The Louisiana Superdome, where thousands sought shelter from Hurricane Katrina last month, stands damaged with parts of its roof torn off. Some politicians have said the structure should be torn down, but at press time the decision to demolish, repair, or rebuild it awaited evaluation.
Whatever its fate, the Superdome has been a remarkably versatile monument that stayed under the radar of the design press. That may be due to its strange exterior, which resembles a Jupiter-scaled armored spaceship. It never received a full presentation in record or other national magazines when it was completed in 1975, despite being a landmark project in many respects.
Ironically, the Superdome was designed by Louisiana’s most heralded firm of the time, Curtis & Davis, which carved out a successful Modernist practice in a city where nostalgia hangs in the air like Spanish moss. The firm won five national AIA awards in the 1950s, and set up branches in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Berlin.
The Superdome was as closely linked to Houston’s Astrodome at its conception as it was last month, when refugees were transported from Louisiana to Texas. A year after the Astrodome’s 1965 opening, Louisiana authorized the project that would trump Houston’s self-described “eighth wonder of the world.” Construction began in 1971 and took four years and between $134 and $173 million to complete, compared to the Astrodome’s $35 million. It was the world’s biggest building of its type, a 125-million-cubic-foot space with a capacity of 100,000 enclosed by a 273-foot-high dome spanning 680 feet. Like the Astrodome, the Superdome has a steel lamella roof, but it is opaque rather than transparent. Its seating plan, a bulging square, has been dubbed a “squircle.” Conversion from one function to another was effected by movable stands with a seating capacity of 15,000 each, reached by six movable bridges.
The stadium has played host to six Super Bowl games, in addition to being the home of the New Orleans Saints, Tulane’s Green Wave football team, and the NCAA Sugar Bowl. It’s also housed two NBA basketball franchises, four NCAA Final Four tournaments, a Papal visit, a Republican National Convention, and the biggest indoor rock concert in history, a Rolling Stones show in 1981, attended by 87,500 people.
The Superdome had previously served as a hurricane shelter in 1994 and 1998, but many now seem to see it as the physical manifestation of the government’s failure to act quickly to protect New Orleans’s poorest residents from the post-Katrina floods. Politics aside, two of its greatest strengths—its functionalism and its fixed roof—may count against its fate. Multipurpose stadiums are passé, displaced by pricier aggregations of single-use venues. Likewise, fixed roofs have been upstaged by more costly retractable ones, and the Saints were demanding a retractable roof venue even before Katrina hit.