By Rob Moseley
Editor, GoDucks.com

Among the features of the striking new “Zen North” project at Autzen Stadium are more than 78,000 plants, 474 LED light fixtures, 306 large trees and six miles of irrigation to keep all of that foliage hydrated.

There are also five large pyramids on Autzen Stadium’s revamped north side, each panel illustrating a prominent player from recent Oregon history. Collectively, the pyramids look like nothing short of a studded dog collar ringing the neck of the stadium.

But despite all those other details, the most striking element of the Phil Knight-funded project might just be a round post several inches in diameter, a few feet long and painted crimson red. It’s at the end of the line of “win poles” representing each game played since Autzen Stadium opened in 1967, and it represents Stanford’s victory over the Ducks a year ago.

Yes, the newest upgrade to Oregon’s athletics facilities features prominent mention of the Ducks’ home losses as well as victories. Poles for each game at Autzen form a colorful line halfway up the berm in Zen North, with UO wins represented in yellow and defeats in the color of the opponent – including Stanford’s victory in Eugene late last season.

“All along, the idea was to respect opponents in this part of the complex,” said Tinker Hatfield, a designer for Nike who helped conceptualize Zen North. “Because if you do come in here and win, you’ve done something. It’s hard.”

Fans will get a chance to see the refurbished north side of Autzen Stadium up close when the Ducks open the 2013 regular season Saturday against Nicholls at 1:05 p.m.

The Zen North project began to take shape almost two years ago, when expanded seating on the north side for an Oregon game against USC made it even more difficult than usual to exit the stadium. Nike executives contracted with local landscape architecture firm Cameron McCarthy to address accessibility as well as a new look for the north side; designs were completed over an intense six weeks from December through February of this year, and the project was completed over the ensuing six months.

“It’s the greatest project I’ve ever been involved in,” said Larry Gilbert, the project designer for Cameron McCarthy. “The quality, the materials, the attention to detail – it’s great. It looks great.”

As is the case with Oregon’s new football operations center, the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, it’s hard to tell whether designers are more proud of Zen North’s form or function.

Visually, it’s a striking mix of lush foliage, large trees and the two largest man-made waterfalls in North America. From a practical standpoint, the meandering pathways now criss-crossing the north berm should allow for quicker walks to and from the stadium’s seating, and room for more restroom facilities.

“It’s beautiful – but there’s some good, strong reasons why everything makes sense,” Hatfield said.

Zen North was completed using contractors entirely based in Oregon, and was built atop some 40,000 tons of the existing berm that was reshaped. Throughout the project are alcoves featuring wood benches constructed from trees salvaged locally; one was claimed after falling onto a garage in north Eugene.

“Everything is Oregon,” Gilbert said.

One inspiration for Gilbert was to create a sort of “third butte” in Eugene to join Spencer Butte and Skinner Butte. It’s natural for plant life to thrive on such a formation’s north side, and thus Autzen Stadium now has a lush north berm contrasting with the massive scale of the expanded south side.

“It’s not a Los Angeles look, or a Kansas City look,” Hatfield said. “This is clearly a Northwest look.”

Zen North should provide a better fan experience, too, and not just because of the improved scenery. While the south side expansion provided a dramatic upgrade in 2002, “it’s still a 1967 stadium over here,” Hatfield said while touring Zen North last week.

“The old side is going to be a lot better game experience,” he added, through the improved flow of fans to and from their seats, and the presence of more portable restrooms.

Sure to be talked about are the two notable artistic flourishes, the pyramids and win poles. The berm could have been left entirely green, “but we still want to be storytellers,” Hatfield said.

The five pyramids spell out “DUCKS” when viewed from inside the stadium. The panels facing out feature prominent UO stars such as Kenny Wheaton, Joey Harrington, Jonathan Stewart and Dennis Dixon.

The panels are illuminated at night, and can be changed should the inspiration arise. That they burst violently out of the hillside makes quite the impression on its own, however.

“Football is an aggressive sport, and we wanted to make sure it wasn’t all softy over here,” Hatfield said. “This is less aggressive (than the ominous Hatfield-Dowlin Complex), but we still want people to know we’re going to kick some butt around here.”

Not every time out, however, as the win poles illustrate. They do a dramatic job of telling the story of Oregon football over the last few decades; the poles at the east end, where the earliest games in Autzen are featured, are painted in a variety of colors, but yellow becomes increasingly more frequent as the poles move west toward the present.

“Not only do they tell a visual story of the football that’s been played here,” Hatfield said, “but there’s an aspect of the future as well. We can create a ceremony about each win (by planting the corresponding new pole).”

And, the Ducks hope, put plenty more yellow between themselves and that red pole representing last season’s Stanford game.