Out of the Box

Wednesday, May 07, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

For a place known as the Magic Box, the venue at the Madrid Masters has led something less than a charmed life. From the start, reviews of the $300 million, steel-and-glass behemoth on the city's outskirts were lukewarm at best. The players didn’t like the bumps in the clay, and they liked it even less when it was turned blue. The consensus among fans, whether they’ve been to the site or not, is that it’s cold and forbidding. 

I was there for the facility's debut, in 2009, and I remember watching the pros try to negotiate outer courts that had been built with too little room behind the baseline for the modern clay-court game—the players kept running into things, and nearly decapitated linespeople with their racquets. Back then, I had to at least partially agree that the place was less Caja Magica than Caja Tragica. It seemed, as my friend Peter Bodo put it on this site yesterday, that tournament owner Ion Tiriac, in a bid to create his own Grand Slam, had “outfoxed himself” and “bitten off more than he could chew.”

But time, as we know, has a way of healing all wounds, and that includes those made by buildings. That’s especially true of both ambitious buildings, which can take decades to be accepted, and sporting venues, which need memories of past heroics to make them feel alive to fans. The Caja Magica is five years old, and while many tennis lovers will never find a soft spot for its steely walls, the pros have begun to say nice things about its courts. John Isner claimed on Wednesday that the clay was “playing amazing, perfect if you ask any player.” (Of course, Isner had just won his match, but that’s not something I’ve ever heard in Madrid before.) From my own viewpoint, watching from home and remembering what it looked and felt like around the grounds, I’ve warmed to the Box’s supposed coldness.

I’ve also come to think that tennis could use more of its architectural ambition. The sport isn’t known for radical forward thinking; its players are superstitious creatures of habit (Rafael Nadal, it seems, can only play on certain-colored clay courts), and its fan base skews traditional. Wimbledon's Centre Court, which opened in 1922, is still the standard, and over the years the All England Club has shrewdly updated itself without ever becoming too modern. Same for the French Open: Its intimate, circular Bullring (1980), and the Brutalist concrete swoop of Court Suzanne Lenglen (1994) offered new ways of seeing the game inside the venerable confines of Roland Garros. The current center court at the Foro Italico in Rome, which was constructed in 2010, is a soaring version of an amphitheater. Not surprisingly, it has been a bigger hit than its contemporary, the Caja Magica, which doesn’t conform to our idea of any kind of sporting arena. 

As you see the Magic Box in the distance, you may think you’re on your way to look at contemporary art, rather than professional athletes. Yet once you get past those expectations, it may be the most striking piece of architecture in tennis. Instead of a towering colosseum, we’re greeted by a long, flat, gray rectangle. With its three interlocking, retractable roofs, and its show courts encased in high steel walls, it’s hard to say whether we're at an indoor or an outdoor event. But none of this should be all that surprising, considering why it was built and who built it. 

The structure, which is officially known as the Olympic Tennis Stadium, was erected as part of Madrid’s failed bid for the 2012 Games, and it's a multi-use facility (the fact that, unlike in Paris and Monte Carlo, the clay is removed each year is part of why it has been bumpy in the past). To catch the IOC’s eye, Madrid hired Dominique Perrault of France to design it. Perrault is best known for the prize-winning French National Library in Paris from 1995, though the closest reference point to the Magic Box is the low, circular Olympic Velodrome he created in Berlin in 1999. You might call Perrault the official architect of failed Olympic bids; Berlin was eliminated in the second round in 2000.

Perrault’s contemporary touch is obvious from the outside. The Magic Box is shrouded by a thin gray metal scrim that reminds me of the surface of Renzo Piano’s New York Times Building in Manhattan. But there’s a practical reason for Perrault’s version—it’s an elegant way of hiding the ugliest part of an arena, its outer support structure. Anyone who has walked past Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open knows what I mean, and anyone who has been to the Meadowlands in New Jersey knows that covering they support structure up can make things even worse. Perrault’s does it while letting in natural light, and looks great at night. (See it and other shots from the site here).

The flaw in Perrault’s design comes inside, in the way the two secondary show courts are situated. I’m guessing Perrault isn’t a tennis fan, because anyone who has ever attended a tournament knows that one of its greatest pleasures is hearing the roars of crowds from other courts, and feeling like you're part of a sporting carnival. You don’t get that sense in the Box, which, like its name suggests, keeps courts 2 and 3 enclosed behind high walls.

But it’s a different story inside the main court, which is named after Spanish champion and Madrid tournament director Manolo Santana. The steel walls and retractable roof are also in evidence here, but it’s the light from above that dominates. With an emphasis on flatness and repeated right angles, Perrault has tried to create a new environment for tennis; in Santana, he succeeded. When the characteristically strong Madrid sun shines through the open square at the top of the court, it can feel like the sport’s version of a James Turrell installation—the sky comes down to you. 

There are details I would change about Santana: The often empty silver box seats at the bottom are ugly and sap the place of energy, and plopping a sponsor car next to the court is beneath a Masters event. The Caja Magica in general obviously isn’t for everyone, and it surely cost too much in the current Spanish economy. Yet it is architecture, rather than just a place to watch people run around. As the French Open, and especially the U.S. Open, plan their expansions, they might dare to be that bold. The most recent addition to the grounds at Flushing Meadows, Court 17, is a fine place to watch a tennis match, but as a building, there’s not much to it. The Open will construct another stadium in a few years. It would be nice to think that New York, a world capital of buildings, could add another memorable, tourist-attracting, perhaps even bizarre and controversial one in Queens. People will come around to it eventually.

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