31 March 2005

HOK chosen for DC ballpark

Stadium architectural giant HOK Sport out of Kansas City was selected by the DC Commission to design the Nationals' new ballpark. HOK's winning bid came in at $18.4 million, $4 million less than the next lowest competitor who was not named. That $4 million is quite important, as the revised cost estimate released today by DC CFO Natwar Gandhi just $3.6 million less than the cap set for the part of the project associated with land acquisition and preparation.

HOK has designed 10 out of the last 14 new ballparks. While it made its name with Camden Yards in Baltimore (1992) and SBC Park in San Francisco (2000), HOK also designed the somewhat ill-conceived US Cellular Field in Chicago (1991) and Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati (2003). Their experience is not limited to baseball, however. They've designed arenas like Atlanta's Philips Arena and football stadiums such as Reliant Stadium in Houston.

Over the last few years, HOK has been the recipient of some backlash as it appeared that all of its baseball projects had too many similarities. Among those criticisms:

  1. Overall themes too "retro" with brick facades, quirky dimensions
  2. Upper decks cantilevered too far back to eliminate need for support columns
  3. "Mallification" of concourses, often with gimmicky design elements

I happen to think that these criticisms are largely unfair. Architects design for clients. That's not that difficult for the architect when he's dealing with a single, unified voice, such as a corporation or homeowner. With a stadium, there's no single client. Usually the client has numerous public voices (mayor, city council, community group) and private (team, season ticket base) to deal with. This often forces the architect to compromise or move more towards building a consensus on design issues. What may have started as a clean, unified theme can turn into a disjointed hodgepodge quickly. When you consider how all of the ballparks came into being in the 90's, it's not surprising that they may seem overly retro. That's what most everyone wanted. Of all four major sports, only baseball has a the ability evoke such nostalgic notions. Only in baseball can the venue be so integrated with its environment. Add to that the fact the retro trend started in response to backlash against the numerous multipurpose facilities built in previous decades, and there can be a tendency towards overexposure.

HOK Sport has demonstrated its forward-thinking with many non-baseball projects, many of which were cool, modern glass-and-steel designs. Among these are FedEx Field, Gillette Stadium, and Toyota Center. The parent company, HOK, is considered one of the top architectural firms in the world, and has done airports, high-rises, hospitals, and government buildings. HOK Sport Senior Principal Earl Santee, who is also working on the new St. Louis Cardinals' Busch Stadium, calls the DC ballpark a challenge to make something that's "part monument, part ballpark." With the opportunity to take the retro shackles off, DC should expect good things from HOK.