Design Innovation is an Iterative Process

MANICA Architecture believes deeply is that each project is unique to its place, its culture, its people.


Please introduce yourself and MANICA Architecture’s unique position in sports and entertainment.


David Manica, President and Owner, MANICA Architecture (DM): My firm is different because we focus on the front-end design phases of sport and entertainment buildings around the world. We are not a full-service firm. We provide design concepts, and through-design development, and we always work with a partner architect to execute the construction documents.

One of the reasons I love designing sport and entertainment buildings is because they are so complicated.

The overall philosophy of our work is keeping the client happy.

Will Hon, Principal, Technical Director, MANICA Architecture (WH): I'm a Principal and the Technical Director at MANICA Architecture.

Keith Robinson, Principal, Creative Director, MANICA Architecture (KR): I'm a Principal and Creative Director at MANICA. I've worked for David for just over 10 years straight out of school, and I've had the great fortune of working directly with him, learning from one of the very best in the industry.

If you work with us, you're going to get “One Team” that's done every project that we've touched together. Everybody in our studio will touch the project at some point and exercise their own respective superpower as part of that process. We're most interested in finding the right clients with the right projects and investing everything we have to exceed their expectations and deliver something spectacular.

Our greatest strengths are our size, efficiency, and our trust in each other to develop these projects, which has really allowed us to compete on the global stage and create interesting designs all around the world.

What is your process for designing premium and the venue as well?

DM: First, I always believe that a good designer is a really good listener. The first trick is to sit down and listen to what's important to the client, how they perceive what they want their experience to be, how they perceive the environment, and how the architecture needs to control or direct or respond to a level of importance for them. Once we understand that, we can begin to define the way the people experience the game.

The Wynn Field Club in the end zone at Allegiant Stadium was a hard sell to Mark Davis because his preconception about what an end zone in the NFL feels like. He didn't want to lose that experience. When we proposed a club with booths and bottle service, he imagined that someone would be sitting there sipping champagne and not be excited about the game at all, not paying attention to the game. That is not the experience that he wanted in his building. We had to work carefully to help him understand that the design and the environment would be different, but we also changed the design to ensure that there was a density right along the field wall that would make that make that environment feel exciting the way he wanted it to.

Credit: MANICA Architecture, in Partnership with MCUD

The other thing that I feel really strongly about is looking to other industries to understand how they're changing and evolving. For example, the loge seat in Allegiant Stadium was, in no small part, greatly influenced by long-haul business class seats on airplanes. You have your own pod, you have a charger, you have the comforts of a drink and a place to put it that keeps it cold, you have a place to watch your own monitor, and you have a place to keep your program and your magazines. That level of comfort and that level of sophistication absolutely influenced the way we thought about that particular seating type.

What's interesting is that our guests now have a wide variety of experiences, not just in their home stadium, but in stadiums they might visit around the country or around the world. A person that might have just gone to the movie theater on a Saturday night and experienced all the new trends in the movie theater, and then come to the stadium and sit there and think, “Well why can't the stadium provide me as good of an experience as the movie theater did last night?”, or vice-versa.

KR: We shouldn’t think that innovation has to be something that's never been done before. We need to be very observant and not be afraid to look at something that's been done and try to think of the next phase of that idea. In my mind that's innovation through the iterative process.

One thing that we are really interested in when approaching the design process and premium offerings is to always be looking at parallel industries. There's a creative discovery process that ignites where you start to look at other industries and try to extrapolate the things about them that you can imagine inside of a venue.

Is there is there a philosophy or a vision that guides your sports work? 

KR: At a basic level, when we approach a project, we believe very deeply that each project is unique to its place, its culture, its people. At the end of the day, they'll have something they're very proud of that not only functions for them at the highest level, but is also a beautiful testament to whatever aesthetic vision they wanted to create in that market.

Credit: LAS Vegas Raiders

How do we build a partnership at a fundamental level to where they look at us as an extension of them and somebody who has their best intentions in mind?

DM: When these buildings open, they have an incredible impact on people and cities, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find another building that people enjoy going to more than these buildings. They bring an incredible amount of joy to people, and it's a thrill to be at the tip of the spear for those projects.

Who should have a seat at the table from the beginning? 

DM: It's a small group. It's the people that are paying for it, the people that are selling it, the people that are building it, and the people that are designing it. I think those are the four most important early players at the table.

WH: Sometimes we show up to a project and the owner and relevant stakeholders have done a great job doing their due diligence. They have reports, they understand what the market feasibility looks like, they know what has sold well in the past for them, and what they maybe should have done more or less of. And then you have the owner that maybe has done none of that. Maybe they're a brand-new owner or they just haven't done the due diligence yet.

In the prescriptive environment you have really good walls to work within. It's like being on dense urban site versus being on a really sprawling suburban site with nothing around you. Each has like its benefits.

It’s trying to be as creative as possible with the environment that you're making so that you can excite people. Because if you can't make somebody want to come back to your space, then eventually you'll run out of the mass of people that want to use the space.

Credit: MANICA Architecture, Arquitectonica, Arquitectonica GEO

What projects are you excited about? 

