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This Diamond Isn't a Gem

And so the dreary list goes on. The interior spaces, accessible only to the public that can afford more expensive seats, are covered in carpeting that looks as if it came out of a Courtyard by Marriott. The private boxes are so generic in their fittings and finish, they remind one of the inside of a recreational vehicle. Look out of one of the elevator lobbies on the top ring and you see the exposed mechanicals on the roof of the team's corporate offices, a forest of metal junk.

All that for $611 million in public money. We have been trained to treat our sports teams, the industry behind them and the architecture that contains them with a grim sense of fatalism. Of course stadiums must be bigger. Of course the social space of an egalitarian sport will be distorted into a rigorous hierarchy of wealth and exclusivity. Of course the building will be crude and functional and inspire no one from the outside.

Of course? From the top of the stadium, look out at the skyline, toward the Capitol Dome. At first, it seems like a happy accident that it is most visible from the cheapest seats. But now look down into the neighborhoods where public schools have become dilapidated brick bunkers, their windows covered in forbidding metal mesh. It's enough to make you weep. Not about the stadium, which is as generic as it goes. But rather the cynical pragmatism that governs our priorities, socially and architecturally. Washington is a city where people can stare straight at the most powerful symbol of their democratic enfranchisement, and still feel absolutely powerless to change the course of our winner-takes-all society.

And it didn't have to be this way. It's not just a matter of misplaced priorities, which we can all argue about. It's also a matter of inept bargaining and bad planning.

"The city had Major League Baseball over a barrel if they wanted, because baseball had nowhere else to put the team," says Neil DeMause, co-author of "Field of Schemes," a look at the economics and politics of baseball. DeMause argues that Washington got one of the worst deals in recent history when it lured the Nationals here.

If the stadium sparks economic development in the newly revitalized South Capitol neighborhood, perhaps the fact that the city got hosed will be forgotten. But the architecture will remain, and it will remain mediocre. That failure isn't just a matter of bad negotiating on the city's part, or bland aesthetics on the part of HOK Sport, the architecture giant that designed the rush-job Nationals Park.

It is also a colossal symbolic failure with national and international import. At a time when the United States is losing a global argument about freedom and democracy, when China and countries along the Persian Gulf are proving to an attentive developing world that top-down leadership is the best and most efficient route to prosperity, the capital of the so-called free world built a monument to its national pastime that gets a C-plus.

It passes, barely. But as sports lovers know, sports is never just sports. And architecture, especially in a world capital, is never just architecture. Nationals Park might be a better experience than RFK, but it fails to say anything larger to the city, or the world.

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