Summer of Mailbag: The Revenge

The Week That Was

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images Birds Nest

The Architecture of Disaster

New York City goes 0-3 with its new stadiums. Why can't Americans build arenas anymore?

My guess is that in the rest of the world, when someone decides to commit billions of municipal bucks to building a stadium for their city their first thoughts generally go immediately to the architecture. My guess is that the Beijing Olympics organizers didn’t sit down on Day 1 and say, “First off, which fast-food franchise should we put at the top of all the mezzanine escalators: Snake Shack or a Canton Cat Taco? What’s going to work, maximum-bucks-wise? And should we go with a Michael Jordan Steakhouse or Hard Time Café in the end zone?”

I’m going to guess that they said something like, “Who can design something that will put Beijing on the map as something other than a really large city in a really, really large country that likes to run over dissenters with tanks?”

So they dialed Herzog & de Meuron Architekten in Basel, Switzerland (very possibly because only high-end architecture firms use ampersands). Wherein H&deM (Pritzker winners; see: “Oscar for Architects”) took a generic large-stadium blueprint, poked a hole in the roof, melted the frame in the middle, and then wrapped the whole thing in what appears to be randomly displayed rubber bands or barbed wire, depending on your sex-act sensibilities. H&deM’s drawings came out looking like something Tom Servo would have designed on Mystery Science Theater 3000 if he’d been on acid.

Deservedly, The Bird’s Nest became an instant wonder of the modern world. Now, it’s not nearly as cool as the Float@Marina Bay, in Singapore, where the playing field lies out in the water while 30,000 spectators watch soccer games from a grandstand on land, or the Estadio Municipal de Braga, in Portugal, which looks like two mutant robots made out of steel waves having a tug-of-war with thin cables, using their teeth, while someone plays a game of something between them. In the meantime, graying Rungrado May Day Stadium is still jostling for room at the front of the visionary-architecture pack, even after more than two decades — a fabulous concoction, an eighth wonder of the stadium-architecture world. May Day Stadium manages to pack the populace of Dayton, Ohio, into a bowl, and still manages to bend, and even break, stadium-design boundaries. The only reason you haven’t seen it is because Kim Jong Il’s North Korean marketing-and-tourism team isn’t as killer as his architects. Even a weirdsmobile dictator who spends his vassals’ tax dollars by ordering fly-in McDonald’s from China recognizes that anyone building a stadium would have to be batshit crazy not to make it an artifice that would make the rest of the world look at it and say, “Cool!”

So what did the New York/New Jersey big-sports collective give the world in a once-in-a-millennium public works project whose cost exceeded the annual GDP of Barbados, wherein not one but three new stadia arose within two years?

The Yankee Clone, Ebbets 2.0, and The Jersey Lump.

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.

To confirm my suspicion I called Carlos Zapata, who, along with Benjamin Wood, designed New Soldier Field by more or less planting the outside of a giant flying saucer inside a 100-year-old becolumned shell — and providing the best sight lines in the NFL. Zapata’s Bitexco Tower in Saigon (picture a fat, 68-story worm with a large Frisbee jammed into the 44th floor) is his most dramatic design, but Soldier holds a unique spot in his heart. Nearly two dozen firms turned it down (“You want to build a new stadium without knocking down the 90-year-old skin? Dream on”). Greeted by resounding derision when it was unveiled in 2003, it’s now considered a complete success, an integral art of the second-city’s first-city architectural status.

“With most teams, usually, it’s a manager, or a second-tier manager, tasked to look for an architect,” he tells me. “So they look for someone good enough for them to keep their own job. They take no risk. They go down the list of firms that have built five stadiums already … or more. And each team keeps doing that. It’s such a shame. Other countries pay attention to these buildings. They are massive, and they are important.”

So why does America take so few design risks? “Our culture. Other cities in other countries don’t believe in wasting money the way we do. In America, we think, ‘It’s only going to be up for 50 years, so we don’t have to worry about what it looks like. In 50 years, it’s going to go down anyway.’ The problem is they then get replaced with bad buildings that are imitations. They’re not original, they’re not spectacular, they’re not singular to their setting.

“The baseball stadiums are the ones that are a total shame,” Zapata says. “They are looking backward.”

Estadio Municipal de Braga

As a guy who spent considerable time in George Steinbrenner’s presence back when both he and I were cogent and unreasonable men (me the barbed newspaper scribe, he the pompous asshole who once called Hideki Irabu a “fat, pus-y toad”), I never expected the Yankees to look anywhere but backward with the new park. After all, this is a family that, in lockstep to George’s scarily tin-eared, tone-deaf take on himself, now runs its corporation by the family’s uncurious, unimaginative philosophy of “I haven’t a clue about vision … but can I buy the guy who everyone else thinks is good?”

So I wasn’t surprised that the new stadium, with its faux-gold façade lettering, emerged with a distinctly Gilded Age/decline-of-the-Roman Empire vibe. The first (and only) time I sat in those thousand-dollar seats behind home plate, and a comely woman who looked like a young Cameron Diaz kept sidling up to ask if I needed anything, I was wise enough to ask for nothing more exotic than shrimp cocktail.

