Aaron Gordon doesn’t agree with Peter Richmond’s take on the decline of American stadium architecture. At all.
I didn’t think I was an expert on stadiums, but after seeing what passes for expertise at Grantland, I’m beginning to think I might be. The site published a piece by Peter Richmond, author of a book about the Oakland Raiders—I only mention this because I had no idea who he was until I looked it up—where he laments the current state of American stadium architecture. At the very least, I know enough about stadium finance, development and the legislative process to correct Richmond on a few matters.
As you might be able to tell from the title of his first Grantland piece, “The Architecture of Disaster”, Richmond is concerned with the architectural dullness of America’s sports stadiums, particularly the three new structures in New York City: Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, and the New Meadowlands. I agree with Richmond on these points; all three of these stadiums leave a lot to be desired. But the tone of his piece makes it sound like this was due to gross negligence and endemic of a greater American loss for structural relevance:
How can the former architectural capital of the globe (the Chrysler Building; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim; that black cube balancing on one of its corners down on Astor Place in the East Village, about which two generations of stoners are still wondering whether it really moved when they leaned on it or it was just the weed) erect three buildings so irrelevant in design that they were greeted by a collective, global yawn—when they were greeted at all?
Because, I suspected, the architecture of most of our national stadiums is now, officially, an afterthought. The revenue jones has reduced design to irrelevance—even though a killer, eye-opening edifice, in the long run, is worth its weight in publicity gold.
First of all, the comparison to structures like the Chrysler building, the Guggenheim and other New York architecture landmarks is horribly misguided. These buildings were funded under vastly different circumstances than most contemporary stadiums (Walter Chrysler paid for the Chrysler Building himself) and as such, could be designed however the financier deemed fit. This is not how most American stadiums are conceived.
As I have written at this site, stadiums are typically the result of empty threats of relocation until the owner gets partial (or complete) funding from the government. Politicians play along with this game because they can use this major project to leverage construction companies, contractors, and yes, architects for the project. Despite Richmond’s account of owners picking up the phone and shopping around for architects, that simply isn’t how the process goes. Richmond’s image is a simplistic account of a very complicated song-and-dance between politicians, owners, leagues, and private companies that all want a piece of the stadium pie.
As if in an act of self-parody, Richmond supports his conclusion that owners don’t care about how stadiums look by interviewing Carlos Zapata, who Richmond brags is a co-designer of the New Soldier Field, which is one of the ugliest stadiums in the world. Does it look different than most American stadiums? Oh, it sure does, but that’s because it looks like a flying saucer landed on the Lincoln Memorial. Remember, this is supposed to be a memorial to America’s veterans, but has come to be known as the “Spaceship on Soldier Field” (and lost its historical landmark status as a result of the horrid redesign). This is akin to citing Michael Bay while opining the downfall of artful American cinema.
Richmond goes on to whine about how terrible the New Meadowlands is, and I am sympathetic to this argument. I agree with many of his critiques, including the elevated upper decks and muted seat color. The thing is, the stadium was designed to be much more, but then the Great Recession happened, and all of the financiers involved kind of ran out of money. So they had to cut everything but the bare bones. The New Meadowlands was not, even by its original design, going to be one of the premier facilities in the world. But, it was supposed to be a hell of a lot better than it is. The result that we are stuck with is not for lack of inspiration or imagination, but rather a financial crisis and the constraints of accommodating two teams in one stadium.
Perhaps the most egregious error in Richmond’s argument is what he doesn’t say. Sure, New York’s stadiums lack aesthetic appeal, but he extrapolates this conclusion to all of America’s stadium construction. In doing so, he ignores a fundamental aspect of American stadiums.
He briefly mentions University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Arizona Cardinals call home, as “our most distinctive football stadium.” (I’m going to ignore Richmond’s implication that if architects are fans of the team, then the design is somehow intrinsically better, which he claims about University of Phoenix Stadium. I feel like this is something Joe Morgan would vigorously agree with.) There are so many things wrong with this it boggles the functional mind.
First, The Dome in the Desert is not our most distinctive football stadium. He mentions Arrowhead Stadium as being a jewel, and indeed it is, by all accounts, a fantastic stadium. But so is Lambeau Field, certainly more distinctive than The Dome in the Desert, not to mention Cowboys Stadium with its 80-yard screen and 100-foot retractable glass walls.
Indeed, Richmond’s omission of Cowboys Stadium is emblematic of his various logical missteps. Jerry Jones began construction under the impression he would be personally financing the entire structure, much like the iconic Chrysler Building, the likes of which Richmond idolizes. Cowboys Stadium is actually quite sleek, and even more so from within. Despite its size, the stadium is functionally nimble, allowing it to accommodate all types of events to maximize revenue. It may not be designed specifically to impress the world in one night (as the Beijing Olympic Stadium was infamously was designed to do) but rather to not be a financial burden on those who paid for it.
That brings me to the most fundamental disagreement between Richmond’s account of stadium construction and my own. Stadiums in America are for sports teams, which are private businesses that operate on profit and loss and therefore need to host a variety of events. Abroad, many of the most architecturally impressive stadiums (including the ones mentioned by Richmond that float on water or whose exterior was the prominent design point) are built specifically for a single, global event. When a $500-million stadium is being built to be showcased to the world over a two-week period (“And then we’ll play some soccer games in it or something”), then you’re damn right it better, as Richmond says, “make the rest of the world look at it and say, ‘Cool!’”
Surely our stadiums are not perfect, and over the next few weeks here at The Good Men Project, I will be documenting my tour of Northeast baseball stadiums where I will surely raise some of the same concerns Richmond does about the current state of our facilities. However, to reduce their shortcomings to a lack of architectural ingenuity is factually, logically, and perceptively incorrect.