Ballpark of a Future Past

The new A's ballpark in Oakland may inject a dollop of real design innovation into baseball's wrongheaded fixation with nostalgia

Few American structures have been invested with as much mystical juju as the baseball stadium. It is a kind of civic talisman, if for no other reason than it makes grown men think about their daddies. A good one is said to be timeless, but even the best -- Wrigley Field, say, or Fenway Park -- are very much of their time. Indeed, you could construct a sort of history of the 20th-century American city merely by looking at 100 years of ballparks (no one calls them stadiums anymore). They've been, over the years, a fenced-in meadow, a glorified piece of kindling, a lyric little bandbox wedged into a downtown lot, a doughnut along a freeway at the edge of town, a spaceship, and, most recently, a lyric little bandbox wedged next to a Barnes & Noble. A ballpark, in other words, is never just a ballpark. It is a psychic projection of its era -- a concrete metaphor.

Last month, A's owner Lew Wolff unveiled an ambitious set of plans for a new Oakland facility, which would be built on the site of the Coliseum Flea Market, just north of the A's current home. It is a moonshot of an idea. Even a Wolff supporter, an Oakland City Council member, conceded this was "a dream": a 90-acre mixed-use baseball village, anchored by a small, 35,000-seat stadium -- small for the sake of "intimacy" (which is what baseball owners say when they mean "artificial ticket scarcity") -- in the corner of the development. Wolff presented only the broad outlines of his proposal, though he did say the A's ownership group "is willing to incur the vast majority of costs associated with the project." For now, the stadium site is up in the air, and Wolff's architects say the design -- the ballpark's exterior, for instance -- is still very much in its conceptual stages.

But dream or not, that concept is worth a look. It alone represents a break from the past 15 years of stadium design, which some call a second golden age of stadium building, but which might more accurately be described as a hegemony of regressive, infantilizing nostalgia. (The design sensibility of Dave Eggers' McSweeney'sliterary journal offers, strangely enough, a reasonable analogue.) It's the worst and most marketable aspect of baseball, this nostalgia, and any step away from it, even on an architect's drafting board, should be greeted as progress. Wolff's proposal, flawed as it is in spots, still with traces of ye olde ballpark, suggests we're entering a new era of stadium design, one that sits at the intersection of baseball's abiding wrongheadedness -- its greed, its nostalgia, its delusion that the game is the linchpin of any urban experience -- and a debate about a better way of living.

Click on the links to the right for stadium images and commentary

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