31 March 2008

$611 million gets you mixed reviews

The Nats didn't sell out last night's home opener extravaganza against Huddy and the Braves (announced attendance: 39,389), but fans who attended raved about the new facility. Not that RFK was any kind of garden spot, but the as-yet-not-corporately-named ballpark is at the very least the kind of baseball venue DC fans haven't had since Griffith Stadium was demolished over 40 years ago.

Washington Post architecture critic
Philip Kennicott gave the Nats' new digs a C+ grade, repeatedly pointing out how HOK and the Nats missed out on making the ballpark a signature element in the District's Southeast. Ever since conceptual drawings and flyovers were released to the public, the whole package has looked rather underwhelming. We knew going in that value engineering would be stamped all over the place. Now that it's built, it's interesting to see how that value engineering has manifested itself.

Does this look like a ballpark façade? Or the exterior of the Westfield Valley Fair expansion?

A typical ballpark will have some 1200 linear feet of frontage along its grandstand. Depending on the height of the building there could be some 60-90,000 square feet of façade. That's a lot of area upon which an architect can make a statement. Some have chosen to make continuous use of the same materials (red brick being predominant), giving a ballpark a classic, monolithic feel. Others may go a more contemporary route by breaking up the space, letting the eye focus on specific elements. There's some glass here, some different colors of concrete (not limestone) throughout. I'm tentatively scheduling a trip in September to check the stadium out, along with revisits of many of the East Coast parks. I'll reserve judgement in full until then.

Kennicott puts it more succinctly:
It's hard not to focus on the economic aspects of this architecture, because so many of the unfortunate architectural decisions are essentially economic decisions. The ballpark -- like most shopping malls, airports, sports facilities and, alas, many new museums -- belongs to what we might call the architecture of distraction. We don't tend to think of these buildings in architectural terms, as having form or line, balance or symmetry, shape or presence. Rather, it's all about program, circulation and keeping boredom at bay. The public judges these structures in terms of their amenities, their bathrooms, their cleanliness and their overall convenience.

It's exactly this sort of camouflage that I worry about with Cisco Field. Renderings have noticeably excluded views of the grandstand façade, instead pushing the seating bowl and the public space between the outfield and the shopping center. It's one thing to integrate the ballpark into the neighborhood. It's another to make it disappear completely into the neighborhood. Ownership has an opportunity to make a striking visual statement without worrying about appeasing next-door neighbors (most downtown ballparks), or dealing with a specific historical context (new Yankee Stadium). Whether it's "retro" or "contemporary," Cisco Field should stand out from the rest of the neighborhood. It's the anchor. It's meant to draw attention to itself, to attract visitors. Unlike the Nats' ballpark, Cisco Field is going to be low-slung. There's a good chance no one will know it's there except for the light standards or perhaps the scoreboard. How about making a bigger statement? It will be a work of Lew Wolff's legacy, after all.

A few things bothered me when I looked at the Washington Post's ballpark slideshow:

  • Behind the back row of the upper deck is simple, unfinished chain link fence. Ugh.
  • The roof (at least from the bottom) looks like plain corrugated steel decking. Double ugh.
  • Green outfield walls are played out.

Despite the heavy criticism, the Nats' ballpark is a massive improvement. It's a few steps from the Metro (which had 7,000 less gameday users than expected). Parking and access last night weren't the nightmare many had envisioned, even with El Presidente in the house. It's a brisk walk from the Mall and the Smithsonian. It will serve District-area fans well for at least the next 30 years.


Anonymous said...

Did DC really need another monolithic grey slab/glass building facade ? Isn't that what 99% of the government working stiffs have to walk into every day ? Architectural contextualism carried to a depressing extreme , IMO.

Lou's vision of an intimate urbanized Wrigley/Fenway style ballpark with rooftop bleachers on buildings across the street set adjacent to brownstone style condos and townhomes pretty much limits the exterior design theme , don't you think ?

Anonymous said...

It has a very retro look which harks back to the glory days of New Comiskey...

Anonymous said...

New Comiskey Park in Chicago really " missed the bus " . It was the last of those " all the modern conveniences " sterile concrete cereal bowls built from the late 50s to the mid 80s all over the country that replaced deteriorated " old fashioned " parks. The along came "retro" like Camden Yards and every municipality couldn't wait to blow up those bowls.

Marine Layer said...

Being surrounded by brownstones or brick shouldn't limit design too much. We see modern plopped in the midst of old neighborhoods frequently in NYC and SF. That isn't to say that I recommend modern, I'm just saying it should stand out from the neighborhood in some way.

Bringing up Fenway and Wrigley is interesting in that neither of those are known for their exteriors. Their charms are almost entirely based on their existence inside their walls. Fenway's brick exterior lacks adornment. Wrigley's nondescript gray-and-fence exterior only has the bright red sign to punctuate it. OTOH some stadia known for their facades, Shibe Park and Ebbets Field, only exist in memory.

