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The Dodge Theater

A High Design Polish, Both Durable and Affordable

When I discussed with IPCI what would be the best topic for an article regarding my experience with polished concrete as a designer, we decided that it would be best to focus on a single project. Looking back for a building that best represents how polished concrete can be a core design feature to achieve high profile architecture, yet still keep the budget on track, the Dodge Theatre quickly came to mind.

Designed by NBBJ and built by Target General, the 180,000 sq.ft. Dodge Theatre was completed in 2002. It was envisioned by the client, Theater Development Management Group, to fill the need for a mid-size venue in Phoenix that could accommodate a variety of functions: rock concerts, stand-up comedy, Broadway and off-Broadway shows, opera, and even boxing and anniversary gatherings. The flexible auditorium adapts to each function through a variety of mechanized devises, such as operable walls, flexible seating configurations and adjustable areas of the floor, varying the arena’s capacity from 2000 to 6000 viewers. The lobbies provide additional assembly space for table seating, exhibitions and retail.

Of course, the task was to find a design strategy that would achieve such a high profile public space while still remain on budget - an indispensable requirement for the financial success of this kind of venue. Through the design process, the design team was able to convince the owner that the high-end materials that he expected, such as limestone for the walls and marble for the floors, would not be compatible with the $29 million construction budget and we would have to start looking for a new kind  of aesthetic. Instead of lime stone for the façade, wood flooring for the auditorium, and marble for the lobby floors, we proposed metal cladding and exposed concrete flooring.

Polished concrete is an excellent material for an auditorium floor. It is easy to maintain, it is durable and it is not expensive compared to other traditional finishes. Additionally, it does not necessarily contradict the acoustical requirements. In this particular case it actually helps with the sound for rock concerts, where the “this-one-goes-to-eleven” degree of loudness is in fact welcomed.  Any negative echoing effect can be mitigated with the use of upholstered chairs. Furthermore, the savings from going with polished concrete in lieu of wood flooring or expensive carpeting was used to upgrade the seating to the level expected from patrons attending the opera or Broadway show performances.

While the use of polished concrete in the auditorium space is significant, the most successful material selection for this project without a doubt was for the grand lobby, a fifty-foot tall space, glazed floor to ceiling. The floor of this prominent interior public plaza was initially intended to be terrazzo.  As the project progressed, while we were selecting the right for the job terrazzo subcontractor, the designers from NBBJ and the contractors from Target General found out that the local aggregate used in the structural concrete is naturally colorful. The red, yellow, green, even blue pebbles are normally overwhelmed by the grayness of the cement. However, we began to ask, what it would look like if instead of gray, we used white cement for the structural slab at the lobby area? After consulting with the rest of the design team and establishing that there would not be other implications on the structure, we started experimenting with the material. Three samples of concrete slab mock-ups, about 4’ x 4’ each were poured at the job site. They were each ground to a different depth, 1/8”, ¼” and ½” respectively. The grinding revealed the richness of the natural aggregate with a different size and pattern at each of the samples.  The one with the ¼” deep grind was selected because of its balance between the color and size of the pattern and was applied to the entire lobby of the project.

After the structural slab cured for approximately four weeks, the initial grinding was performed to remove surface fines and exposed aggregate.  Portland cement grout was troweled onto the surface to finish the voids, followed by finer grit diamonds, until a polished, terrazzo-like surface was achieved.

While successful, the process was not without surprises. Once the entire floor was polished, we noticed an irregular, footstep-like pattern while inspecting it from the balcony of the upper deck. Eventually it was discovered that one of the installers had forgotten a tool while pouring and went back to retrieve it. Although the surface was perfectly smooth and shiny, the pattern was different since the larger gravel had been pushed down where he had walked. There were no more than a dozen of the steps imprinted and even though they were not visible except from a particular spot on the very last balcony, we decided to fix it. A local artist was invited to hand paint the missing gravel spots in the damaged areas.

The lesson learned is not that art is the solution to all construction mistakes, but rather that involving the concrete installer is crucial for a successful implementation of the polished concrete surface.

The polished concrete flooring of the Dodge Theatre is the first interior feature that prepares the visitors for the magical performances in this outstanding venue. It is seen through the glazed lobby walls as a natural but cultivated extension of the concrete sidewalks and plaza surfaces of the exterior. It enhances the daylight and reflects the shine of the city lights on a show night.

Its dramatic effect was entirely achieved by inventively using the natural color aggregate and paying a small premium for the white cement. Through cooperation among the architect, contractor, and owner in the effort to provide a building on budget, yet with a high quality and outstanding architecture, the process of finding a design and construction solution deriving from the richness of the local materials, set the tone for the rest of the project, and for other projects to come.