FEATURE STORY — Spring 2012

The Man with the Tatlin’s Tower Tattoo

UIC Alumni Magazine coverHe’s considered by many to be the most influential designer of ballparks, arenas and stadiums in the world. His work includes the Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati and the Staples Center in Los Angeles. His latest project, Sports City Stadium in Qatar, will feature gigantic columns that house hotels and offices. So where does Dan Meis find his inspiration? Try looking at his arms.

By Edward Leibowitz

During one of the more memorable episodes of Season Two of LA Ink, fans of the TLC reality show were thrown a curveball. Most of the customers flowing through the door of Kat Van D’s tattoo parlor were obvious enough. There was the hard rock guitarist with a hankering to have the cover of his first solo album imprinted on his thigh; the professional poker player who required a Bible verse on her back to remind her of what’s truly important; and the “fitness professional” ready to have an anchor burned onto his arm, in homage to his grandpa, who had served in the Navy.

Meis and his dog Molly in the Venice

Meis (above) and his dog Molly in the Venice, Calif., office of Populous, a global architectural firm with offices in London, Hong Kong and New Delhi. Meis’ proposed design for the Los Angeles Football Stadium (below) would sit in a hollowed-out hill, significantly reducing the project’s construction cost.
(Photo by Edward Carreon)

Meis’ proposed design for the Los Angeles Football Stadium
(Courtesy of Populous)

But one client went thoroughly against the grain. Dan Meis aa ’85, a middle-aged architect who is arguably the most influential designer of ballparks, arenas and stadiums in the world, showed up to get his very first tattoo. It wasn’t a heart or a dragon he had decided on. Rather, he brought with him a drawing of Tatlin’s Tower—a 1917 Russian, twisting, animated constructivist monument that looks like the Eiffel Tower thrown into a blender. Intended to commemorate world communism after the Bolshevik revolution, this monument by Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin was never built, but has influenced generations of architects, none more profoundly, perhaps, than Meis.

“It probably looks a little big,” Meis told his designated tattoo artist, Hannah Aitchison, as she took in the intricacies of the Tatlin’s Tower blueprint, “maybe four inches high.”

“I was going to say it looks a little small,” Aitchison told him. She advised Meis to make it 20 percent larger, to cover the entirety of his upper arm.

“How do you do straight lines like that?” Meis asked her.

“With a very steady hand,” Aitchison assured him. “It’s going to be as straight as it can conceivably be, given that I’m drawing with a nine-ounce, vibrating brick on a moving surface. We all like diving out of our comfort zone.”

“Oh,” Meis assured her with a nervous grin, “I’m way, way out of my comfort zone.”

The base of the Tatlin’s Tower tattoo is visible under Meis’ signature black short-sleeve shirt as we talk this sunny January morning at his Venice Beach office. “My son Max must have been 15 when I was on LA Ink, and he was mortified when he heard I was going to go on the show,” Meis tells me. “Then his friends told him how cool it was.” As for his daughter Sofia, four years old at the time, Meis anticipates he might have a difficult time talking her out of getting her first tattoo when she turns 16. “She’s intrigued by them, and often draws her own—Yikes!” Meis says. “Hopefully, I can get her to wait until she finds something she knows will mean something to her for the rest of her life.”

Tucked into a side street, Meis’ spare, whitewashed loft doesn’t at all reveal itself as the workspace of the designer of such high-profile projects as L.A.’s Staples Center. Like the architect himself, it’s casual and unassuming.

For two decades, Meis has created stadiums, arenas and ballparks that, aesthetically and functionally, are designed to look as if they’re on the move, much like the athletes and rock stars that perform in them. Some of his venues actually do move—shrinking by thousands of seats to accommodate a concert, and then expanding again to their full size to host a soccer game.

Meis completed his first expandable stadium 12 years ago, after entering a 1994 design competition for the Saitama Super Arena in Japan, and prevailing over a host of better known architects, including Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. “I was very conscious of the fact that this stadium would be hemmed in between bullet trains and local trains,” Meis says. “There was something about the fact that this building should be light on its feet and flying along—almost like it’s blurred. On the functional side, I stressed the simplicity in the way it transformed. ‘This is a circle, with 20,000 seats, and then you pull it apart and you have 30,000 seats.’ It demystified the notion that this building is transforming.”

