The Architecture of Disaster
Peter Richmond
August 11, 2011

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."

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 fašade 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...
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