Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

Beauty in the eye of the beholder

by David Wasson, special to Dateline
September 22, 2006

Ask the average person to define “art,” and the response would likely come in the following forms: A fine painting, a classic sculpture, a masterpiece of prose or a timeless song.

Few would question the artistry of Picasso, Da Vinci, Shakespeare and Neil Diamond. On a slightly lower tier of “art,” the work of famed architects like I.M. Pei and Frank Lloyd Wright deserves to be admired at a similar pace.

Though Pei and Wright didn’t envision or design several of the classic architecture on the campus of the University of Alabama, edifices like Reese Phifer Hall, the President’s Mansion, Gorgas Library and the Ferguson Center (just joking about the last one) certainly lend their individual piles of bricks, marble and masonry to a collective sense of art.

Perhaps the ultimate intersection of art – or at least the attempt at it – through architecture on campus lay not at the modular mansions spouting up to hold UA’s new freshmen but at an unlikely address: the intersection of Stadium Drive and University Boulevard.

For football fans, of course, that address means one thing—Bryant-Denny Stadium. For over a century, Bryant-Denny was not thought of as an architectural landmark as much as it was the vehicle for performance art in the form of 12 national championship-winning football teams.

Over time, the stadium has evolved from a 12,000-seat structure to the behemoth it was for the latter portion of the 1990s – an 83,818-seat goliath that was the largest building in the county and the unquestioned cradle of Southern football.

Bryant-Denny was not, however, art. But is it now?

Construction workers are in the final days of spending nearly $50 million to build a new North End Zone expansion at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The structure, which has been rising up around and in between the existing building for almost two years, sports room for 9,000 more fans in the form of a new upper deck, close to 60 skyboxes as well as a new locker room and game-day facilities for the Crimson Tide football team.

The expansion, as well as the plaza linking it to University Drive, was designed by Brice Construction to fit seamlessly into the existing stadium as well as create a more aesthetically pleasing addition to what is arguably the most beautiful campus in the Southeastern Conference.

High art, though, it is not. Just ask UA professor Robert Mellown.

“From an architectural standpoint, it’s not one of the better looking campus stadiums,” said Mellown, who wrote the book, literally, on the campus’ architectural history, to The Tuscaloosa News. “The architects did the best they could, but the stadium overwhelms the campus. It’s unfortunate that they took what was once a tree-lined avenue and put a gaping hole.”

Begrudgingly, we agree with Mellown. For all of its intricate brickwork and soaring angles, Bryant-Denny Stadium is not on par with the Colisseum in Rome, Madison Square Garden in New York City or Churchill Downs in Kentucky. It is not the Rose Bowl, Michigan Stadium or Wrigley Field.

But who says it has to be? While Mellown correctly points out that the stadium overwhelms the rest of campus, at least from a physical size perspective, there is little debate that it mirrors the level of largesse football carries in Tuscaloosa. Bryant-Denny Stadium is big, brash and bold – just like the crimson-clad Alabama Nation that fills it in the fall.

Bryant-Denny as art? No way. Bryant-Denny as beauty? Absolutely.

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