April 7, 2012

America's Pastime and the New Romanticism

The architecture of America's Pastime is riddled with emblems of nostalgia and patriotism: a construct of contemporary romanticism.

Beginning in the early-ninties, epitomized by Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a radical wave of New Urbanist NeO-rEtRoIsM shook the crumbling concrete foundations of heoric, all-in-one 70's avant garde sports arenas. New-Old buildings were the hottest thing since Old-Old buildings.

The multi-purpose "all-in-one" arena of the 1970's: ballpark as heroic object independent from the City. (source
Neo-Retro Contextualism of the 1990's: ballpark as well-mannered piece of the City. (source)
When Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened on April 6, 1992, a new era of Major League Baseball began. The park was brand new, but still old-fashioned. State-of-the-art, yet quaint. At less than a day old, it was already a classic. 
Oriole Park at Camden Yards inspired a generation of ballpark construction. No longer would communities across America build multipurpose stadiums devoid of character, surrounded by vast parking lots. Ballparks would now be created to nestle neatly into existing and historic neighborhoods and play key roles in the revitalization of urban America.
The bastardization of this movement occurred roughly one decade later (March 31, 2003) when the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Ohio was completed. Criticism of the stadium began at its conception, often focusing on the further dissolution of the idea of the ballpark as a heroic, structurally rigorous object of authenticity:

Overlay of Entertainment onto the Neo-Retro ballpark, circa 2000's (source)
"They made a neutral space and then they filled it with diversions."
"a theme park with a bad structure,"
"There is no logic to the way the structural system was developed."
"The building lacks a singular spirit. It's a restaurant and it's this plaza, and then the field and the billboards. It felt like we were in eight different places."
"There is nothing well composed about it. They didn't even do a good job of place-making, which is one of the most basic urban design concepts."
"It looks to me like there were 20 people saying: `I need a smokestack. I need double-hung windows because it reminds me of Crosley Field.'"
Desperation, due to chronically low attendance numbers (see Here and Here), has yielded an even more spectacular result in Miami, home of the re-branded Marlins. Their recently (2012) completed stadium features two signature aquariums behind home plate, constructed of 1-1/2" thick bullet proof acrylic to ensure no foul ball "accidents." The result yields a new vision of the contemporary ballpark, camouflaged as an entertainment-saturated theme park spectacle: A collision of Disney and SeaWorld; Vegas and Cooperstown.  

At some point in history, America's pastime offered an escape from reality, providing entertainment and pleasure to the masses. Inherent in this new 21st century evolution of stadia, however repulsive to the discriminating eyes of architects, lies an incredibly redeeming quality. Entertainment has somehow extended beyond the capacity of the game, and into the core of the building. Carlos Rojas of Cincinnati-based Environ Group puts it like this:
"The things we have criticized will make those slow innings go by a little faster.  There's a lot of visual excitement; it's like going to Barnum & Bailey's circus ... The magic happens once you get in your seat." 
In this manner, the romanticized notion of "America's Pastime" has become overrun by an even more romantic idea of the ballpark as a palace of visual excitement: a magical, re-imagined circus.

No comments: