Reactions to In the Same Ballpark, episode 262 from 99% Invisible.
When I was in graduate school, work around my thesis included the analysis of ballpark design from the formation of the game through the present day. The target for this deep analysis was to synthesize the design of a ballpark for the city of Des Moines, Iowa. 1
My studies throughout the university on that analytical side included a review of American photography (including but not limited to baseball photography), a study of maps of the American urban landscape from the 19th century to the then present day, and a detailed redrawing of the urban structure of Des Moines, Iowa, which would confirm the selection of a site and pursuit of a design. 2
My review of baseball photographs was not restricted to the architecture of ballparks alone: it included a look at people playing baseball in the landscape outside of ballparks. I also did not restrict my review to baseball’s golden age.
The analysis of maps proved particularly striking as urban landscapes changed when concrete donuts came to dominate the sporting landscape. Notably, one round thing would supplant another: many railroad roundhouses disappeared.
To create a new ball park for Des Moines was not just about the park itself — it was about the ballpark as an integral part of the city. It was a not a concrete donut which stood apart from the urban fabric — it was urban fabric. That a professional baseball team happened to occupy the green space within was a distinction I wished to destroy.
My analysis of Des Moines in particular would result in a “formula“ for which I created a large set piece — in effect, a bit of “fence”. The formula is expressed as
“(field + fence) * figure = panorama”
Each of these elements came with some subtext which I will not get into here but the gist of it was that every time I would sketch the site plan for my ballpark design or zoom into an element of it, I would ask myself what roles the parts are playing: Is that field? Is it fence? How does it contribute to the panorama of the urban environment?
The result of my work ended with an award recognizing outstanding academic performance in the fields of urban planning and development. That was in May 1990. I don’t recall exactly when it happened but imagine my surprise when I saw the design for the soon to be completed Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland! Here was the manifestation of my studies writ large — the existing warehouse of right field a grand manifestation of “fence”. With a ticket coming courtesy of a classmate who was a long-time resident of the Baltimore area, I was thrilled (to the point where I could look past the kitsch) when I made my first visit in its opening season. 3
It did not take long to see the writing on the wall, as noted in the 99% Invisible podcast, that this approach to ballpark design would soon be overdone. Many of these new parks revealed my thesis all too well: that a ballpark is urban intervention and reflection. The donut stadia were clear products of their time. While many of the new ballparks seek to be partners in a “new urbanism”, they are often instead donut stadia in heavy makeup.
Some of the highlights of my ballpark for the Des Moines Cubs:
- Housing for baseballs fans: the left field fence was comprised of townhouses with terraces making, in effect, the ball field their back yard.
- A sloping outfield — sloping down to the Des Moines river away from home plate. The outfield was too deep to hit one into the river (although maybe not for the steroid era or such sluggers as Adam Dunn). No wall was included however, opening the tantalizing prospect that an inside the park home run would be transformed into an outside the park homer, provided the ball found it’s way into the river by a bounce or roll. Perhaps it would be accompanied by an overly eager outfielder.
- The drinking cage: remembering an episode from my childhood when the beer of an overly enthusiastic fan found its way onto me, I created a “drinking cage”, wrapped in chicken wire, located above the opposing team bullpen (with a nod and a wink to Bob’s Country Bunker.)
The Des Moines ballpark has since been rebuilt and does include elements reflecting the present-day attitude to ballpark design. The area west of the park has been redeveloped such that the ballpark is adjacent newer urban infill. (My thesis project included this area as well, although principally as recreational green space, not building square footage.)
Looking today at a panorama of the park online, I am struck by the thing that inspired me during my visit to Des Moines in 1989 when I first wrote my urban formula: the vast green stretching from home to the outfield fence, the figures of the capitol (with its stunning library), a flag, and advertisements animating the scene. In the none-too-distant past, that would have included the Marlboro man silhouette, a cardboard version of which is one of the few surviving parts of my 4’x8’ “fence”, the centerpiece of my presentation at Yale. 4
- I am purposefully using the words analyze and synthesize here as that was the language used by my thesis advisor, Mario Gandelsonas. It was a way of describing what we do as architects, at both small — daily development of a design or details — and large scales — creating a language or lens through which we, as architects, would interact with the architectural world. ↩
- My work in that final year at Yale resulted in an obsessive pursuit of baseball related activity, including a 24-hour road trip to Cooperstown, New York with 4 friends in a Volkswagen Campmobile. I sought ways to tie every course in my final semester into my architectural thesis: cartography studies in the amazing Yale map library; photography studies ranging far and wide, even touching on photos of Americans of Japanese descent playing ball in interment camps. In my environmental studies class, the strength of the description of the American landscape before and shortly after europeans arrived led me to look at North American burial mound architecture as inspiration on how to treat the landscape adjacent my ballpark design. And how did I dress at the Beaux Arts Ball that year? I recruited a team to be part of a group costume — Fenway Park’s Green Monster: the costume included a few people as grass, others as the wall itself, and one person as a ball which bounded throughout the group as we danced. Sadly, I have no photographic evidence of this moment. ↩
- After graduate school, I found my way to Hagerstown, Maryland, less than 2 hours from Baltimore. The job market for architects was down and I did not wish to move to New York or San Francisco. (I had a verbal offer for a job which was either in or for a project in San Francisco — the office was in New York.) I was living near good friends — for a while in a sit-com style setting where I was in the apartment above and would often go down the rear stairs of the apartment from my kitchen to their kitchen for breakfast, drinks, dinner, or all 3. They moved to a farm; I moved to a loft a few blocks away. There, inspired by a short story by W. P. Kinsella, I built a sculpture titled “Box of Grass”. It was one of my first forays into woodworking and a last gasp toward baseball. It did make its way into a show at the local art museum: a lid, bounded by a fence, sat open above a pizza-box sized footprint of turf (which proved difficult to keep green for the 2-week long show). A baseball rested upon it. Around the lid was stenciled the title of the short story, “The Thrill of the Grass”. ↩
- That model was included in one of the early exhibits at the then relatively new National Building Museum in Washington, DC in the summer-fall of 1990. ↩