DM: We do have some really exciting projects on the tables right now. Let's say “the proverbial tables”; we actually draw on computers now, and some of them are in the United States. Some of our very best projects and most exciting new projects that we're working on now, that on the drawing table now, I can't actually talk about.

WH: Of course, the projects we're most excited to talk about are the projects we can't talk about. They're almost always splashy and it's kind of like falling in love, like the next big project, the one that you can't talk about, is the one you're so excited about. It’s sort of like when Tom Brady wins the Super Bowl and all he’s thinking about is winning the next Super Bowl.

You can come off one of the coolest things you've ever done, a life-changing project, one that you spent five to 10 years of your life committed to; a lot of times you feel like you get a new home in a different city. You might be there every week for years. You know the street names by heart. As you walk up the road you know all the best local restaurants and dive bars, and then suddenly, it's over one day. The building opens and you're no longer on the same flight with the same people you see all the time. And then you must find the next place to go.

And there's the allure of chasing. It’s so fun, it's almost like you're dating, and then suddenly you find the next project and they fall in love with you, and you with them, and then here you go. You embark on this next huge journey that is designing another incredible facility for another client in another city, and the process sort of repeats itself.

KR: One of the projects I'm most excited about is Inter Miami Futbol Club. That project at Freedom Park is still going through the planning stages, but we were given an opportunity based on our work at their Lockhart facility, to then step in and take control of Freedom Park Stadium, their future permanent home. Our work and trust built allowed us to get the job at Freedom Park. It's a beautiful building. How it sits in the landscape and the seating bowl atmosphere, there are some unique things we're trying in there which will be fun to continue to develop as the project goes forward.

Credit: MANICA Architecture

Regarding the evolution of premium, what changes are we seeing, what predictions or innovations might you have?

KR: When I think about the future of the seating products and premium specifically, one thing that we've noticed over the past five to 10 years is that diversity is climbing. Fans are far more diverse now in what they expect. The expectations in the past were bifurcated into a general seat, a club seat, and a suite. And if you really couldn't swing the next level of that, you couldn't really climb into the next tier.

Venues are getting smarter about introducing intermediate tiers for people to really grow into and to maintain that fan base. Just because you can't afford it now doesn't mean you can't afford it next year or maybe the year after that. They're creating incentives and elevating the experience incrementally and that's allowing us to see a shift in the industry to where the venues are becoming a lot more dynamic and diverse in their offerings.

DM: When I started my career in sports and entertainment in 1994, there were basically three different seats that you could buy. You could buy a general admission seat, which was basically lower bowl or upper deck. You could buy a club seat which was typically in the middle of the section and had a small lounge and a bar behind it, or you could buy a suite, and that was it. Those were your options.

Credit: Jason O'Rear

What I've noticed obviously is that there's an increasing variety of experiences that you can buy. And there's a diversification of your opportunities to buy different levels or different types of GA seats. The club seat has expanded probably more than any other type.  We have loge seats. We have theater boxes. We have all kinds of different clubs located in the lower bowl, in the mid bowl. We've begun to bridge the gap between general admission and clubs and created GA clubs.

The suite box itself has evolved over time, but we've also added different kinds of suites. There are field level suites. There's what we call bunker or courtside lounge suites in arenas. There are halo suites.

There’s a widening of opportunities to buy an experience in the building that is becoming more and more diversified and I think that's great. It allows people to find the most appropriate experience or the most enjoyable experience for them in the building. Those then create the greatest success.

In our current buildings, instead of what used to be 20 years ago three different seating types, now we have nine, 10, 11, 12 unique and distinct seating styles and experiences to choose from, and I see that continuing. Now it’s continuing to refine and create new concepts around successes we’ve found in the past.

WH: It’s really about how we diversify the products inside the building in a way that they’re incrementally monetizable. We think about how those incremental steps can go from a building that has three to five products to a building that has 20 to 30 products. It can be really simple. It's rethinking the experience. What does the experience of a suite need to be like?

You don't have to think so in-the-box about how the spaces need to go together. Think about how you really use them.

We can look to tech for that too. Like when you get a new a new device, they do a fantastic job now boxing it. Every part of the experience is fantastic. It's not just when you remove your new phone from the box, it’s the way you received the box, the way the box was packaged, the way it came out, the fact that your phone was charged and when you got it, you could turn it right on.

KR: The other thing is the venues are going to have to become more than just a seat. They're not necessarily concerned with what the seat is. They're concerned with what they get with the seat and when their experience starts and when does it end?

We’re also observing the fans of the future and how they're behaving. One of the hardest things about these projects is that you're designing a building years ahead of it being built and years ahead of it even being opened. Building in the flexibility allows the client to adjust as seamlessly of their initial investment.

Credit: Las Vegas Raiders

WH: I thought we did an incredible job breaking the box at Allegiant Stadium, literally speaking. Those suites are not rectilinear. Redefine that, change that experience. Where are the TVs? Where inside of a suite? Are they always on the headwall in front of the couch? Why do they have to be there?

Let’s talk more about Allegiant Stadium. 