Some of architect Dan Meis’ best-known designs

Some of architect Dan Meis’ best-known designs (clockwise, from left). SAFECO FIELD, SEATTLE: Located in the city’s industrial downtown area, the stadium has a 13-ton retractable roof. SAITAMA SUPER ARENA, JAPAN: The facility, which can be transformed from a 10,000-seat theater to a 35,000-seat stadium, was selected as one of the world’s 50 best buildings in 2001. MILLER PARK, MILWAUKEE: Designed to recall turn-of-the-century train stations, the 42,500-seat ballpark features a fully retractable roof and is the home of the Milwaukee Brewers. PAUL BROWN STADIUM, CINCINNATI: The only NFL stadium to ever receive a national American Institute of Architects Honor Award.
(Courtesy of Populous)

The model that inspired a career
During his boyhood in Windsor, Colo., Meis could scarcely conceive of buildings of such enormity, or the crowds they were capable of accommodating. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the population of this farming community an hour north of Denver hovered around 3,000. Nevertheless, Meis did get some crucial early exposure to the power of architecture there—a result of his family owning Windsor’s only restaurant and bakery. “Everybody came around every morning to get their morning coffee,” he recalls, “so when the town decided to build a new high school, they chose my parents’ bakery to display the model of it. I was probably nine or 10, and I would go there after school, mesmerized by the little model.”

Meis enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In the absence of an architecture program, he studied environmental design. “I actually had a professor tell me that I was a little too ‘architectural,’” he recalls. The father of Meis’ roommate was a developer in Chicago. During a break, Meis took his first trip there. “Within minutes, I was entranced by the scale and vibrancy of a city like Chicago,” he says. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is what architecture really is about.’”

For a transfer student from Colorado, attending UIC took some adjustment. At Boulder, the campus was empty on Fridays, as students and faculty took to the ski slopes. “My first day at UIC, they said, ‘You should plan on pulling an all-nighter every week,’” Meis recalls, “and I’m thinking, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ But one thing that had really attracted me to UIC is that it was clear people went here to be practicing architects.”

After graduation, Meis moved to Washington, D.C., to work for a firm intent on establishing a European foothold. The recession of the early 1990s had torpedoed the market for the office towers Meis was helping to design, and he saw little opportunity to translate any of his designs into brick and mortar. At the time, he was dating a woman from Kansas City, Mo., and a friend told him that Kansas City-based architectural firm Ellerbe Becket was doing a banner business building stadiums and arenas. Meis had never been a big sports fan, but hoping to actually get something built, he joined the firm. His first project was the 21,000-seat Manchester Arena, which is not only the biggest stadium in England, but in all of Western Europe.

“This building should be light on its feet and flying along.”

By 1995, Meis had relocated to Los Angeles and began changing the landscape of professional sports in the United States—as a senior architect, and later, as design partner for the NBBJ Sports & Entertainment firm. His design for the Seattle Mariners’ Safeco Field features a retractable roof that covers the stands and field in steel billows. Paul Brown Stadium, which he designed for the Cincinnati Bengals, is the only football stadium included on the list of “America’s Favorite 150 Buildings and Structures,” compiled by the American Institute of Architects and Harris Interactive. Meis also designed Miller Park for the Milwaukee Brewers and Lincoln Financial Field for the Philadelphia Eagles. Perhaps the most visible of Meis’ works during the late 1990s and early 2000s is the Staples Center, home of the L.A. Lakers and Clippers, and the L.A. Kings hockey team.

“Get the curves out!”
One afternoon in 1996, Meis received a call from Majestic Realty, a major L.A.-based developer of industrial centers (with additional offices in Denver, Dallas and Bethlehem, Pa.). Having recently bought the L.A. Kings, Ed Roski, Majestic’s billionaire CEO, had been talking with various municipalities in the area about a new arena that would replace the Forum in Inglewood. The company had hastily arranged a meeting with Los Angeles officials to pitch a location in the struggling downtown area. “They told me, ‘we’re going to the city in a couple of hours,’” Meis recalls. “‘Can you fax us over something just to show us what an arena would look like?’ That’s really dangerous.”

Remarkably, Meis’ original sketch, with its streamline-inspired, forward-leaning profile, looks a lot like the arena completed three years later. Not that design challenges didn’t come up.

“Ed Roski made a fortune not wasting money on superfluous architecture,” Meis says. “There was a time when Ed walked into my office and pounded his hand on the table—he tells this story all the time—and said, ‘Get the curves out of the building. It’s too expensive, and there’s no reason for it. Get the curves out!’”

As millions of hockey and football fans can attest, the Staples Center not only has abundant curves, but it also tilts. “Ed came to really appreciate the value of the architecture,” Meis says. “It became a real bonding experience.”

Roski marvels at Meis’ ability to gently steer a project like the Staples Center from utilitarianism into a much more architecturally ambitious realm. “Dan has a unique ability to take the client’s thoughts and interests and mold them into something beyond—without the client really knowing that he’s doing it,” Roski says. “It’s a super way to move some stodgy client to a new place, where you’re saying, ‘That’s really good.’”