I’ll grant you that the new one’s not a bad place to watch baseball (although annual attendance is a half-million lower than the last year in the old one). But the real problem with wrapping the new place in a retro-traditional-revivalist costume is that once you’re inside there’s not even the slightest pretense about trying to duplicate the original sensorial experience of watching a game in the old stadium, when the borough of the Bronx was part of the fabric of the team’s success. This was when you could reach out from the upper deck and touch the Buy DiNoto’s Bread sign, two stories high, painted in red, green, and white on the back of the six-story, yellow-brick apartment house on 845 Gerard Avenue; when the Ayn-Randian blue-steel screech of the no. 4 train coming to a halt at the 161st Street station wafted the sweet, industrial fragrance of railroad brake linings through the upper rows of the right-center-field bleachers.

But who can complain when the new place is packed with such sophisticated lures as a private dining room where toqued chefs serve crab roll sushi, strip loin, locavore haricots vert, and chocolate mousse?

Is our pastime so past, its vision so backward, that, with his team lacking its own history, Fred Wilpon (or some second-tier manager) was so desperate for a folksy, Mickey-and-the-Duke feel that he had to glom on to the history of the Dodgers? I mean, no one expected a Frank Gehry ballpark replete with sea-wave layers of aluminum roofing — especially since Gehry had already signed on to design the Brooklyn Nets’ arena-cum-office complex, whose fanciful, striking bulges, prods, and slants promised to instantly place the borough in the pantheon of sports architecture. By the time Bruce Ratner’s accountants decided that Gehry’s fee was a tad steep (selling Ratner’s third home, on Montauk, for $10 million didn’t make up the shortfall) and jettisoned his blueprints in favor of an airplane hangar designed by Ellerbe-Becket, Wilpon’s architects, the ubiquitous HOK (they call themselves Populous now, vainly hoping to soften their well-earned image of builders, not designers), had designed a schizophrenic mess.

It’s not just that Citi Field looks backward; it looks backward through a fractured lens, as if it had been conjured by a freshman at RISD armed with some stadium-design software, a book of old-ballpark postcards, and 48 hours’ worth of meth. The brick façade pays homage to Jackie Robinson’s Ebbets. The porch in right pays homage to long-gone Tiger Stadium. The seat color pays homage to the Polo Grounds and Willie’s Giants, for christ’s sake. Remember Mickey Rivers’ assessment of Reggie Jackson? “No wonder you’re all mixed up. You got a white man’s first name, a Spanish man’s second name and a black man’s third name.” That’s Citi Field.

Why wouldn’t Wilpon, knowing that his crosstown rival was erecting a Historic Shrine To Which Sports Media Would Bow, give up the retro game and seize the future? Hire, at the very least, a RISD student armed with … an original vision? Maybe because they couldn’t afford to shovel the savings account at Maya Lin because they’d already shoveled it at Bernie Madoff.

If Fred insisted on looking backward at dollar-store prices; speaking of the Guggenheim, why didn’t he hire some design-savvy kid to comb the old annals of stadium design … and discover Frank Lloyd Wright’s plans for the mythical stadium in Broadacre City? How cool would that have been?

Broadacre, which never went beyond model form, was Wright’s vision of the ideal urban/suburban city in the mid-’30s, when he was looking for a way to combine urban dynamism with rural common sense. He designed a utopian town where our city-cluster need to nestle with each other met our need for an orderly, sensibly spatial community that could function logistically.

Wright laid out the model of the perfect city-town: 16 square miles on a grid. And right there In the middle of the Broadacre complex lies the city-town’s stadium. It’s a perfectly symmetrical circle-bowl, with no architectural detail at all. But it’d have been a Wright, and Fred could have built it for a song and produced a park that would have commanded headlines, essays, celebrations. For every backup catcher who said, “Weirdest piece of shit I’ve ever seen,” there’d be 10,000 fans flocking to a functional FLW monument.

Because they sure aren’t flocking to see the baseball team. In their final two seasons in obsolete Shea Stadium, a concrete cave that never pretended to anything but a large cereal bowl, the Mets averaged 3,948,000 fans. In the first two seasons in the new place, they drew 2,863,000. The laws of sports economics dictate that attendance always rises in a new place. Leave it to Madoff’s man to turn that tradition into pretzel logic.

Opening Ceremony

A few days ago I was talking to an artist friend, a guy of the South who 15 years ago, as an employee for a Southern building company, designed a small, visionary stadium for a Southern university that was starting a football program. My pal Rob’s design featured a grandstand wherein ribbons of grass taken from the actual field they’d have to tear up to lay down football turf were laid out in strips between each row of seats. To my eyes, the thing would have won awards and put the football program on the map.

The university president looked at his drawings and said, “I love pretty pictures. Now what’s it gonna cost me?” It was never built. (Rob and his wife went on to design furniture that now graces design museums, as well as a set for Weeds last season. How cool is that?) So anyway, the other day, after a shelter mag had just left the new house Rob and his wife designed, I told Rob how crazed I was at New York’s oh-for-three.

Now, remember, this is a guy from the South who once actually designed a stadium. He looked at me and said, “The Giants built a new stadium?”

