A Field of Modest Dreams

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.

Unhappily the northern facade, which just happens to be the principal entryway, through which as much as 70 percent of the crowd is expected to arrive, is something of a disaster zone. The main reason is that the northern edge is where the architects were more or less forced to place two seven-story parking garages to house most of the 1,225 spaces required by Major League Baseball.

A principal civic entryway flanked by parking garages is not an attractive prospect, no matter how enticing the view into the ballpark. Yet designs for this entry remain clearly incomplete.

Its most crucial piece, for instance, is a large cylindrical form destined to house a restaurant. More important, it is meant to become the entryway's principal architectural beacon. So far, however, it hasn't risen to the task. Marshall Purnell, of Devrouax & Purnell, was understating it a bit in an interview when he noted, "A little more design energy is going to have to go into that."

For the record, this stadium is not really a "riverfront ballpark," as the mayor and others kept saying yesterday. Stretching from N Street SE in the north to Potomac Avenue in the south, and bordered east and west by First and South Capitol streets SE, the ballpark is a block from the Anacostia, the city's often-ignored second river.

That is not to imply that river and ballpark are not important to each other. Quite the contrary. The stadium is a major part of the city's noble effort to revive the Anacostia as an urban treasure, as well as to lure a lot of new office workers, residents and services to the underused "near Southeast" district.

That is the reason Spear, Purnell and company made such a big architectural gesture on the southern facade, fronting on Potomac Avenue. This is the most exciting aspect of the exterior. The swooping contour of the seating bowl will be visible as a "gateway" image from the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge (and from the bridge that will replace it in -- one hopes -- the near future).

Furthermore, the entryway and plaza here are far more enticing than those on the north. Presumably the Anacostia Waterfront Corp. is all set to take advantage of the opportunity by insisting on highly visible, commodious links to the riverside, even though much of the property between ballpark and river is privately owned, undeveloped land.

In a sense, this is what the planned ballpark is all about -- engaging future opportunities rather than present-day conditions. Or, to put it another way, the architects are attempting to design a building for a city that isn't there yet. Each facade is so different because the architects were responding to what planners and others kept telling them would be extremely different circumstances on each street.

The First Street facade, for instance, comprises a long row of nicely designed, street-facing retail stores. Although the stores are bound to remain empty until the neighborhood grows around them after the stadium is done in 2008, they definitely should be built.

In addition to the liveliness the stores will provide for the developing neighborhood to the east, they will help significantly to define this ballpark as a sophisticated urban entity. (Not incidentally, the same sort of thing was done with a high degree of success at Pittsburgh's new PNC Park, which opened in 2001.)

Two out of four is not bad in certain situations -- for instance, a .500 batting average is as unattainable as perfection itself. But with facades, two out of four is not good.

To switch to more gratifying aspects, though: The top of this stadium is unusual and elegant. All of 118 feet high, sheathed in silvery metal and supported by light-colored, tapering steel columns, it traces a graceful arc around two-thirds of the field. With the lighting banks affixed to its inner edge, this canopy gives a certain unity to the somewhat discordant design.

Majestic Washington views -- of the Capitol dome, say, or the Washington Monument -- will be rare. In the long run, after all, this stadium will be pretty much surrounded by buildings that will be more than 20 feet higher than the highest seat in the house.

But for certain fans, upper-deck seats in right field will be sought after for the view to the Capitol in the north. And the architects did a dandy piece of work with that set of ramps, cantilevered slightly over South Capitol Street. Set at a diagonal, it's almost exactly in line with the great stone obelisk to the northwest.

And then there's the interior, a truly happy story. Our stadium, of course, will be money-segregated, as are all the new ballparks, with a whole level of seats and amenities reserved for the baseball equivalent of gambling's high rollers. But every seat will be good in its own way, because the interior is thoughtfully designed to accommodate the game and its fans. Seating areas are broken into "neighborhoods," in Spear's word, by varying heights and seat alignments, while retaining good sightlines all around.

As for the rest, well, there's still some time, and much room, for improvement.

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