On ballpark architecture

I’ve made a couple of recent comments about how I wish that, after nearly 20 years of nostalgia-based ballpark design, the architects in charge of the few remaining big league projects would be a bit more adventurous. I don’t need the Wexner Center or Beijing National Stadium, but a little something to stir the imagination — rather than the memory — would be nice, wouldn’t it?

But I’ll admit that I’m probably in the minority here. Frank Deford certainly disagrees:

In a front-page article in The New York Times, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff expressed “disappointment” on behalf of “students of architecture,” because the Mets’ and Yankees’ new baseball parks don’t embrace the modern but, instead, celebrate a “nostalgic vision.”

Speaking for students of baseball, I’m sorry, but in constructing some things, the trick is not to run away from nostalgia but simply to monkey around with it and try to gussy it up a bit. Architecturally, baseball parks are like mousetraps. No one has found a way to build a better one than the Orioles did in 1992, when they gave Camden Yards to a grateful world. All of the 18 major league fields and scores of minor league parks built since then have been wise enough to follow that pretty model.

At the risk of totally unearned snobbery (i.e. I have no architectural training at all), I’ll note that everyone followed the model of those Brutalist office buildings from the 60s and 70s too, and that didn’t lead us anywhere terribly fulfilling. Sure, I’ll take Camden Yards over Boston City Hall seven days a week, but we have to appreciate that someone, somewhere and at some time thought about such things much differently. Who’s to say we won’t feel the same way about ballparks, and why then, isn’t each project developed more independently with a greater focus on where it is and what it’s trying to accomplish than what worked in another city?

(thanks to ShysterBall’s architecture, grad school, and South Dakota affairs correspondent, Sara K for the heads up)

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  1. tadthebad said...

    Right on, Craig.  As a side note, Boston City Hall was recently voted, by some organization or another, as the ugliest building on the PLANET.  Can’t say I disagree.

    A little imagination would be nice.  I hope the Sox employ some when the new Fenway is built in 2060.

  2. kranky kritter said...

    Amen, brothers. As a Boston area native, the contrast between Fenway on the one hand and the sterile, unwelcoming, misguided City Hall is inescapable. Another more accessible local monstrosity exists in the immediate juxtaposition of the beautiful original part of the Boston Public Library with its dreadful modern addition, which looks a bit like a greek temple shat out a generic 1974 museum of modern art.

    To steal a phrase I just heard, trying to explain baseball parks to architects like this guy is a little bit like trying to explain yellow to a bat. But the short answer is that baseball parks are for baseball fans, not for architecture students.

    Since I’ve lived in this area my whole life, I can’t actually be sure whether or not Boston is the capital city for architecture articles deriding what regular people like. But we sure get our share from the Boston Globe, in defense of a local culture where high-brow sanctimony is handed down from one generation to the next. 

    The form and sentiment of such mournful expressions of disappointment and complaints about lack of public vision always boils down to the same haughty glance down the nose, doesn’t it?

    Comically, I am drawn to the corny mantra of Field of Dreams that if you build it they will come. Too many architects don’t care whether people will come. And they tend not to care whether, if they come, they will be comfortable in these new surroundings, or pleased by the aesthetics. It only matters that it looks like what a bunch of thoeretical art aesthetes think is cool that year.

    So why listen to the opinions of folks who can’t tell the difference between a knuckleball and a knuckle sandwich, or between a lyric bandbox and a lyric opera? Screw ‘em.

  3. Mark said...

    And 30 years ago Boston City Hall was voted the 6th greatest building in American history. From which one must conclude that, 30 years ago, only 6 American buildings had ever been constructed. You’d think I’d remember something like that.

  4. kranky kritter said...

    To clarify, I’m more w/Deford. I agree some imagination would be nice, but I am largely happy with a form follows function design with an aesthetic that honors what has come before.

    In places where new buildings seem to fall short, yup, it did get cookie-cuttery and seemed to focus too much on expedient completion and utilitarian concerns. Likely this means that any failure of imagination was due not to design architects but due to the rule of the pencil pushers.

  5. Mark said...

    I agree some imagination would be nice, but that also applies to the new (though not any longer) “retro” parks, which more and more are looking like their own HOK cookie-cutter templates.

    To my mind, there are only 4 of them worth oohing and ahhing over: Camden, Jacobs (I like it; many don’t), Whatever It’s Called Now in San Fran, and Whatever It’s Called in Pittsburgh. The others are all either indistinguishably mod-retro (Cincinnati, Philly, San Diego), or facelessly huge (Houston, Seattle, Phoenix).

    The New Yankee Stadium, for what it’s worth, blew it big time. For the photos I’ve seen, it isn’t anything more than a larger, less interesting, more sterile copy of the previous place.

    I often think the most beautiful ballpark is Whatever It’s Called Now in Kansas City. Yes, better than Fenway which, believe me, is better seen on TV than from those seats.

  6. Joao said...

    I’m also more on Deford’s side on this, but I can sympathize somewhat with Craig’s sentiment.  What I want above all, is something that fits within the context of its neighborhood.  I doubt the Candem Yards aesthetic would fit well within, say, downtown San Jose.  Also, if you build a non-downtown stadium surrounded by a giant parking lot, you have free rein to make an arquitectural statement, at least in my book. 

    Give partial credit to the Nationals for attempting to break the nostalgia craze.  They decided to go in a different direction, with mixed results in my view.

  7. kranky kritter said...

    Even as a sox fan, I am happy to agree that the percent of seats that are actually good ones is too low. Most of the seats past first base don’t even face in the neighborhood of home plate, which is indefensible. I still think that its feel is magical and its authenticity unsurpassed, even if the “ass in seat” experience is too often subpar.

    I got lucky and managed to go to a Tigers world series game a few years ago, and I thought the new Tigers stadium was pretty good.

    Could not agree more with the notion that a ballpark’s aesthetic should match its environment. Without being kitschy, of course. Really great parks feel like they are woven from the various layers of local fiber distributed throughout that city’s eras and experiences. So I can understand how any brand new park built in the Bronx would at least in the beginning lack the requisite grit.

  8. Ethan Stock said...

    Bad counter-example, Craig.  From its prairie grass to the intersecting grid lines on the pavement around it to its faux-castle-Armory bits, the Wexner center is a study in postmodern nostalgia, every bit as de/reconstructed as Camden Yards.

  9. Craig Calcaterra said...

    Good point, Ethan.  I mentioned I know jack about architecture. Regardless, I was going for the idea that one need not build a ballpark that challenges the public in the same way the Wex challenged the OSU community when it went up, even if it was challenging in a retro way.  Although, now that I think about it, I might enjoy the retro stadiums more if they exploded history the way the Wex does as opposed to merely try to recreate it in some ersatz, yet reverent fashion.

    In other news: when I was a college freshman, I was stumbling home from the High Street bars to the dorms, and when walking by the Wexner Center, I stopped and peed on it.  Right next to the Maya Lin sculpture, “Groundswell.”

    Just thought that full disclosure required that.

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