A Case for Rethinking the Post-Modern Ballpark Paradigm
Unique is the only way I can describe it. No other ballpark can be transformed by its fans into the equivalent of a 737 at takeoff. No other stadium has the booming, echoing, audible resonance of this one. None has the quality of plastic white light. Or the spatial intimacy created by its artificially lowered sky…
Retro is all the rage in baseball today. Retro jerseys, retro memorabilia, and above all, retro stadiums. Ever since Camden Yards opened in 1992, stadiums have gone out of their way to make reference to baseball’s early century “glory days” when the game was played in parks called Ebbets, Forbes, and Crosley. The success of such schemes (as defined by dollars and cents in a short-term analysis of profit generated) has guaranteed that the ultra-conservative world of baseball’s power brokers continue the retro building craze until something more fashionable comes along. Proponents point to the old-fashioned materials, the urban experience, and the quirky dimensions as the reasons that these new parks are clearly superior to any version of the pre-1990s stadium, except perhaps the Wrigleys and Fenways upon which the new versions are loosely based. Some of the new parks [I’ll name SBC, PNC, Camden Yards, and Safeco Field] approach spectacular. But the majority [in this class I’ll list Miller, Minute Maid, BankOne, Ballpark at Arlington, Great American, Comerica, and Citizens Bank] leave one wanting more at best; disappointed and depressed by the experience at worst. None of this second tier of new parks adds to its city’s urban context, one of the major arguments for wrestling hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars from the locals to subsidize construction. None show any notable originality or substance in their configuration or architectural styling. And none will still be considered novelties in twenty years time.
I am convinced that several of the nearly extinct modern ballparks from the mid-twentieth century are just as valid, and in some ways more valid, than the post-modern retro park that is fashionable today for the following reasons: purity, memory, and authenticity. For the same reasons, I feel that all pre-Skydome stadiums (including our own Metrodome) have a certain intangible je ne sais pas that has disappeared with the invention of the amusement/baseball typology. I am not trying to defend the cookie-cutter as the best type of stadium; nor am I decrying the retro park as wholly superficial and inadequate. Rather, I am suggesting that new does not automatically equal better; and also that the future of ballpark building (especially a proposed new ballpark in the Twin Cities) could learn from all generations of stadium design, avoiding cliché, aspiring to authenticity, and doing what all great ballparks do best: provide a graceful setting for the beauty of the game.
2. Purity of Form and Function
The cloud-like white roof seems to emit a soft, dynamic glow- like a fabric filter, diffusing the intense afternoon sun. The artificial sky mediates the warm summer sun and a late spring snowstorm equally. We take the good with the bad…
The modern era of architecture emphasized purity of form and clarity of function. While often regarded as inconsiderate of context and human interaction, this movement transcended what some would consider the eclectic and unrefined styles that preceded it. Modern designs were unified, often geometric, and operated without obvious historical references. Many unique and inspired post-war stadiums were decidedly modern: Memorial, Dodgers Stadium, Shea, Astrodome, Busch, Kauffman, and Olympic Stadiums. The trend continued with a series of more brutalist, utilitarian buildings constructed during the late 1960s and 70s: Fulton County, Veterans, Riverfront, Three Rivers, and the Kingdome. While this generation of stadiums lacked some of the flair of more eccentric stadiums before and after, there is something to be appreciated in their utility.
The modern ballparks were typically geometric in their field dimensions. Baseball is unique among the major professional sports in that the field of play can take many different forms and dimensions depending on the particularities of the particular arena. While the symmetrical layout of a Dodgers or Kauffman Stadium may seem like a lost opportunity to articulate the uniqueness of the field, I find something satisfying in the purity of such a layout. There’s something democratic and simple about it that does not distract from the game at hand, or bring into question the fairness of the playing field. The same cannot be said for the strange short porch, dangerous angles, and tilted warning track in Houston’s new stadium, for example. These features seem rather arbitrary, serving only the purpose of providing some strange and identifiable quirk that could lead to some bizarre, unexpected, or comedic situation during the game - like a cheap homerun or severe knee injury.
