This Diamond Isn't a Gem

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2008

The gentle slope of the land on which new Nationals Park sits has one striking architectural consequence: After a visitor passes through the main-entrance gate, the field is laid out below, a sumptuous swath of green as satisfying to something primal in the American soul as a field of gazelles is to a lion stalking the savanna.

That first glimpse of the lovely sodded plane is one of the strongest features of the ballpark, which has a surprisingly intimate feel, with good sightlines throughout, given its nearly 42,000-seat size.

The stadium, completed on time if not quite polished down to the last detail, has a contemporary finish, with exposed steel girders and exterior walls covered in precast stone panels and metal cladding. It is a machine for baseball and for sucking the money out of the pockets of people who like baseball, and it makes no apologies about its purely functional design.

Although much has been made of its wonderful views of the iconic Washington skyline, it is an inward-focused building, with the field at its center, and rings of concession stands around the edges hiding external views in most places. Even on the inviting open-air corridor of the third level, where people of normal economic means can buy seats without dipping into their kids' college funds, food stalls and bathrooms block what might have been a wonderful view of the Anacostia River.

As people circulate through the stadium's public spaces, where beer can cost $7.50 and the cheapest hot dog is $4.50, the human traffic flow unifies the two central purposes of the building: baseball and the fleecing of baseball audiences. This circulating motion wrings money out of you like wet laundry on the spin cycle.

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.

So it was no surprise to stand in the crowd, at an exhibition game Saturday evening, and hear several variations on this verdict: "It's a much better experience than RFK." The old and much-maligned RFK Stadium, where the Nationals played the past three seasons, might be a better building -- more visual interest, more presence on its prominent site, and a better mix of modern style with the city's vernacular gravitas -- but it was a lousy experience. Today, we have a great experience but, alas, a lousy building.

Indeed, when people says it's a better experience, the building almost disappears in their judgment, which is exactly what the new stadium does in its location. Although it is positioned on one of the most symbolically significant and potentially beautiful axes of the city, aligned with the Capitol and next to the Anacostia River, it all but fades into the landscape. Two disastrously situated parking garages -- reserved for high-paying ticketholders -- obscure the front entrance, and its other three sides present a bland face to the world.

RFK Stadium at least looks like a stadium, with a classic shape that recalls noble precursors back to the Roman Colosseum. Even Oriole Park at Camden Yards has more presence in Baltimore than Nationals Park does in Washington.

There were so many lost opportunities. Approached from the South Capitol Street bridge, the building might have been better framed by more greenery -- but a parking lot for the team has been placed right where a garden should be. Along South Capitol, the face of the building might have been opened up for street-level retail, something to make it inviting and even useful for the residents of the very poor neighborhood. There are even glass windows that suggest what storefronts might have looked like, but those windows are filled with Nationals advertising and they hide empty, useless space.

To really understand what might have been, you have to think outside the corporate and rapacious envelope of Major League Baseball. News flash: Stadiums don't have to be ugly. Santiago Calatrava did beautiful work on the Olympic Stadium in Athens. Wembley Stadium in London has taken on iconic visual status. All reports suggest that the stadium designed by Herzog & de Meuron for the Beijing Olympics -- the so-called Bird's Nest -- might be breathtaking.

Those aren't baseball stadiums, comes the answer. Yet there is nothing particular about baseball, except how it is structured financially, that precludes first-rate, daring and exhilarating architectural form. Ballparks look like shopping malls -- functional, cheap and cluttered with branding -- because the cities that build them are forced to design structures that will maximize the profits of baseball owners. Architectural seriousness is not among the priorities.

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