New kid on block Stadium: From its brick exterior to its gap-toothed upper deck, Oriole Park's neighbor to the south achieves a look that is distinctive, as well as compatible.

Stadium Watch

July 10, 1998|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When the people designing Baltimore's new football stadium first gathered around the black marble conference table in the architect's offices here two years ago, each brought a specific, and sometimes contradictory, vision of what the building should be.

For representatives of the Maryland Stadium Authority, the stadium had to mesh with Camden Yards' turn-of-the-century brick and mortar. For the Ravens, skyboxes and other money-making accouterments had to justify the move from Cleveland and to keep fans coming to games in an age when free broadcasts are as plentiful as beer commercials.

For the architects, HOK Sports Facilities Group, it was a chance to design the first publicly funded, all-football stadium in a decade. They wanted to define a new state of the art for a sport that has lagged badly behind baseball in stadium design.

But most of all, for everyone involved, the $220 million project had to live up to the toughest standard in sports: its graceful and much-acclaimed green cousin to the north, Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"We had this incredible success that was sitting next to us which was hammered into us," said James Chibnall, HOK's lead designer of the Ravens project.

"Don't think that didn't keep me up at night thinking about that," he said.

Even though Ravens stadium will dwarf Oriole Park in size and cost, the quaint baseball park in many respects dominated the design of the new stadium.

That much was clear from that first meeting, where participants munched on Kansas City's renowned Gates barbecue and reviewed proposed designs.

Arrayed around the table on the fifth floor of HOK's offices, a renovated, 100-year-old factory in Kansas City's old garment district, were Chibnall, now 37, an energetic senior project designer for the company. He made a splash with Jacobs Field in Cleveland, a forward-looking ballpark that opened in 1994 and reflected his view that merely re-creating old-style buildings was not progress.

Bruce Hoffman was there, too. He is the executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority and the man who guided Oriole Park to its acclaimed opening. A civil engineer who had previously overseen the construction of state hospitals and other projects for New York state, Hoffman, 50, had hit a home run with his first sports project and didn't want to strike out this time. He was intent on making the new stadium visually compatible with Oriole Park.

Representing team owner Art Modell at the meetings, and the entire design process, was James Bailey. Now 52, Bailey, buttoned-down and bespectacled, has been with Modell and the franchise for 20 years, first as a lawyer, then as in-house executive. He had been through countless failed efforts to wring a new stadium out of Cleveland and had very specific ideas about what a house for football should look like.

Also there were Ronald Labinski, 60, and Dennis Wellner, 48, two HOK founders who had guided the firm from its humble !c beginnings trying to scare up work around the country to its current status as the premier designer of athletic facilities worldwide. It is a status earned, in large measure, from the reception of Oriole Park.

Among them, the group had decades of experience in football and stadium design. But eight more months would be required to assemble all the elements for Baltimore.

A blend of old and new

Although free of the rancor that marked the development of Oriole Park, the process wasn't always smooth. There were disagreements along the way as opinions were melded into a design compromise that blends tradition with modernism, but will satisfy devotees of neither motif.

If the designers have succeeded, the new facility will change the way Americans view football games. Its signature will be its attempt to move beyond the utilitarian drudgery of most football buildings. Elements -- chiefly its gap-toothed upper deck -- have already been copied elsewhere. But whether the stadium will have the same revolutionary impact on its genre as Oriole Park did remains to be seen.

The stadium authority's Hoffman made it clear at the first meeting where he stood.

"It had to be brick, it had to have exposed steel and it had to have reinforced concrete. We wanted this to be a sports complex and to have compatibility" between Oriole Park and Ravens stadium, Hoffman recalled later.

That meant a brick facade and traditional feel -- two elements that hadn't been seen much in football since the great college bowls of the 1920s. In fact, the designers reviewed books of old college stadiums for inspiration.

There was resistance to going too far with this. Some team

officials and architects -- who embraced the heretical view that Oriole Park's turn-of-the-century look was a tad unimaginative -- favored a contemporary influence.

"What do we say when our children say, 'Why did they just build an old-looking stadium?' I don't know how to answer that," Chibnall said.

Football is a different sport, a newer sport, with its own history and aesthetic.

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