Make no mistake: The Lump is the most featureless (and inefficient) stadium in history — and that includes (RIP) Cleveland Municipal Stadium (a.k.a. The Mistake By The Lake). The Lump is a huge, featureless rectangle, the sort of building you’d never glance twice at if you passed it on any interstate loop surrounding any American city. No, the kind of building you’d instinctually glance away from the way you’d glance away from anything Albert Speer had designed, because you instinctively knew that whoever wanted that kind of flat-lining affect on their office building were not the kind of people you wanted to hang with.

And that’s just what it looks like from the outside. From the inside, somehow, the upper deck seats are so cloud-scrapingly high that they put you closer to 767s on a flight path into Newark than to the players on the field — but furnish not a glimpse of the world’s most famous skyline, eight miles away. You could be in Meridien, Miss., or Allentown, Pa. Or you could be in the capital of the world. No way of knowing.

The escalators are so inefficient that if you want to have a halftime cigarette and you’re in the upper deck, you’ll be back in your seat just after the second half begins. If you smoke a 100, you’ll miss the first series. (Part of why I quit was so that when my friend David invites me to a game this year I’ll be able to spend my halftime less frantically, you know, paying $136 for fried clams that taste like pieces of deep-fried bald tire.)

Now, don’t tell me that the design constraints of a football stadium defy entrancing architecture — not until you’ve seen a Chiefs game in whimsical Arrowhead Stadium, designed by Charles Deaton, who also designed the futurama house in Woody Allen’s Sleeper. At its unveiling in 1972, Arrowhead became an instant architectural gem — and continues to draw the most fervently barbecued football fans in history. And, despite being wide open, is considered to be the loudest stadium in the NFL.

OK, the Maras couldn’t have called Deaton, who died 15 years ago. But what about Peter Eisenman, the designer of our most distinctive football stadium, University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona, where through the glass end you can see the desert buttes? Whose playing field slides in and out on rails?

This is a guy who got the Cardinals gig not only because his design offered the least expensive stadium per square foot built in the past 20 years, but because when a rep for the Cardinals called to say that they were considering him and Gehry as their architectural finalists, Eisenman told the guy that, for what it was worth, he remembered seeing Charley Trippi play quarterback for the Chicago Cardinals against his beloved Giants — for whom he’s had season tickets since 1957.

Eisenman isn’t just a lifelong Giants fan with a flair for the design-dramatic. This was a Jersey guy (birthplace: Newark) who lived through the Pisarcik years, The Fumble. Who remembers every mistake Bill Arnsbarger ever made … and whose revolutionary brain roams so far afield that as a “deconstructivist” architect he famously hung with his close friend, the late Jacques Derrida, the “deconstructivist” French philosopher of the post-Freudian school.1 Why didn’t the GiantJets call Peter Eisenman, the world’s smartest football fan? I did. I left a message with his assistant, which I went out of my way to make sound as if I knew what I was talking about, with requisite academic footnotes, saying that I wanted to ask him whether he thought the three stadia were nothing short of the greatest fiasco in architectural history.

She said he was designing something in Milan. He called back 37 minutes later. “You can have an architectural icon on a budget,” he tells me. “But this one … is really depressing. Forget the other two. The Giants had an opportunity …” and then he paused. I wondered if he were crying, but no. As a PSL holder in Lump seats that allow him access to an exclusive club that … offers no views onto the actual field… he just wanted to vent a little bit. Not as an architect. As a Giants fan of more than half a century.

“Going into the new stadium is like going into a Hyatt Regency hotel,” he says. “It’s sad; we missed an opportunity. There was no energy. There was nobody in the press who cared.”


Possibly because the owners of four different teams are all hooked on the junk of TV revenue, they have understandably mistaken their fans for TV viewers, and forgotten that their stadia are more than expensive couches from which to watch a game; they’re our modern town halls, the last surviving places where an otherwise solitary, smart-phoned populace can gather with people whose paths they’d never otherwise cross. In New York’s stadia, Midtown meets Midwood meets Little Odessa, and we bond not only over our teams, but our ties.

When I used to sit in my friend’s upper-deck, season-ticket Giants seats at the old place, I’d never fail to marvel when I saw this celebrated writer high-fiving the men and women around him: the loons in the Giants hard-hats, the insurance salesman, blue-collar, white-collar, no-collar. He knew them all as well as his neighbors back in the West Village. Well, better.

Of course, not all of those friends made the move to the new place. Not all of them could afford the PSLs that pay for the exclusive club that has no windows overlooking the field, or the huge video screens that do their best to distract you from the game itself, try to turn it into just another TV event … but fail.

A surprising number of them did make the move, of course. A surprising number of them paid the bucks — not just to keep seeing the team, but to keep gathering, weekly, in the cathedral with the family. But churches and chapels are still designed with the faith and passion of the congregations in mind. And when they ask for your bucks at least you still get a little stained glass for your money, instead of the best garlic-cheese fries that $29 can buy, served in a lumpen silver bowl.

Peter Richmond is the New York Times best-selling author of Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death and John Madden’s Oakland Raiders. This is his first piece for Grantland.

To comment on this story through Facebook, click here.