the downtown Minneapolis Metrodome.
"It's near and dear to me," Williams said the other day. "Those are good memories."
Three decades later, the 49-year-old architect is back in Minneapolis, this time as a principal with HKS Inc., the Dallas-based architectural firm hired to design the $975 million multipurpose stadium that will replace the Metrodome, home of the Vikings.
"I know how much these buildings mean to people," Williams said. "So we take it very seriously. And we know what we do and how we design it will have a huge effect on the success of the building."
Since first sketching renderings for a college basketball arena more than 50 years ago, HKS has established itself as one of the leading designers of sports venues worldwide, drawing plans for stadiums and arenas big and small.
The firm has designed major league ballparks in Milwaukee and Dallas and minor league stadiums in smaller spots, such as the Texas home of the Corpus Christi Hooks.
It has overseen the renovation of classic venues, such as Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, and built two of the NFL's newest and glitziest stadiums, in Dallas and Indianapolis, both of which feature cutting-edge scoreboards, roofs and windows.
"They are first-class," said Bill Lester, the former director of the commission that ran the Metrodome and served as the predecessor to the new Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority that, along with the Vikings, hired HKS. "They are the new superstar on the horizon."
Looking to Indy
Founded in Dallas in 1939 by Harwood K. Smith, HKS employs more than 900 people in 29 offices worldwide. According to its website, the firm has built more than $73 billion worth of office buildings, sports venues, hotels, resorts and other projects in nearly 1,200 cities in 77 countries.
What Williams and architects in the company's sports division have in store for Minneapolis is a mystery, at least for now.
A stadium rendering won't be publicly unveiled until January, at the earliest.
Before then, HKS plans to travel the state to talk with Minnesotans and gather perspective on what they want to see. The first meeting is set for Oct. 15 at Minneapolis City Hall.
While the design is yet to be determined, the project will certainly be inspired by HKS's recent work on Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, and Cowboys Stadium near Dallas.
The stadiums differ greatly in location and style. HKS architect Bryan Trubey has called the Cowboys' massive suburban stadium contemporary and "edgy" while referring to the more conservative, downtown Indianapolis stadium as historic and "traditional." Both are multipurpose venues capable of hosting a variety of events, from Final Four basketball tournaments to rock concerts and tractor pulls.
Both also boast features designed to excite and impress.
A signature of Cowboys Stadium is a giant, four-sided, high-definition video board that hangs above the field to give fans close-up views of the action.
In Indy, a large retractable window wall opens to the downtown skyline. Combined with the NFL's largest retractable roof, the stadium "can open up and almost become an outdoor-type venue," Williams said.
Those features, he added, "really changed the perception of what an NFL stadium could be."
Which is what the Vikings and stadium authority were looking for when interviewing design firms. HKS won a $34 million contract.
"This is an opportunity to rethink what a football stadium can be," said Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, who sat in on the interviews. "This is a firm that is willing to think outside the box."
Teamwork and trust
While much of HKS's recent work has drawn raves, the projects haven't been perfect.
For all of Lucas Oil's assets, stadium director Mike Fox said it could use more elevators, escalators and ramps to help fans move around.
Its look, too, overwhelms.
One critic referred to the brick and boxy structure, built to fit the city's downtown warehouse district, as something that "resembles a 19th-century factory on steroids."
John Klipsch, who runs the stadium board, said Lucas Oil "really changed the landscape of our skyline.
"It's hard with huge football stadiums and soccer stadiums not to make them look like big spaceships that were dropped into the community," he said.
Cowboys Stadium also has drawn criticism for its excesses.
One writer described the 113,000-seat stadium as "flying saucer-like" and "straight out of Eisenhower's America, with its embrace of car culture and a grandiose, bigger-is-better mentality."
And the video board, designed to give fans in the stands the same perspective as those watching at home, is so big that some see it as a distraction.
Despite the criticism, Williams said HKS wouldn't change a thing.
"Everybody has opinions," he said. "We listen. But we don't let it bother us."
Jack Hill, project executive for the new San Francisco 49ers stadium, worked with HKS on the Cowboys project. He said the firm's ability to "listen well" and think creatively helped after team owner Jerry Jones demanded a video board much bigger than originally designed.
Fox, too, praised HKS's creative touch. When designing the auxiliary locker rooms at Lucas Oil, HKS turned to Fox, a former college basketball student manager and part-time official. He'd been in hundreds of locker rooms and knows a good layout from a bad one.
"They handed me a piece of paper and said, 'You know what you are doing, go design,'" Fox said. "I thought they would just kind of take it and throw it away, but at the end of the day, what was built was pretty much what I designed.
"I'm not talking about light fixtures and shower fixtures, but just the overall space. To me, that really exemplifies teamwork and trust."
Squeezing a 65,000-seat stadium into downtown Minneapolis won't be easy. But Williams said he's confident it can be done with style and flair and within the budget.
"There's nothing better than to watch people walk into a stadium you and your firm have worked on for years and watch the faces," he said. "It makes all that hard work worthwhile."
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