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Workers demolished and rebuilt the lower bowl in the summer of 2011, this coming summer they’ll start on the upper bowl, removing 8,000 seats and more than 50,000 cubic feet of concrete. It will be rebuilt 17 degrees steeper to improve sightlines and to make room for new concourses behind the stands. Next summer will see the final phase of the renovation completed, it involves a full restoration of the roof and the installation of two bridges that will span the length of the playing surface, and will have seats for 1,000 fans. (Micheal Falco/Michael Falco/For the Globe and Mail)
Workers demolished and rebuilt the lower bowl in the summer of 2011, this coming summer they’ll start on the upper bowl, removing 8,000 seats and more than 50,000 cubic feet of concrete. It will be rebuilt 17 degrees steeper to improve sightlines and to make room for new concourses behind the stands. Next summer will see the final phase of the renovation completed, it involves a full restoration of the roof and the installation of two bridges that will span the length of the playing surface, and will have seats for 1,000 fans. (Micheal Falco/Michael Falco/For the Globe and Mail)

Facilities

Madison Square Garden blooms anew Add to ...

It’s round, which doesn’t help.

The floors aren’t true, the plumbing and wiring are studies in eccentricity, and it’s nearly 50 years old.

But for all that, Madison Square Garden is still in pretty good nick, and will be in even better shape once Waterloo, Ont.-raised architect Murray Beynon’s grand vision – and the multiyear plan to execute it – is complete.

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“This building is like a Rubik’s Cube of surprises, but that’s what makes it interesting,” Beynon said on a recent visit to the arena, a vast construction site that in some areas is hidden only by the thickness of a drywall panel from the jubilant thousands who have been cheering the New York Rangers’ lengthening NHL playoff run.

It’s a complicated, detailed, stressful project – “a Herculean task,” Beynon said – that has been under way for more than a year and in the design stages for nearly eight years. By the end, it will have involved more than 2.6 million hours of labour and cost the better part of $1-billion (U.S.).

But, hey, at least they’re working under a microscope.

“If you don’t feel [the pressure]because of the name MSG, a lot of New Yorkers will gladly remind you … there’s certainly no sensitivity about people criticizing your work,” Beynon said with a laugh. “There’s an edge here, people demand the best.”

And in a market where other cathedrals of sport have been torn down and rebuilt – Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, MetLife Stadium – the builders of the MSG project are doing something novel: erecting a new arena within an existing building.

While Beynon – one of the principals in BBB Architects, an Ontario-based firm that has built itself into one of the world’s leading designers of sports facilities – and his partners have been involved in dozens of multipurpose arenas (including Rogers Arena in Vancouver and Air Canada Centre in Toronto), this project is different.

Not just because it involves a mythical building – MSG brands itself as the world’s most famous arena, which is grandiose, and also true – but because Beynon’s fascination with the arena goes back to his childhood.

His father was a boxing fan, and so Beynon and his two brothers would often hunker down and watch fight cards on Friday nights.

“It was always [TV broadcaster]Howard Cosell at Madison Square Garden,” he said. “The University of Toronto architecture school did a trip to New York every year, and that was the first time I came here … I can’t remember if I went to a game or not, but I do remember touring the building and how it felt.”

Fast-forward a few decades – during which Beynon worked in Japan and France, among other places – and he is overseeing a project he considers the pinnacle of his career. (“It is, without question, a dream come true.”)

That BBB was chosen at all is a triumph in itself.

“We were one little company up against 20 U.S. companies, there was a sense of ‘We can’t believe they won this,’ ” said Beynon, who has been splitting his time between Toronto and New York for nearly eight years.

The approach to such a massive project was to tailor the renovation to the needs of the client, but also try to come up with something that fits with the general ethos of the fans who give the arena its voice.

“These things are essentially community centres, and this building has more people coming to it in a year than Yankee Stadium or the Giants [NFL]stadium. You touch a lot of people, so we were looking for cultural elements in addition to the business aspects,” Beynon said. “In this case, transparency becomes the driver of the architectural philosophy.”

If there’s a high-minded architectural component to the project, it’s because discerning New Yorkers expect nothing less.

There will be a soaring glass entrance, and a pair of eye-catching bridges spanning the top of the arena. There will be lots of wood-panelled suites and exclusive clubs for financiers and CEOs to hobnob, but there will also be standing-room areas – a vestige of the old days of sports arenas – and places where fans can perch on bar stools.

“It’s about finding new ways for people to interact,” Beynon said.

Beyond the design, the main factor in BBB getting the commission was likely the firm’s expertise in luxury suites – it has a subsidiary, Stadium Consultants International, that specializes in designing and managing them – and its emphasis on turning wasted space, such as storage areas under the stands, into revenue-generating concourses and suites.

“In Canada, there’s generally a lot less in the way of public dollars … we’ve had to learn to build for less money and deliver more revenues,” explained Beynon, who leads intensive focus-group sessions on all his projects, and relies on observing the people who sit in the stands and work in all aspects of the operation. (“I’ve had people laugh at me a lot, ‘Are you ever planning to watch the game?’ ”)

It also didn’t hurt that Beynon, who was one of the architects involved in building Toronto’s Rogers Centre (then called SkyDome), designed the Rangers practice facility in suburban Greenburgh, N.Y., just over a decade ago.

“We challenged him to come up with original ideas that would wow our customers and he delivered,” said Hank Ratner, president of the Madison Square Garden Company.

That’s the kind of endorsement that goes a long way in the cloistered world of big-time sports – and BBB’s high-profile New York commission has already drawn in its lot of new business.

Not that Beynon is inclined just yet to reveal his next project.

“You’ll just have to wait and see,” he said with a smile.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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