A Field of Modest Dreams

The best features of the Nationals' planned stadium are inside the park, hidden behind four mediocre facades.
The best features of the Nationals' planned stadium are inside the park, hidden behind four mediocre facades. (Rendering By Hok Sport)
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The long-awaited ballpark design unveiled yesterday by Mayor Anthony A. Williams will create a gorgeous spot to watch the Nationals play baseball. That much is for sure.

Whether it will become an iconic work of Washington architecture, though, is another question altogether. The answer, unfortunately, is probably not.

With a mix of four different facades, a combination of clear glass walls and stone and stonelike concrete, a strong contrast between straight street-facing buildings and a dramatic bowl inside, the planned $611 million stadium is not your grandpa's ballpark, nor your dad's.

Which is to say, it is not a spaceship in a parking lot -- the type of multipurpose cylinder of the 1960s and '70s for which Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, which opened in 1961 as D.C. Stadium, was a prototype. Neither is it a version of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the brick-towered, green steel, single-purpose baseball stadium that in 1992 set in motion a construction boom of retro-style ballparks in cities across the land.

So the architects from Kansas City, Mo., and Washington must be credited with this much: They didn't do retro, and they tried darned hard to make something that was distinctly Washington. Something monumental and, at the same time, a building that fit into the capital city's unusual 215-year-old diagram of orthogonal streets and slashing diagonal boulevards.

That was, perhaps, a prime mistake -- thinking too much about Washington's grandeur, and too little about the power of architecture to change things, to move people, to make a great mark.

For whatever reason, this design has its exhilarating moments, but, in the main, is disappointing. It is not the sort of holistic, surprising, groundbreaking design that many had hoped to see. Not even close. From some points of view, you might even think of it as an office building with a slightly offbeat shape.

"You have to think of this very much as a work in progress," said Joe Spear of Kansas City's HOK Sport, which designed the stadium in partnership with Washington's Devrouax & Purnell Architects.

Spear's words, one fervently hopes, are absolute truth. Certainly, the heavy-handed color renderings presented yesterday did the design scant justice. They make the facades -- the long South Capitol Street elevation in particular -- seem almost blatantly mediocre, a strange transplant of degraded K Street modernism onto the blank canvas of the large, semi-industrial, semi-abandoned site in Southeast.

A lot can be done -- must be done -- in the detailing of these facades to erase, or at least modify, that impression. The rhythm of the glass walls -- vertical in places, horizontal in others -- ought to be brought into some kind of unison. And the quality of the glass and its metal framing (not to mention that of the stone and concrete work) will have to be as fine as fine can be.

One can see how hard the architects tried to maintain a straight framing edge along the eastern side of South Capitol -- which, planners insist, one day will become a beautiful urban boulevard -- while at the same time breaking the facade into smaller, separate pieces. The unfortunate result, however, is that this ballpark, on its most visible facade, doesn't look much like a ballpark.

Happily, that will not be true for folks who happen to walk by. The stadium will be at its best when seen from the ground and close up. The many openings on this facade and others promise wonderful views of the baseball diamond, 24 feet below the main concourse.

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