If you follow the United States Open, you’re going to be hearing a lot in the next two weeks about the new roof on the Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Don’t be fooled. There is no such thing.
What has been constructed at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens is a free-standing pavilion rising 125 feet over the sidewalk, on eight steel supercolumns and 16 great angle braces. They support a gently domical, 80-foot-high, 4.4-acre expanse of translucent, milky-white fabric membrane covered in polytetrafluoroethylene — Teflon, by any other name — with two 500-ton panels that can open or close over a 250-by-250-foot opening to the sky.
It just so happens that the 23,711-seat stadium fits neatly inside this structure.
When the stadium was on the drawing board in the 1990s, engineers and planners working for the United States Tennis Association studied a century’s worth of weather data. Taking into consideration the fact that the weeks around Labor Day tend to be among the driest in the year, they concluded that it would not be worth sacrificing 5,000 seats to accommodate a roof.
At first, that appeared to be a good call.
Then came the rains of 2008, which forced the suspension of the men’s semifinal match between Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal. And that wasn’t the end of it. Rain delays began to plague the Open.
“Something that hadn’t happened in 30 years happened five years in a row,” said Daniel Zausner, chief operating officer of the tennis center.
Players and fans were growing restless. So were sports columnists, like George Vecsey of The New York Times.
“Everybody wishes the Ashe roof were here right now to avoid the ludicrous scene last Wednesday when just about all tennis stopped while directly across Roosevelt Avenue the Mets and Phillies pitched and batted in a sprinkle,” Mr. Vecsey wrote in 2013.
That was the year construction began on the $150 million roof project, designed by the Rossetti architectural firm and the WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff structural engineering firm. The construction manager was the Hunt Construction Group, a division of Aecom.
After several false starts on designing the structure from the roof down, the engineer Ahmad Rahimian of WSP and the architect Matt Rossetti decided to approach it from the soil up. They started with the minimum number of bearing points needed for support. The answer — eight — harmonized nicely with the octagonal plan of the stadium.
Each supercolumn bears down on a broad circular concrete pier. The pier, in turn, spreads the load of the structure out to an underground concrete platform supported on pilings up to 180 feet deep.
High above, two movable panels sit astride the large opening in the center of the roof. They rest on wheel assemblies called bogies, which in turn sit on steel rails. The panels are drawn closed by cables attached to a pair of winches on either side of the opening, at 26 feet per minute. The speed is slowed as the panels approach each other, so the entire operation lasts about seven minutes.
A closed roof protects against rain, but creates another big problem of its own.
You know what happens to the walls, ceiling and mirrors in a bathroom if you shower with the window and the door closed — condensation forms quickly. Now, imagine that condensation along hundreds of steel elements composing the trusswork of a stadium roof. Then imagine that condensation dripping onto patrons and players more than 100 feet below.
“We don’t want it raining inside the bowl,” Mr. Zausner said.
To combat condensation when the roof is closed, air as cool as 55 degrees can be discharged through 16 diffusers along a six-foot-wide duct encircling the top of the stadium. After the cool air drops down through the bowl, it is expelled through six exhaust fans.
“It’s not about air-conditioning, it’s about controlling humidity,” said William Racky, vice president for field operations at Hunt.
All the same, it sounds as if a tennis fan could do a lot worse. Even when the roof is open, no fewer than 60 percent of the seats will be in its shade, Mr. Zausner said.
I have not been to an Open since 1982, when Jimmy Connors defeated Ivan Lendl. So the impact of the roof inside the stadium is of much less interest to me than its impact on the cityscape.
From that perspective, the roof pavilion does more than complement Arthur Ashe Stadium. It completes it. The 19-year-old stadium, which was designed by Rossetti, used to present an awkwardly truncated profile. Now, the outward slope of the bowl is met with a graceful, ethereal lid.
Unfortunately, however, in today’s commercially driven culture, there are no such things as empty spaces — only branding opportunities. JPMorgan Chase & Company has slapped the Chase name and logo on the stadium roof, almost as a large-scale marketing retort to Citi Field, across the tracks.
In its favor, the rooftop sign is all but invisible from within the tennis center campus. And it cannot be seen from inside the stadium, except as a rectangular shadow on the fabric. But from the No. 7 train, it appears as if a Chase blimp were hovering over the rooftops of Corona.
Some comfort can be taken from the fact that the sign is on a removable vinyl panel and is not integral to the structure. Perhaps someday, when the United States Tennis Association has retired its debt, or found a more modest sponsor, the sign can say “Arthur Ashe” or “U.S.T.A.”
Perhaps there won’t be a sign at all. Perhaps the architecture will be allowed to speak for itself.
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