Such quirks lend themselves to the marketing of the ballpark experience, mixing identity and commerce. The older generation of stadiums was unique in that each of the stadiums had a name of some civic or team related importance. In contrast, corporate sponsorship and selling of naming rights has become standard in the newer generation of ballparks. Beyond that, the newer parks have been blanketed in advertisements, sponsorships, restaurants, amusement attractions, hotels, and gimmicks that make the true baseball fan nauseous: the contemporary stadium is equal parts amusement-park and ball-park. The merry-go-round, the swimming pool, and the choo-choo train certainly attract another type of fan; as do the posh luxury suites and catered box seats. But the unfortunate side-effect of these attractions is the distractions they create at the ballgame. Their visual, spatial, and audible clutter take away from the beauty and simplicity of baseball; and in some ways cheapen the game around which they revolve. One more point I will add to the corporate complication of the ballpark experience is the undesirable side-effect of increasing ticket prices and exclusivity of seating. From 1991 to 2001, the average ticket price for a family of four to attend a baseball game basically doubled, from $76 to $146. Most diehard fans are priced out of the better seats and banished to the far reaches of the outfield bleachers. In their place, cell-phone toting business clients and VIPs more interested in making their presence known on the jumbo-tron than enjoying the game occupy the prime seats.
The older stadiums come with a sense of informality, of equality that is absent in the hierarchical layout of the newer profit-generating stadium. The coliseum-like layout of Shea or Busch Stadium puts all Mets or Cardinals fans in the same vintage seat, in essentially the same seating bowl. As a contrast, the Ballpark at Arlington chops each price group into a separate, disjointed clod of seats which vary in comfort and amenity as the price increases. One promotes the civic unity that sports, at their best, are unique to promote; the other suggests the economic segregation of society and disjoints the camaraderie of the fans in attendance.
3. Real and Synthetic Memory
3. Real and Synthetic Memory
A seven year old boy is oblivious to those around him who bemoan the insufficiencies of this engineered bubble that passes for a ballpark. Instead, his gaze is transfixed on Texas Rangers third-baseman Steve Buschele. This man who existed previously as only statistics and a static image, frozen like a mannequin on a baseball card, has come to life before his very eyes. The game takes on a new meaning…
Baseball is a game of tradition. Memories of players and records past are cherished by fans. The ballpark, too, is a place of tradition and memory. Every visit recalls championships won, players past, and the bonding with friends and family that is facilitated by the casual pace of the national pastime. The ballpark is the register of baseball memories. More than statistics, uniforms, players, and mementos, the ballpark is the physical manifestation of our recollections of the game; the tangible space that connects us, through all our senses, to events of the past.
Strangely, when we collectively recall the tradition of the game, we often skip over the recent past and mid-century years to focus on the “good old days” of the pre-war years; an era that few if any of us have any real memories of. There is a societal tendency to imagine the distant past as some sort of idyllic era, free of the problems and complications of contemporary life. These notions of a utopian past are generally based more on wistful imagination than on any substantiated truth. Of course, it should also be noted that these notions of historical nostalgia are often cyclical, much like fashion, changing as the years pass and memories become blurred. Who’s to say that the next generation won’t adore those buildings which we condemn today?
New stadiums today aspire to an early century ideal that is today fashionable- a reminder of what we consider a vibrant urban and social period in our past. The result is all too often a display of false nostalgia- replacing real, acquired history with reminders of a synthetic, imagined memory of the “way things used to be.” Far from compensating for a lack of history, this type of remembering through architecture tends to come across as regressive and without substance. Instead of developing a richness of their own, these buildings exist as empty, rhetorical shells of an imagined and arbitrary past.
While we now adore the timelessness of Wrigley and Fenway, we should remember that these stadiums too went through a period when they were considered out of date, unsuitable, and unsightly. Because they were able to ride out the first boom of stadium construction, they are cherished today for providing us with a physical connection to a bygone era. The modern, mid-century stadiums similarly represent an entire generation of baseball tradition and memories- albeit a presently underappreciated one that is on the verge of extinction. The presence of classic ballparks from the 1950s and 60s in the landscape of professional baseball lends validity to this colorful era of the game’s past. Preserving the gems of this period is, in a sense, the preservation of the physical monuments to our memories of those decades of baseball history.
