This Diamond Isn't a Gem
Nationals Park Gives Fans Plenty, But Its Bland Face Is a Muffed Chance

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.

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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