Los Angeles Football Stadium and Sports City Stadium
Since the building of the Staples Center, Meis has worked with Roski to design a new football stadium—an initiative that would help bring an NFL team back to Los Angeles. They first looked at modernizing the L.A. Coliseum, which hosted the 1932 Summer Olympics and the Los Angeles Raiders from 1982-94. More recently, Meis designed the L.A. Football Stadium at Grand Crossing in the City of Industry, one of L.A.’s industrial suburbs.

Roski remembers Meis calling him one Saturday. The architect had an idea for the new stadium, and wanted his client to come to his office so he could show it to him. “Dan had a table and this big mound of modeling clay, and started putting his hand in and digging it out,” Roski says. “It really evolved into something that was definitely unique and very Southern California.”

Meis designed the Los Angeles Football Stadium to sit in a hollowed-out hill, a move that pays homage to the region’s more historic venues, while also drastically reducing construction costs in an age where public funding has evaporated. “The Hollywood Bowl, the Greek Theater and Dodger Stadium were all built into the landscape, and that makes this design very L.A.,” Meis says. “And right now, you can’t build a privately financed football stadium for less than a billion dollars, and there’s no way to make that figure pencil. We found that our design took 40 percent of the steel out of the building, compared to a normal stadium.”

As a result, Meis estimates that his L.A. stadium would cost about $600 million, which would presumably allow Roski to spend $400 million more on the team, and make his bid the most attractive one of those being submitted to NFL owners. However, the politically savvy Anschutz Entertainment Group—current owners of the Staples Center and the adjacent L.A. Live Entertainment complex—have won crucial support from L.A.’s elected leaders and the California legislature on its proposed stadium, which would be built adjacent to Staples.

Complicating matters for Meis is the fact that the architecture firm whose L.A. office he currently heads, Populous, recently completed an agreement with AEG to rebuild part of the L.A. Convention Center, which would be relocated, according to AEG’s stadium plan. Populous, without his knowing, also agreed to bar Meis from further work on Roski’s stadium. Meis was especially chagrined to learn all of this from Roski himself.

Perhaps Meis’ most ambitious project to date is the Sports City Stadium in Doha, Qatar

Perhaps Meis’ most ambitious project to date is the Sports City Stadium in Doha, Qatar. Its design inspired by a Bedouin tent, the 46,890-seat stadium will achieve zero carbon emissions. The structure’s columns will incorporate mixed-use spaces for offices and hotels. Meis’ other tattoo resides on his right forearm (below) and highlights the quote “But I don’t think of you,” taken from Ayn Rand’s seminal novel, The Fountainhead.
(Courtesy of Populous)

“Ed knows that I had no part in it,” Meis says. “I’m rooting for Ed to win the deal, not even secretly. If I wasn’t involved, it would be tragic to me—it would hurt me to no end to not be involved in that project—but it would be the right thing for Ed to win.”

Currently, most of Meis’ energies are directed towards Sports City Stadium—the massively ambitious project he’s currently creating for Qatar. The independent Arab nation won the world competition to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and hired Meis to design not only the transformable stadium for the games, but an entire metropolis built into that stadium’s fabric. The giant super columns supporting the structure also will harbor hotels and offices, and shopping centers; additional commercial space will be embedded into a floating occupied roof, which, despite its enormity, pays homage to a Bedouin tent. “I clicked with the prince leading the bid,” says Meis. “He loves the cultural reference of the tent in something that’s truly as cutting edge as any stadium that’s ever been built.”

The Ayn Rand-inspired tattoo
Tatlin’s Tower may have been Meis’ first tattoo, but it wasn’t his last. “They always say that once you get one, you want another one,” Meis says. On his right forearm resides a quote: “But I don’t think of you.” The line and block-letter font are taken from Meis’ treasured first-edition copy of The Fountainhead. Meis first devoured Ayn Rand’s classic novel of defiant individualism after receiving it as a Christmas present while a student at UIC.

The quote comes towards the end of the book when Rand’s hero architect, Howard Roark, meets his nemesis, art critic Ellsworth Toohey, on a construction site of a building Roark didn’t get to build. Toohey, who has been trying to ruin Roark for years, suggests that now that they’ve found themselves alone in this place, it might be a good time for Roark to tell him what he thinks of him. When Meis wants to read Roark’s reply, he need look no further than his own flesh.

“For me,” Meis says, “it’s about the fact that you just have to stay true to what you believe in, not let others influence that.”

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