Jul 09, 2008, 05:28AM

Baseball's Difficult Architectures

Money’s obviously the bottom line, but can’t stadium designers at least try to reflect a city’s personality in their buildings?

Comerica tiger.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Photo by mrkumm

I have the mixed blessing of a deep-rooted relationship with Oriole Park at Camden Yards. My family had season tickets for many years and it was in October of 1996—the home playoff game against the Yankees immediately following the second-only-to-Maradona “hand of God” incident—that I first tasted the sweet bile of Yankee-spawned hatred. And nothing on Earth will top Cal Ripken, Jr.’s 2,131st consecutive game.

The environment of the park itself is indelible to the shelf life of these memories. Camden Yards is well to the right of the bell curve of what we expect from stadiums nowadays. It is a singular fusion of the essentials: baseball, geography, history and tone. These tropes are crystallized in one particular approach to the park that takes you through acres of parking lots, the entire vista a tribute to the phalanxes of stadium lights and the great brick warehouse running behind right field and Boog’s BBQ. It's a glorious success.

Still, a lot of children fall in love with their hometown ballparks simply because baseball, regardless of the stadium, has that power. But only the best ones resonate like Camden Yards.

There is another end of the spectrum, however. Stadiums, like any massive public structure, risk blemishing skylines and neighborhoods on a massive scale—they take years to build and are rather complicated things to get rid of. Let’s not even get into the atrocious reality of stadium names; they’re the necessary byproduct of huge corporations underwriting construction costs, or paying enormous sums for the privilege of brand identification, in the first place.

The magic of home runs and game-winning touchdowns and buzzer-beaters isn’t entirely subverted by horrendous architecture or corrupt corporations, but at least one instance comes close.

I had the pleasure of witnessing the re-emergence of the Detroit Tigers as a competitive ball team. I got five years of schooling in Ann Arbor, worked in Detroit and made it out to a good number of games at Comerica Park in downtown D-town. After paying someone $5 to “look after” my parked car, walking by Hockey Town and the Bolshevik-esque Fox Theater and feeling a steady pulse from a down-but-certainly-ain't-out town, I’d behold the park for its antithetical splendor.

I’ve experienced over half a dozen ballparks—not an astounding amount, I realize—and Comerica is, without a doubt, the worst example of a baseball stadium I have ever seen.

Any sports stadium has two main motifs from which to draw a visual narrative: the sport itself and the team name. In the case of Comerica, we have baseball and tigers. The resulting visual assault is most similar to a balls-out amusement park. Massive, massive baseball bats and tigers flank the main entrance; along the curving sides there are tiger heads gripping baseballs in their mouth (a la pigs with apples) and wavy claw marks. Altogether the stadium has all the subtlety of a foul ball to the forehead. It is kitsch—offensively ugly kitsch.

Though the one-block radius around the stadium is bustling, the surrounding neighborhoods and skyline are marked with looming abandoned buildings and empty lots. The city as well as the state of Michigan is going through tough times as the automobile industry founders and flails. Now, a baseball stadium (or any other type of stadium) need not be a literal reflection of its home city and state—indeed, such an approach would be ripe for catastrophic failures. But the wantonness of Comerica Park's commercialism is decidedly jarring. My first visit there recalled trips to Funland on the boardwalk at Rehobeth Beach, Delaware. There are video games as well as ridiculous neon "cocktails" in long plastic "cups" (unfortunately many stadiums suffer from this last blight). Where was the ferris wheel? Or the gravitron?

That Detroit is suffering commercially, and the stadium is over the top commercial, is the point. The intentions, I'm sure, are benevolent but the result borders on mocking.

The stadium is built to appeal to kids. And why not? Get 'em while they're young so they keep coming back. But something is lost in translation. Something is missing from the park, something that, to be fair, you can't create out of nothing no matter how much brick and ivy you might have. But stadiums that so readily drop to the lowest common denominator in visual and architectural appeal sacrifice what imbues the stadium with a consciousness greater than the sum of its parts.

I'm not asking Comerica to look like Camden Yards. The Orioles' stomping grounds was made to look "retro" and it worked. Every park has its own feel: modern, retro, minimal, extravagant. But a little tact can go a long way. Somewhere along the way, the planners of Comerica figured that gaudiness is king; that glitz and cartoonish architecture will prevail. The sad reality is that the park looks like a scene from a bad children's movie. To risk a little cliché, the stadium could look a little tougher, a little more industrial—not Rouge Plant industrial, but sometime a little more congruent with the city around it. What about a little technological sexiness? Anything but the kitsch.

I certainly don't expect Detroit to scrap Comerica and build another park. I do hope, though, that future stadiums take greater consideration of their surroundings than the situation in the middle of D-town.

  • The one thing Comerica does manage to preserve is a nice skyline. But the enormous sculpture that are made to look like they are roaming the skyscrapers when you go up the escalator...yeah it's pretty kitsch. Thank god there are no hot tubs in right center field (Arizona?) or laser tag zones (Toronto). Tiger Stadium, with its 440 ft center, was historical but theres no comparison between it and Wrigley or Fenway. It was kind of a dump. The Nats stadium soom to be EXXon field (no joke) has a similar amusement park feel. I half expected to see an inverted coaster go around the scoreboard.