4. Authenticity of Meaning
In 1983, a heavy snow load deflated the largest pressure-supported dome in the world, and forced postponement of a scheduled contest between the Twins and the visiting California Angels, a reminder of the fragility of a 1/32” thick roof- 10 acres of teflon fabric held aloft by 250,000 cubic feet of air per minute…
What is meant by authenticity in architecture? Webster defines the term as “being actually and exactly what is claimed.” Often authenticity refers to a design that is true to its context (geographical, social and historical) and its intentions. It does not hide behind falsities and thin veneers, but rather exists as a unified and articulated product of its purpose and design problem. The question of authenticity is not purely aesthetic- what look is more appropriate for a ballpark? I have my preferences and you have yours. But what is at the essence of the argument are the concepts of intention, expression, and meaning. Difficult to define, but present and potent at a subconscious and theoretical level.
The retro ballpark purports, through articulation and façadism, to mimic the coziness, the connectedness, and the material aesthetic of the early century stadium. It attempts to achieve validity by taking these elements and images of the past and producing facsimiles- suggesting an attachment to the past through association rather than through physical connection. The truth is that the contemporary version is, more often than not, simply a bloated, bastardized version of the original. Far from a truthful rendition of the beloved blueprint, the retro version becomes an awkward Franken-park; full of rhetoric but lacking depth; not fully modern and not fully traditional, the retro park seems to lack the real advantages of either prototype. For a version of stadium so concerned with uniqueness and connection to the eclectic history of the game, many of the retro parks have become simply copies of one another; they are the new cookie cutter! This standardization is a consequence of a monopoly on the architectural production of baseball facilities, where two large firms control the design of every stadium imagined in the last two decades. Details and design ideas are repeated in the same way as the multi-use parks of the 1970s; except today they are mixed and matched seemingly without regard for cohesiveness. The formula is well-established: start with a concrete and steel frame, paste on ¾” faux brick veneer liberally, insert a few bronze statues of team icons, a huge uninhabited turret at the home-plate entrance, slather the entire concoction in some contrived historical reference, and voila! I am cynical in my description, but the final product reeks of superficiality and a cursory attempt at connecting with local identity.
The classic mid-century modern stadiums, on the other hand, displayed an authentic imagination- as do the classics of the present day. Dodgers Stadium was a new kind of ballpark- a merging of time honored ideas with modern sensibilities and materials. There is something fresh and exciting in the experience of Kauffman or Busch- a uniqueness, a truth to their time and place, and a transparency of form and function. They are somehow true to their era, and strive for a progressive interpretation of the ballpark form. Moreover, they are true to their purpose: a backdrop to the beautiful game they host. In the end, the great architecture of baseball is like that of an exceptional art gallery: poetic and sublime in its own right, but resisting self-aggrandizement in favor of the art that everyone came to see.
5. Final Thoughts
Are these unique moments, personal memories, and technical marvels enough to validate the preservation of a comparatively unsatisfactory place to enjoy a baseball game? Probably not. Does this mean I won’t miss those peculiarities, recollections, and familiarities I’ve become endeared to? Absolutely not. The object is inseparable from my memories of it- not unlike a child’s favorite stuffed animal; unsightly and outgrown, but familiar and rich with personal history. My only request is that the replacement lives up to the promise of the possibilities…
Diversity is enriching. Sameness in any form is stifling and bland. I would suggest that a variety of different styles of stadium, dating from different generations and architectural styles, add a richness to the major league game that is lost with the senseless destruction and abandonment of those not-quite-yet-classic stadiums that remain successful. Recognizing and preserving the quality of those ballparks that are worthy of enduring (especially Dodgers Stadium, Kauffman Stadium, the now lost Busch Stadium and vacant Astrodome) is important to the history and continuity of the game. The same as the experience of the city, variety adds flavor and interest to the virtual fraternity of major league ballparks.