New Comiskey is nothing like the cookie-cutter stadia. It has its faults but it always was a baseball-only facility. Their benchmark was not Ebbets or the like, it was Royals/Kauffman Stadium. And Comiskey did help set the new ballpark era in motion. Camden Yards was not alone in that regard.

Jesse said...

It seems to me that Cisco field will be unique to all the other new parks in that it will truly feel like Fenway and Wrigley inside the park. Its so small, and so intimate, no other ballpark design that I've seen, even the Marlins and Twins gives me that true intimate feeling. Frankly, its our only chance for this park to be a hit. I think it will be a hit.

Anonymous said...

Even if Cisco Field will have the old charms and feelings of Camden or Wrigley, it will NEVER have a metropolitan city surrounding it.

Having a classic ballpark in Boston or Chicago beats having one in suburban, identity-less Fremont.

bartleby said...

It is questionable whether Oakland counts as a "metropolitan city." But even if it does, the current Coliseum location confers none of the benefits and all of the disadvantages of an urban location.

Let's face it, the Coli is in the ass-end of Oakland. Pros of current location: BART. That's it. Cons of current location: gritty, ugly, high-crime industrial neighborhood, with no nearby bars, restaurants, or game-day energy whatsoever. Comparing the Coliseum location to the neighborhoods around Wrigley or Fenway is ludicrous.

It may be true that "Having a classic ballpark in Boston or Chicago beats having one in suburban, identity-less Fremont." So what? That isn't the choice presented. The point is, a park in Fremont with a Santana Row wrapped around it is still a dramatic improvement over the current situation.

Jesse said...

I agree, thats why I said "inside the park", but having never been to Wrigley or Fenway I cant comment much on the experience surrounding them. However I would speculate that there are good places to eat, shop and drink. There's no reason that can't be duplicated in a suburban area. And at what point to does a suburb cross the line into being more than just a place to live and becoming more of an urban place. If there is a line, maybe Fremont will have crossed by the end of the A's project.

MikeTeeVee said...

"Having a classic ballpark in Boston or Chicago beats having one in suburban, identity-less Fremont."

Is there an option for the A's to move to Boston or Chicago? How would that help Bay Area fans?

For now, the A's have a non-classic ballpark in an identity-less industrial zone.

"Even if Cisco Field will have the old charms and feelings of Camden or Wrigley, it will NEVER have a metropolitan city surrounding it."

The only metropolitan city around here is SF. Some other team already has the territorial rights to SF.

Ya gotta work with what ya got.

Anonymous said...

So now San Francisco is the only metropolitan option? Have you seen the Embarcadero around the Giants ballpark? It's essentially Santana Row with water. There's nothing special there.

Anonymous said...

Anymore "progress" sitings at Pacific Commons: soil testing, surveyors, old ladies wearing A's caps? It's getting awfully quiet around here.

Marine Layer said...

Not right now, that's the process. I haven't heard anything about any new work sessions yet. Once I do I'll post info on the blog.

Anonymous said...

I think DC missed an opportunity to make an instant classic. I was hoping for white roman columns on the outside.
As for Fremont, hopefully at least one face of the building will have a Spanish style architecture. And I'm fine creating a faux city around the park.

Jeffrey said...

"Mission" style architecture would be awesome! That is the best idea I have heard. Assuming that is what you meant Mr or Ms. Anonymous 10:55 pm.

In all the renderings (which admittedly don't show much of an exterior facade) I see all the bricks and think, why? That has been done a bunch already. Not to say it doesn't look great where it has been done, but originality is the best way to make something that stands out.

An homage to Mission San Jose, and the Missions of California would be very unique and down right awesome.

Anonymous said...

I was hoping that the new park would pay some sort of homage to Shibe park. I like the retro themes, albeit modified to accommodate modern amenities. On the other hand, the Mission style facade sounds intriguing! That would really be original. I wonder if there's a way to replicate some of Shibe in the interior while giving the exterior a mission style appearance?


Jeffrey said...

I was just looking at Shibe Park over at and thought why not just rebuild that?

Seriously though the home plate entrance at Shibe (which is awesome) is something that could probably be duplicated and incorporated into a Spanish architecture style stadium.

Then again, I don't know jack about designing a stadium.

Marine Layer said...

A Shibe Park style would work within the context of surrounding brownstones. I'm not expecting much. Ornate costs money and the facade will probably be value-engineered. We'll see.

FC said...

It appears the point of focus for Cisco Field will be the center field area, not the area behind homeplate. Given the location of the primary parking lots, along with the retail portion of the village, it appears most of the fans will enter the ballpark via the outfield or first base gates.

The dilemma here is how much time and money do you put into a facade which few fans will see while attending a game.