    Responses to this comment
  • I agree that Comerica Park has its design flaws, including elements that don't respect the history of the game in Detroit (original dimensions, no RF upper deck or upper deck bleachers). However, to me, the stadium incorporates unique elements that are fun for kids (including a Ferris Wheel that this article mentions sarcastically without realizing that it actually exists at the stadium) without affecting the quality of the fan experience for the baseball diehard. Camden Yards is a wonderful place to watch a game--a trendsetter and one of the best--but they too sell their neon drinks, have video game kiosks and an inflatable bouncy kids zone (which Comerica does not). To each his own, I suppose, but I find the Tiger Statues to be cool additions to the exterior of the ballpark that balance some of the traditional elements on the inside. I think that this article goes a bit far in saying that this is the WORST place to watch a game. San Francisco has a huge Coke Bottle slide for kids, Anaheim has a waterfall, stadiums have pools in the outfield, or 40 foot slides that mascots ride down. Stadiums from 50 years ago had "exploding scoreboards" and petting zoos and advertising plastered on every wall. It is nothing new and I think that Comerica Park does a good job of balancing the entertainment value with classic ballpark design. Sure, it won't go down as an iconic stadium like Camden or some others, but it does the trick and fits into its surroundings much better than this article lets on (relatively low profile, walkable, connection with bright entertainment district & greektown, bordered by a park). Either Klein needs to visit a few more parks before labeling his "worst" list, or he needs to desensitize himself to some stadium accessories and just enjoy the game.

    Responses to this comment
  • Also the music at Comerica is ten thousand times better than at any other stadium. Seriously since when was Neil Diamond synonymous with baseball?

    Responses to this comment
  • @gbaker--Tiger Stadium was kind of a dump, but only because it was neglected in its last few years of life as they tried to get a new stadium built. Wrigley and Fenway were in disrepair during that era as well (Wrigley has pieces of concrete falling from the upper deck with nets to catch it) but cleaned up after they saw the backlash in Detroit that surrounded abandoning Tiger Stadium. Although they are iconic and wonderful stadiums, they have the same cramped, dark concourses, crummy bathrooms and obstructed view seats that everybody bitched about at Tiger Stadium. You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. A reasonable renovation could have preserved Tiger Stadium for years (and made it a non-"dump") but the lure of new stadiums in that era was too strong.

    Responses to this comment
  • I've never been to Comerica, but watching games on tv, I love the "kitschy" tigers. I also like, on the field, the patch of dirt from the mound to home plate. By the way, I really like Angels Stadium and the waterfalls, not to mention the wrap-around out-of-town scoreboards. I haven't been to many ballparks, but Angels Stadium is better than PNC, Petco, obviously the rubble that houses the A's, Minute Maid and the Ballpark at Arlington.

    Responses to this comment
  • Tell me how Yankee Stadium, with the wealth of its owners and many of it patrons, reflects the personality of the BRONX?

    Responses to this comment
  • Call me a "purist," I guess. Or maybe it's my art history background clashing with my love of baseball and the sport's super kitschy stadiums. There has to be a better way. And Greenlight, I've never been to Daemon Pit Lord Yankee Stadium before, but though your point is quite valid class issues are a whole different—ahem—ballgame than architecture.

    Responses to this comment
  • I've never been to The House that George Steinbrenner Tore Down either, although my great-grandparents went often. They lived in the South Bronx when it was an Irish ghetto and saw Ruth, Gehrig and Joe D. As for class issues, I don't think that's another "ballgame." You'd know better than me, but wasn't the Nats' new stadium constructed to breathe life into a dangerous and deserted area of DC?

    Responses to this comment
  • I do think they're different issues though you're right in implying that they aren't foreign to each other. I'm talking about visuals, about architecture. A stadium could be visually appealing and historically/thematically in line with the surrounding city and still be ruthlessly corporate/out of line with the surrounding demographic. On a totally different note, the new Nats stadium is one of the most energy efficient stadiums in the country and earned some sort of special designation that had never been given to a stadium before. Word.

    Responses to this comment
  • It's true, Nationals stadium was given LEED certification, which is absolutely outstanding--the new stadium in Minnesota is trying to do the same. As for stadiums fitting into its architectural surroundings, that is very difficult to do. In the case of downtown stadiums, it is particularly difficult to integrate a new stadium into an existing downtown setting. That camden yards can do it is amazing, but it only works because of the existing warehouse they were able to utilize (much like Ford Field in Detroit). From the other angle, Camden and Ravens stadium stick out like sore thumbs--looming behemoths and miles of parking lots. Wrigley and Fenway (and Tiger Stadium) work because the neighborhoods literally grew with and around the ballparks. To your main point, Comerica could have done without its Tigers statues and been fine--I'm guessing that they were trying to separate themselves from the Retro Ballpark pack and only time will tell if it succeeds architecturally (remember, "the Astrodome" was once the future of architecture). Still, the stadium integrated into the urban vernacular of the area very well, and I don't believe that the detail work takes away from that. You need to separate what you see as kitschy art from what is actually successful architecture and urban planning.

    Responses to this comment
  • I definitely concede the "sprawling parking lots" point. Comerica does not suffer from that affliction and I should have noted that in the column. But form cannot be divorced from function. The baseball bats and tigers and claw marks are part of the stadium's function. It's simply cheesy. Too cheesy, I argued. Yes, if I "separate the kitschy art" from the "successful architecture" I would have written a different column, but it would have been about a different stadium.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment