Redskins' new home is a site to behold Cooke Stadium hints at Ravens' future

October 23, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The Washington Redskins' new home, Jack Kent Cooke Stadium near Landover, has been likened to a flying saucer, a trans-Atlantic ocean liner, an oversized jungle gym and a parking garage with seats.

But no matter what images it evokes, Cooke stadium already has proved to be a valuable addition to Maryland's growing inventory of sports and entertainment venues.

Despite some early glitches, including a 15-mile backup on the Capital Beltway and a slew of broken ATM machines inside the gates on opening day, the $180 million stadium demonstrated it not only could absorb 80,000 spectators but entertain them with all the creature comforts fans now expect from modern sports palaces.

Though monumental on the exterior, the open-air stadium is surprisingly intimate inside the seating bowl -- and easy to get around. Concessions stands and restrooms are plentiful. Seats and sightlines are good. Locker rooms and skyboxes are suitably lavish for the millionaires who occupy them. It's flexible enough to attract rock concerts and other nonsports events. In short, it does the job the late Jack Kent Cooke built it to do -- and then some.

For observers visiting from Baltimore, whether for the Rolling Stones concert tonight or the Ravens-Redskins game Sunday, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the new Cooke stadium is what it reveals about the football stadium now under construction 30 miles to the north -- the Ravens' $220 million roost at Camden Yards.

As the first of two NFL stadiums designed for Maryland teams by the same architect, HOK Sports Facilities Group of Kansas City, Cooke Stadium shows what an asset the Ravens' home could be when it opens next August in downtown Baltimore.

Cooke, who died in April, made it clear to his architects from the outset that he wanted a stadium that would give fans a great sporting experience from every seat and all the modern amenities RFK Stadium in Washington never had. But he didn't want to be extravagant about it.

Architects Ben Barnert and Bradd Crowley say they remember Cooke lecturing them about another sports facility he built, the Great Western Forum in Southern California. When he built it in the 1960s as a palace for his NBA team, the Los Angeles Lakers, Cooke was determined not to cut any corners and ended up spending $16 million to $17 million.

But when the Philadelphia Spectrum went up for close to half the price and generated the same revenues, they say, Cooke realized he could have had the same results in Los Angeles without spending nearly as much. Since the Redskins' owner was using his own money to build the football stadium, he made it clear that he didn't want to make the same mistake twice.

More than any other decision, Cooke's choice of the Landover location helped him keep costs under control. Given 300 acres of former farmland in Prince George's County, his designers had no strong urban context to relate to, no expensive neighboring buildings to emulate. Instead, they were free to concentrate on putting up a structure that provided the desired number of seats and suites, with the best possible views of the playing field and the best possible accommodations for the athletes and others who will perform there.

The House That Jack Built

As seen from a distance, the exterior of Cooke stadium is a collection of parts. Sculpturally, the strongest impression is made by the splayed steel beams that support the upper deck. They sit diagonally atop massive concrete columns, like branches of a tree.

The ramps are more utilitarian, an interlocking double system that carries twice as many people as thinner ramps at older stadiums. Resembling nothing so much as the sloping levels of a concrete garage, they are the stadium's least attractive element. But they are what they are, and there was no particular effort to disguise them for this location.

The stadium's predominant color is white -- an intentional reference to the white monuments that can be seen in the distance in downtown Washington. It is as if the architects were suggesting this is the Capital's latest monument -- which, in a sense, it is.

Once inside, patrons have no visual reminders of the massive structural system that holds up the stadium. The primary view is of the giant oval of 80,116 seats that surrounds the playing field. The seats are divided into three outdoor levels, denoted by alternating shades of red and gold, with two tiers of skyboxes, 208 in all, above the club level.

At times it may feel like sitting inside a giant, hollowed-out watermelon -- or football -- but it works. Thanks to HOK's exacting calculations of sightlines and seat angles, there isn't a bad seat in the house -- although the thick railings in front of certain seats have drawn more than a few complaints.

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