Ravens' nest: So near, yet so far Stadium: The design for the Ravens' new stadium is a hodgepodge of bits and pieces.

June 03, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

So near and yet so far.

That's perhaps the kindest way to sum up the problematic design of the $200 million football stadium slated to rise next to Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Plans are only at a preliminary stage, and there is still time for revisions before the Sept. 1 groundbreaking.

But at this critical juncture, this much is clear: Even though the Ravens' football stadium will be next to Baltimore's highly acclaimed Oriole Park, it's a far cry from it as a work of architecture and urban design.

Outside, its facade is an incoherent kit of parts and pieces, with none of the gentle rhythm or grace of Oriole Park and none of its vaunted quirkiness.

Inside, it's basically a cookie-cutter design, modified with a few notches and tilts on the upper deck, perhaps, but essentially a big, boring concrete bowl that could be anywhere.

With its high-tech, vaguely futuristic look and abundance of metal trim, it seems as if it belongs in downtown Cleveland -- as a companion to the Indians' Jacobs Field instead of Oriole Park.

All of which makes it a horrendous mismatch for one of Baltimore's most beloved landmarks -- like putting an airplane hangar next to the Jefferson Memorial. It may draw Ravens, but it's unlikely to draw any raves.

This disappointing initial design may not matter to the team owners, who have tickets to sell and a construction deadline to meet. But it ought to trouble Maryland's taxpayers, who have reason to expect more than a cookie-cutter solution or a Cleveland clone.

Oriole Park, after all, broke the mold in sports architecture. It wiped out 50 years of bad stadium design and triggered a back-to-the-city sports building boom nationwide.

Of course, some sports veterans warn that the Ravens' facility will never be one-of-a-kind the way the baseball park was, because football stadiums are essentially all alike, with the same symmetrical fields and the same seating issues to resolve. But that is the same sort of argument they made about modern baseball parks, too, before Oriole Park.

For the Ravens' stadium, state officials wisely hired the same "dream team" that created Oriole Park: HOK Sports Facilities Group of Kansas City. Given that decision, it would be a bitter irony if there were not some aspect of the Ravens' stadium that set it apart.

Much of the design challenge this time around comes from the building's gargantuan size and out-of-the-way location. It will be taller than Oriole Park, with more seats and less grass. The site is farther from downtown, with no romantic old buildings to play off.

In response to these constraints, HOK's architects created notches in the four corners to break up the mass and provide glimpses of the city skyline. They've opened up the base so people can look through arches and see the playing field. They've lowered the upper decks in the end zones so the seats are closer to the action.

That will help make the stadium fan-friendly. But a large part of the problem is its exterior surface and the way the building fits into its site. Mies van der Rohe once said that God is in the details, but the devil seems to have slipped in here.

While Jacobs Field has a certain visual coherence that grew out of its setting -- it was inspired by the bridges that span the Cuyahoga River -- the exterior of the similar-looking Ravens' stadium has a less direct link with Baltimore.

The surface is highly articulated, with sections of brick, glass and steel, accented by steel trim and grid-covered pedestrian ramps. The architects deserve credit for trying to dress it up. But the design is still too fragmented, like an office building that got caught in a blender with a parking garage.

Even more troubling, for a building that will be the ultimate symbol of the new Ravens, it's woefully short on personality. It's not a proud, majestic Raven. It's not a sleek, fierce Raven. It's a feeble, fledgling Raven that hasn't learned how to fly.

In many ways, the design team is grappling with the same issue it faced in Cleveland, said architect Joseph Spear, an HOK principal and lead designer for Oriole Park. Some fans want a traditional-looking stadium; others want a modern one. HOK wants both factions to be happy.

"We've tried to figure out: How can this object have two meanings, neither of which is false?" Spear said. "How can two sets of people say it's beautiful -- beautiful because it's modern, and beautiful because it's in the best tradition of the sport?"

The football stadium could be designed in any number of ways -- as long as it's well done. Architects are taught from the first year in college that whatever they do, they should do it as strongly as possible. The danger is that, in trying to please everyone, the architects could end up with a weak building that pleases no one.

While they ponder stylistic issues, they should also be exploring ways to make a one-of-a-kind facility that could only be right for Baltimore.

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