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.