Ballpark Concept Becomes Concrete

Architects' Vision Rises Beside the Anacostia as Opening Day Approaches

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 23, 2008; Page B01

It began with architect Marshall Purnell sketching a triangle on a piece of paper and drawing a big circle over it. And now, at least from high above, it's clear how that geometry evolved into the new home of the Washington Nationals.

The left side of the triangle is the flat face of the ballpark, stretching along South Capitol Street. The circle is the bowl that makes up the stadium itself. Fitting the seemingly incompatible shapes together was the first of many design challenges for the architects.

They had to squeeze the structure into a dense urban neighborhood that has little parking for fans. They had to place the 41,000-seat stadium so that it took full advantage of the views of the Capitol. And they had to make it a distinctly Washington creation, fitting in a city known for its government buildings and monuments.

Dump trucks and heavy machinery still encircle the stadium and construction workers swarm its interior, installing sheetrock and laying cables and electrical lines. But any passerby can see how the architects' first water color sketches, unveiled March 14, 2006, have turned into reality.

The stadium must be finished in time for a March 29 exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles, just 22 months after breaking ground in May 2006, making it one of the fastest-built ballparks ever.

Along South Capitol, the view is pure Washington -- precast concrete and glass that echo the traditional design of the federal government and reflect its hold on the city's architecture. The flat wall, the side of the triangle Purnell first drew, leads the eye toward the domed Capitol in the distance.

But from another perspective -- across the Anacostia River -- the view is nothing but ballpark -- stone and steel, bedecked with lights and a scoreboard that can only mean "Play ball!"

Fans and design critics will decide whether the ballpark is aesthetically pleasing. But one thing is certain: This ballpark does not fit the trend exemplified by places such as Baltimore's Camden Yards or San Francisco's AT&T Park, red brick edifices that evoke baseball in much earlier eras.

"Washington has never been that. People come to see the monuments, and none of them are red brick," said Purnell, a Washington architect who with Joseph Spear of HOK Sport in Kansas City, Mo., designed the new ballpark.

The new ballpark has a more modern design and has quirks that are distinctly Washington.

Cherry trees, a tribute to the blossoms that draw crowds to Washington each spring, will be planted along the north wall. The scoreboard is the biggest in the nation -- until another city builds one bigger. The best view of the Capitol will be from some of cheapest seats, above the first base line.

The outfield walls vary in height -- 9 feet in right field, where the Nationals' bullpen is located, 12 feet in center field and 10 feet in left field.

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