SoFi Stadium, USA

Image: Bruce Damonte / Nic Lehoux

As millions around the world tuned in to watch Super Bowl 56 this February, they will have seen the incredible SoFi Stadium. Lam Partners tell arc about the lighting for this dynamic new stadium.

The showpiece of the NFL season, the Super Bowl is viewed by millions of sports fans around the world every year. This February, the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals competed for the sport’s top prize at the awe-inspiring SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California – home to both the Rams and local rivals, the Los Angeles Chargers.

Originally opened in time for the 2020 season – in which games were played behind closed doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic – the 2022 Super Bowl was, for many, one of the first opportunities to see the new stadium in all its glory.

Designed by Dallas-based HKS Architects, the 70,000-seat stadium, with larger Super Bowl capacity, is the largest NFL venue to date, encompassing 3.1 million square feet of outdoor-indoor space. Dominated by a vast roof canopy, the site also includes a 2.5-acre covered plaza and 6,000-seat performance venue, providing a unique fan and entertainment experience.

Lighting for the monumental site was designed by Lam Partners, who was invited to interview for the project, to be on the team with HKS Architects. Jamie Perry, Principal at Lam Partners, told arc about the early design stages for this project: “We were one of four lighting design firms that interviewed with HKS for the project, so we were thrilled to win the commission for the public-facing areas and to be involved in such an exciting project. Our parametric modelling design process and our lighting visualisation capabilities, along with our integrated design approach helped convince the client that we were the right lighting partner for the stadium architecture and the surrounding site.

“Our scope involved all public areas of the stadium, including the concourses, concessions, building façade and roof canopy LED media display, along with the entire 60-acre site and surrounding landscape. Another lighting design firm, KGM Lighting, was part of the design team, and they handled all of the hospitality and interior VIP spaces.”

Working closely with the architects throughout the project to help bring their architectural vision to life, Perry explained that, rather than being provided with a specific brief for the lighting design, Lam Partners instead “responded to the architect’s vision”.

“It was an integral process; as the architecture developed, we worked in tandem to determine ‘what we wanted to see’, and how integrated lighting can accentuate the architectural materials, while enhancing visual comfort and creating a memorable, luminous environment. Through extensive design sessions with the architect, we worked in parallel to weave the lighting hardware into the fabric of the stadium, rather than applying lighting to a finished architectural project.

“It was very clear that the client wanted this stadium to be unlike any NFL stadium ever built, so the lighting needed to reinforce the unique architecture to help achieve that vision.”

The huge roof canopy that covers the site radiates a lighting energy from within, organically coming to life with ever-changing, dynamic lighting effects that transform the perforated metal panel façade into a theatrical, scrim-like curtain that veils the activity inside the stadium. RGBW fixtures concealed within the structure work alongside exterior ground-mounted LED floodlights to accentuate the curvature of the canopy, creating a transparency that varies from day to night and from one elevation to the other.

“The architect wanted the perforated metal shell of the roof canopy to have a ‘lantern-like’ effect, with a dynamic and organic quality, and the architectural lighting was developed to support that notion,” Perry added.

More than 1,000 fixtures are integrated into the perforated metal shell of the roof canopy, creating a sense of mystery and intrigue within the luminous façade as it rises up, revealing the stadium within. These colour-changing fixtures light the space frame structure that supports the canopy and from the exterior, visitors see the lighting on the internal structural elements through perforations in the façade. The density in these perforations changes around the canopy shell, which creates a variation in the effect as you move around the site.

With the stadium situated just four miles from LAX airport, incoming planes have prime views of SoFi and its lantern-like canopy. With this in mind, a custom, 30,000-pixel LED media mesh turns the entire roof into a video screen, transforming the fifth elevation into a media display that is invisible to the building’s visitors below. “We believe this to be the first of its kind,” Perry said. “It was an amazing technical challenge and creates a video board display visible to all planes flying overhead at night, so it’s unlike any other roof lighting that we can think of. However, it was very important to the architect that this roof lighting/video board not be visible to the patrons within the stadium bowl.

“This meant the LED media mesh needed to be applied to the outer surface of the clear ETFE roof canopy so that the lighting for the airplane passengers flying overhead didn’t alter the purity of the architecture or the lighting effects within the stadium bowl. Creating a video board on a translucent material was a challenge, but it achieves some magic and mystery as from within the stadium, you would never know the entire roof is a video display. Ultimately, the roof lighting was completely separate from the lighting approach for the rest of the stadium.”

While the stadium’s proximity to LAX meant that there was more scope for unique opportunities on the building roof, it also affected the wider architectural approach of the stadium. “The stadium’s proximity to LAX and the FAA height restrictions on buildings within the flight path meant that the playing field was recessed 100ft below grade level of the surrounding site and the stadium bowl rises up from there. This created unique opportunities for the site to flow into the stadium and underneath the roof canopy, allowing for the project to blur the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces. This meant that some of the site lighting and landscape design became an integral part of the stadium experience.”