DM: Allegiant Stadium would be an easy one to talk about because it's our most recently completed project that opened to guests for the first time in 2021. First, I'm exceptionally proud of how it fits within the Raiders’ organization. I don't think any other stadium really can claim such specific branding to its team, and when you are in that building you know that you're with the Raiders. I was so happy that the Raiders were open to such a strong branding and visual environment that enforced their team, and certainly happy Las Vegas was open to that as well.

It fits within Vegas. It's a new icon for the city. When I get in the cab and I go down the freeway, I don't tell anyone who I am, but they talk about the stadium and how proud they are about it. Of course I was happy to be leading the design of that project.

It satisfies all the different people that go, that need to use it, and get to visit it.

And finally, it was delivered on time and under budget,

KR: We've recently been asked to come back and take a closer look on a new seating product that enhances their ability to sell one-off VIP experiences throughout the year.

To open a building with a very successful premium mix, and within the year and a half to two years that it's been online to have built in the flexibility in the building from day one, to then come back after understanding the market and what that building and that tenant needs, to then strategically add another layer of premium has been a lot of fun.

Credit: Jason O'Rear

Could you explain the unique design of the suites in Allegiant Stadium? 

DM: We thought about the suites a little bit differently, again, inspired by business class seats on airplanes. It's thinking about the volume that you can create for someone in a more three-dimensional way.

We thought about the suite in the same way, and what would happen if we pushed and pulled the walls so that where you took from one suite you gave to the other, and vice versa. We were able to eliminate the idea of four walls and ceiling - literally what has been forever called the “suite box” – and we dissolved that box entirely and created a more unique environment inside. Where we pushed into one suite became a seating bench and a lounge area, and where we took from a suite became the drink area and the layout area for food and the TV monitor location.

KR: The suite product at Allegiant Stadium is unique because the interior space a little bit different than most. We looked at the dividing walls between the suites and we pushed them in motion to create more of an interesting volume of space inside the suite itself and that helped organize a nice lounge space or a nice harvest table space depending on what the client wanted and had a prominent head wall that faced that.

It wasn't radically innovative, it was just a clever adjustment to how these things have been done for so long, but it really opened up a brand-new way to think about the suite.

In addition, when you step outside of the suite, it was about elevated F&B experience, creating a social space with action stations and introducing the culinary success of Las Vegas into the venue that became a game-by-game discovery for the people on that suite level. It was a really nice, comprehensive product that didn't just start and stop with suite walls, but it was thought about more as a social space.

What is a challenging part of delivering these types of projects and a piece of advice for the industry? 

KR: One thing that remains constant is that the schedules continue to get whittled down and compressed, and it has required a shift in how these projects are delivered from an integration level, especially regarding a design-build model versus a design-bid-build.

The industry can adjust through efficiency. For example, everybody in our studio touches every project we do. Whenever you call us, you're going to get the same team and everybody's going to touch it at some level and the benefit is the efficiency earned with each other over the past 10 years. We've refined our process to a level where we feel we can create space in even the tightest of schedules. We can reach decisions quicker, we can iterate faster, we can get client feedback quicker, and we can develop design at a higher rate.

The challenge for our industry is to continue to refine our process and our communication with our clients to help them understand and carefully organizing decisions they need to make immediately, at the beginning of the process, that will really prevent them from circling back later on.

WH: The most challenging part of delivering a project of the magnitude is the incredible amount of people, the diversity of expectations of all the different user groups coming together at one time and in one place.

It is a puzzle we have to solve, and I think the reason we work on these kinds of projects is because we love these puzzles. There's sort of like Tetris in three dimensions, right? Where there's blocks that are already existing. There are blocks that are falling and there's blocks that are in the background that are actually coming forward at you and you're trying to solve them all at once. You move one block just a little bit and it changes everything.

DM: Often at the beginning in these projects, the ownership group will go out to a bunch of architects and ask for their ideas and it turns into a design competition. These design competitions occur without any input, feedback, or conversation with the owners. They become beauty competitions to wow the owner with how creative and how interesting we might all be.

It's also done without a lot of cost feedback, and so it's the responsibility of each competitor to try to be as responsible as possible, but the project often goes off track from the very beginning because an architect is competing to win a project with some ideas that may or may not be able to be built within the confines of the budget. Then suddenly when the budget becomes real, the client feels like something might be being taken away from them. And that causes conflict in the projects from the very beginning.

It would be great if we get hired before we do design competition. I think that sets up a better dynamic for the success of the project because we get to listen first, and we get to design towards their goals and targets including cost from the very beginning.

The misstep at the beginning can also lead to circular design, which is where ideas change and you get behind the eight ball from the beginning, and that leads to delays in the project and escalating costs. That is a problem with any large-scale project, but I think even more so with stadiums because it seems impossible to wrangle the expectations of the client with the realities of the construction budget and schedule. It takes a very special client and a really smart and effective design team to patiently develop that in a linear fashion instead of a circular fashion.

Right now, there are challenges with supply chain and escalation in materials. All those things that are just as important to the project’s success.

My preference would be – and what most other industries do – architecture projects based on qualifications, interviews, and references.

Credit: MANICA Architecture