Bleacher Bummers

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By: Print Magazine | April 8, 2009

It’s okay to gripe about new baseball stadiums with nostalgic styling, but do it for the right reasons.

Two ballparks opened in New York City last month—one each for the Mets and the Yankees—and if you read the design press much, you’ve probably come across some lament about their kitschy, historicist designs. Both are modeled after ballparks of old. The new Bronx stadium harks back to the original House that Ruth Built, which opened in 1923; in Queens, the Mets unveiled an homage to Ebbets Field, erstwhile residence of the Brooklyn Dodgers before their cross-country move in 1957. The situation isn’t surprising: It has become all but de rigueur for new baseball parks to trade in nostalgic design—brick facades, old-timey graphics—and equally obligatory for critics to carp about it.

I’m no fan of regressive, cliché-ridden design, but please forgive me if I suggest that this fixation on aesthetics is both professionally counterproductive and largely beside the point. The problems with these new ballparks go far beyond mere questions of style; they strike at the essence of what it means to create good design.

The new Yankee Stadium, for instance, is costing American taxpayers several hundred million dollars and the local community a cherished park. In exchange, we’re getting a stadium with fewer seats, a dramatically higher percentage of which will be at luxury price levels. Gone is one of New York’s great public spaces: the vast upper deck of the much-maligned old stadium, which was rebuilt in the 1970s. Perhaps that building was not an architectural showplace, but when it was packed with fans for a big game, there was no more electric place in the city.

Sadly, as is so often the case in the public discourse on architecture, the debate about this new ballpark and its cousin in Queens defaulted to questions of superficial formalism. The New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff set the tone in his initial critique of the Bronx park, panned for its “faux historical” envelope. Destruction of the standing building, however, was not at issue. “There are those, no doubt, who will complain about the loss of the site of some of the most memorable moments in the history of sports,” he wrote. “I am not one of them.”

I am, but perhaps that’s not the point either. New York has lost one of its great public spaces, the experience of the average fan has been compromised, and the community has been asked to pay astronomical sums for a work of (mediocre) architecture. Aren’t these the real design issues at stake?

Admittedly, baseball fans don’t really care much about design or styling, retro or otherwise. They demand only one thing—a good ballgame—and they will watch one in any building that hosts it, no matter what the place looks like. When the very modern Rogers Center (née SkyDome) opened in Toronto, it set attendance records. With a championship club on the field, it was the first stadium to draw more than 4 million fans in a season.

The task for stadium designers is to figure out how to best reinvent the medium. The two most beloved ballparks today are Fenway Park and Wrigley Field—opened in 1912 and 1914, respectively—and it’s critical to take away the right lessons from these hallowed grounds. Look closely, and you’ll find these vintage parks to be rough-and-ready works of scant luxury or decorative flourish. In straitened times, they make for appropriate models of inspiration. Unfortunately, New York will no longer have the chance to benefit from what they have to offer.

Mark Lamster is an editor-at-large at Princeton Architectural Press in New York and the author of a forthcoming political biography of the artist Peter Paul Rubens. Illustration by Annemieke Beemster Leverenz