With this in mind, the project features a blend of dynamic, theatrical lighting effects, combined with more traditional architectural lighting components, with manufacturers involved across all aspects of the site including Lumenpulse, Erco, Gotham Lighting, HK Lighting, Selux, Musco Sports Lighting and SACO Technologies.

Perry explained how the lighting designers balanced the various lighting effects into one coherent scheme: “There are moments where the architectural lighting really recedes into the background, and other times where the dynamic quality of the architectural lighting is as much about the overall visual experience of the stadium as the field-specific theatrics are.

“Again, this required close collaboration with the architect, electrical engineer, and all other disciplines to achieve this in a fluid manner. Significant time was spent later in the design process to review ‘Modes of Operation’ with the ownership group, and then working with the electrical engineer to assure that this desired functionality was incorporated into the logic of the control system.”

The stadium’s position 100ft below grade level, and its location in California, also meant that seismic activity was a serious consideration for Lam Partners – a consideration that brought with it some significant structural challenges unlike any project Perry had ever worked on before.

“There are two examples of how this impacted the lighting design and fixture placement: Originally, the large columns that support the roof canopy were going to be lit from the top down, but the structural needs in how the roof would move on isolators at the top of the columns meant that our fixtures would have been crushed at those locations based on how much movement was designed into the structure. This resulted in a revised lighting concept to uplight the large structural columns from ground-recessed fixtures, but we got the added benefit of this uplight also washing the underside of the roof canopy, bouncing light back down to the concourse below.

“There is also significant seismic bracing that runs underground in all directions from each of the large roof canopy columns; not something that usually impacts the lighting design, however there were so many fixtures intended to light the landscape and the roof canopy soffit that were designed to be recessed into the ground to conceal them from typical pedestrian view that extensive coordination was required between the lighting team, the landscape architects and the structural consultant in order to achieve the desired effects with ground recessed real estate being so tightly constrained – not something that comes into play in most of our projects.”

Despite this, Perry added that the largest challenges that Lam Partners faced on the project came a lot earlier on in the design journey. “The condensed design schedule for a project of this size, along with the architectural complexity, were both extreme challenges on our design process and lighting visualisation during the design phases,” he said.

“The fluidity in the design process of the roof canopy and structure meant we had to model and render our lighting concepts and design at incredible speed. Ultimately, we exceeded our computer model rendering capability at the time. This resulted in our computational analysis and parametric modelling team constructing a few different, internal GPU render servers that allowed us to model all this complex geometry and lighting with actual photometrics in real time. This project helped push our internal processes, technologies, and capabilities to a new level.”

Although the scale of the project and accelerated design schedule meant that Lam’s design team was much larger than on typical projects, Perry explained that the overall approach was still the same: “We had to help the client’s vision and the architecture shine in a way that every project deserves to.”

That being said, he added that there was an added pressure, given the high-profile nature of the project: “Knowing very early on that this project was going to get plenty of TV coverage for Sunday Night Football games, the Super Bowl, and ultimately as part of the Olympics in the future, it would be dishonest if I said that there wasn’t an added level of stress and pressure applied to this project that I hadn’t personally experienced on a project before.

“We want every project to be seen as a success in our clients’ eyes, but it is not often that we understand during the design process how many people from around the world were going to experience this stadium in person and see it on TV. I may have aged a few additional years during this project.”

He continued that, while Lam Partners has worked on many large projects, SoFi Stadium is one of the most visible. “It was certainly one of the largest projects that we had worked on at the time and without question a much more visible project than others we had done. We work closely with our clients to craft beautiful luminous environments for people to live, work and play in, and I think that’s what motivates our designers on each and every project. But seeing your project host a Super Bowl and get prominent TV exposure is certainly rewarding and adds some depth to how proud I am of our entire team that helped make this project a success.”

Although the stadium hosted games in 2020, fans were able to visit for the first time during the 2021 season, which culminated in the Super Bowl this February. Because of this delayed opening to the public, Perry feels that only now is the stadium getting the attention and recognition that it deserves. 

“The first time we watched the stadium on Sunday Night Football in 2020, there was a huge sense of accomplishment, but it did feel like it wasn’t fully finished yet,” he said. “Seeing the stadium full of fans on a game day during this past season, and obviously hosting the Super Bowl; it finally felt like the seven years of hard work had paid off, knowing how many people will get to experience this great venue.”

Now that the stadium is finally open to the world, Perry can look back on what was ultimately a very successful project. He concluded: “It’s amazing to look back at our computer model renderings and design studies and see how closely they resemble the finished built stadium. You can’t have good lighting without good architecture, and HKS awarded us the opportunity to be part of this monumental project.

“I feel like the lighting helps bring the stadium to life and transforms the project at night from a great architectural achievement to a wonderful visual experience that you won’t soon forget. The lighting reinforces the curvature and sweeping forms of the building, the transparency of the façade and the overall stadium experience.

“Our job is not to create memorable lighting, but to help our clients create amazing places that people enjoy being in and want to come back to, and I think in working with HKS, we’ve done that at SoFi. The scale of the project and the visual experience cannot be comprehended until you visit the stadium in person, so I encourage everyone to find an event that they want to attend at SoFi and go to see it first-hand.”

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