Mountainside amphitheater


By Bruce N. Wright, AIA | June 2015

Iconic fabric tensile structure accommodates guests and protects against the elements.

The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail, Colo., is a spectacular outdoor venue with breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains. Each summer, the Amphitheater plays host to an array of cultural and entertainment offerings, ranging from internationally renowned dance and classical music performances to local-artist presentations.

In the mid-1980s, the Vail Valley Foundation, a non-profit organization, conceived and built the Amphitheater, which seats 1,260 guests in covered seating and an additional 1,300 on its expansive grassy hillside. A 2012 two-phased renovation included upgraded aesthetics, reconfiguration of the lawn seating and support facilities. As part of the venue’s second phase of renovations, the Foundation envisioned an iconic entrance that not only accommodates guests, protects against the elements and provides facilities, but that also recognized and celebrated the Ford family and mirrors the atmosphere of the Amphitheater.

The Foundation worked with Zehren& Associates, the design architect and landscape architect, and Monroe & Newell engineers to construct a new social plaza outside the amphitheater, a transitional space designed to provide a new entrance experience and additional shelter from inclement weather. Dubbed “The Lobby,” the transitional space serves as a social gathering point prior to entering the amphitheater and is covered by a 5,500-sq. ft. fabric shade structure designed and fabricated by Birdair Inc.

The amphitheater and lobby is a unique complex located in Ford Park, adjacent to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in beautiful Vail. The Lobby serves as an impressive entrance to the Amphitheater and a place for ticketing and bag check, located at this point in order to smooth the entry flow to the theater.

The Foundation agreed that a cover made with heavy, commercial building products would take away from the natural feel of the venue, restrict light and views, and preclude the ability to grow plants around the lobby due to excess shade in an alpine climate. A low-maintenance tensile structure proved to be a balanced solution requiring less structural steel to support a roof or façade, enabling long spans of column-free space and allowing dappled sunlight to infiltrate. This allows the space to be manipulated to suit the specific needs of the amphitheater and to fully integrate landscaping complementary with the alpine setting adjacent to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. In the winter, due to the low coefficient of friction on the Teflon® fabric and deliberately calculated slopes of the roof, snow build-up is minimized and sheds to strategically placed landscape beds around the perimeter of the plaza.

A conical fabric roof with seven sides is held up in the center and leading apex by two tapered, steel masts with an open bale ring at the top that lets in natural light. Each point of the canopy edge is tensioned tight to its own massive stone and concrete pier with canted ends that meet the fabric in line with the tensile forces. These tall piers serve to define the edges of the plaza and minimize cables touching the ground around the canopy, which would otherwise create conflicts with pedestrian traffic and other constraints within Ford Park.

One end of the canopy rises dramatically higher toward the entrance of the amphitheater and is held aloft by an even bigger, tapered steel strut that angles up at almost 45-degrees. The high point of the angled mast is fixed in space with a large diameter cable stay pulling straight down to the ground and cinched with a clevis end pinned to an at-ground anchor. The forces at work on display with the fabric roof and large structural members stand their own against the massive force of the mountain backdrop. Moreover, punctuating the base of each of the steel masts are carved sandstone sculptural pieces by Chevo Studios that are part of the Ford Family Tribute, integral to the overall composition of the space.

Birdair’s scope of work included design assist, fabrication, supply and installation of the supporting structural steel, cables and clamping, and the PTFE-coated glass fiber membrane. The new lobby not only accommodates various functions, but provides a unique experience for those who attend performances at the amphitheater. The attractiveness and natural shape and color of the canopy create a harmony between the amphitheater and the Alpine Gardens in Ford Park, and provide the venue with a signature look that is noticeable from some distance.

Bruce N. Wright, AIA, a licensed architect, is a media consultant to architects, engineers and designers, and writes frequently about fabric-based design.