When Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992, with right field shadowed by a brick warehouse evoking urban stadiums of a bygone era, architectural critics and the baseball cognoscenti were nearly moved to poetry in declaring the stadium a home run.
Washington Post columnist George F. Will, the author of several baseball books, was likewise moved. “In an age when religious ceremonies are decreasingly central to most lives, and in a republic in which civic rituals are purposely few and spare, sport can satisfy a yearning for ceremony,” he wrote. “Baltimore’s jewel of a ballpark is worthy of such yearnings.”
Camden Yards was designed by HOK Sport, a Kansas City, Mo., firm co-founded by Ron Labinski, the first architect to specialize in sports. “A fan’s park,” in the description of New Yorker writer Roger Angell, the stadium established HOK and Mr. Labinski as the godfathers of sports architecture. Mr. Labinski died Jan. 1 at age 85.
"What Ron has done for the world of sport — well, he’s leaving a legacy behind him,” Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt said when Mr. Labinski retired in 2000, with a career spanning more than 500 projects, including the venues now known as Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Progressive Field in Cleveland and Oracle Park in San Francisco.
Before Mr. Labinski and HOK Sport came along, stadiums were largely doughnut-shaped, dual-purpose facilities with the personality of their construction material: concrete. Mr. Labinski and HOK Sport had a vision to transform struggling downtowns with deftly designed, steel structures featuring modern amenities, clear sightlines and premium club seats.
As the Kansas City Star noted in a 2005 profile of Mr. Labinski, “Concourses widened. Amenities grew. Someone dreamed of a special off-ramp for VIP fans. Sushi rolls popped up alongside bratwurst. It’s the way of the world."
The architect was especially adept at weaving a city’s character into stadiums. While working on Oracle Park, where the San Francisco Bay is just beyond the right field wall, someone suggested putting up a screen so home runs didn’t land in the water. Mr. Labinski was incredulous, according to Newsday. “Why not celebrate the Bay?” he asked.
No net went up, and the water became a feature of the stadium. Kayakers prowl the bay waiting for home run balls, even diving into the frigid water to snag them.
“Ron was able to see things that other people didn’t,” Joe Spear, an HOK Sport co-founder and lead designer on Camden Yards, told VenuesNow, a stadium trade publication. Spear also said that when Mr. Labinski made a suggestion to teams, “they all took it very seriously and that says a lot about the man.”
Ronald Joseph Labinski was born in Buffalo on Dec. 7, 1937. His father was in the wholesale food business and coached youth sports teams. His mother was a homemaker.
Growing up, he was constantly scribbling — “houses, barns, windmills, a lot of architectural subjects,” Mr. Labinski told the Star. “And then there was one of Ebbets Field. I had drawn a bunch of players standing around and a ball flying out of the stadium. I guess you could say that was a sign.”
Mr. Labinski studied architecture at the University of Illinois. After graduating in 1962, he served two years in the Army, stationed in Fort Riley, Kan. His first job in architecture was in designing hospitals. In 1970, Kivett & Myers, a small Kansas City firm, hired him to work on the design for Arrowhead Stadium, home to the Chiefs.
“Before Arrowhead, all the stadiums were built to comprise both football and baseball,” Mr. Labinski told the Star. “Arrowhead was the first modern stadium built solely for football. What we did here in Kansas City revolutionized the way people think about stadiums and stadium design.”
Arrowhead had the first instant-replay scoreboard. The seats were close — starting less than 50 feet from the sidelines. Suites featured four choices of furnishings: Contemporary, Old English, Mediterranean and Spanish. Lamar Hunt, the team’s owner, even had an apartment there.
The stadium made St. Louis, Kansas City’s rival city to the east, jealous.
“Sports, of course, play an important role in Kansas City’s quest for prestige, and Kansas Citians have battled long and hard to attain parity with St. Louis," an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said about Arrowhead. "But the result of their efforts has not been equality — that other city in Missouri has pulled ahead of St. Louis.”
After Arrowhead was widely praised, Mr. Labinski had a hunch that other cities and teams would pursue sport-specific stadiums. He made a list of professional baseball and football teams with stadium leases expiring soon. He also started attending league meetings to make contact with owners.
Opportunities rolled in, starting with Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands.
“It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that there was a market out there,” Mr. Labinski told the Star.
Mr. Labinski soon left Kivett & Myers and started another firm where he hired Spear, Chris Carver and Dennis Wellner to work with him on sports projects. In 1983, they joined HOK, a St. Louis firm, opening the HOK Sport division in Kansas City. (HOK Sport became Populous in 2009.)
A year after starting HOK Sport, Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie hired Mr. Labinski to build a new football stadium.
“Labinski sold Robbie on an idea that would forever alter the model for stadium and arena design,” according to “Designing a World-Class Architecture Firm,” a history of HOK. “He proposed an air-conditioned mezzanine section that looked like the lobby of an upscale hotel, with bars and areas to sit and talk. This ‘club floor’ would then provide access to fancy suites for upscale sports fans, each with a view of the field.”
Club-level seats, which are typically a stadium’s most profitable square footage, are now standard throughout the world.
Mr. Labinski died at a memory care facility in Prairie Village, Kan. The cause was frontotemporal dementia, said his wife, the former Lee Beougher.
In addition to his wife, survivors include two children, Michelle Embry and Kent Labinski, both of Kansas City; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Labinski and HOK Sport’s success spawned other sports architecture firms in Kansas City, turning it into a kind of Silicon Valley for stadiums. Architecture Magazine called it the “sports design capital of the United States.”
David Manica, a former principal at HOK Sport who later started his own firm, recently told the Kansas City Business Journal about the time he was in Qatar to interview for one of the World Cup stadiums.
“As I came down the escalator into the lobby, the next group of architects waiting in the lobby were all from Kansas City,” he said. “That was a telling moment of how Kansas City really shapes the world of sport design.”