On ground floor in stadium game Designs: Ron Labinski set the standard for sports facility architecture. With the competition growing, he's looking for new arenas to enter.

Stadium Watch

July 12, 1998|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- On the wall of Ron Labinski's office, directly across from his desk, is a poster of "Big League Ballparks" circa 1987.

The framed and faded souvenir features tiny photos of all of the major-league baseball stadiums then in use, from Baltimore's Memorial Stadium to Seattle's Kingdome. None has been X'ed off the poster, although some might as well be.

Slowly but surely, Labinski, a founder and senior vice president of HOK Sports Facilities Group, the nation's leading designer of stadiums, has replaced or contributed to the replacement of an extraordinary number of the parks, most of them since opening Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992.

Labinski's firm has made its mark on the pro football landscape, too. The latest example is the Ravens' stadium -- Oriole Park's new next-door neighbor -- which is near completion and will hold its first NFL preseason game next month.

Labinski has been so successful that he's running out of stadiums to build and is looking to export his architectural revolution. He's trying to expand to cricket, soccer, rugby and other sports in other countries.

"The peak of the market has passed us. We have a lot more competition than we've ever had. What we're looking for now is )) the next new idea," he said.

Hence the Louisville Slugger cricket bat, sitting amid the baseballs and footballs in his memorabilia-strewn office. The room is surprisingly tight for a man who has brought comfort and spaciousness to sports fans worldwide. Out the window is a view of the muddy Missouri River.

On his door hangs an identifying sign: Grey Eminence.

"The world's our future, I believe," he said.

An important part of his past is in Baltimore. He had established himself in stadium design long before Oriole Park. But that project, more than any other, led to the boom in fan-friendly, architecturally sophisticated modern sports venues.

It vividly demonstrated how a stadium could be integrated into a city and how it could enrich the team financially. Sports hasn't been the same since.

Neither has HOK.

"That stadium was very important to us. I think it heralded a new generation of baseball stadiums," Labinski said.

That wasn't the beginning of the story for Labinski, 60, who had been breaking molds in his field -- and our fields -- for decades.

"Ron Labinski is the grand old man and HOK is the [General Motors] of the business. They created that business," said John Pastier, a Seattle-based architecture critic and stadium consultant.

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Labinski moved around the country with his family as a youngster. His father was in the wholesale food business and coached youth basketball and baseball.

Labinski, who played high school football, fell into stadium designing mostly by accident. He went to the University of Illinois, where he obtained a bachelor of architecture degree. A stint in the Army brought him to Kansas' Fort Riley as an engineer. Upon completion of his service duty, he interviewed with architectural firms in Chicago, Kansas City and Baltimore, but took a job with a local firm and established himself as a talented designer.

The Kansas City experiment

Another firm in town, Kivvett and Myers, recruited him after it was awarded the contract to build a two-stadium complex to house the NFL Chiefs and baseball's Royals. It would be a groundbreaking project in many respects, changing forever the course of stadium building in this country and Ron Labinski's life.

It was the early 1970s and the Dark Age of circular, multipurpose stadiums. The Astrodome was the state of the art, and, for a time, the public held sway in debates on publicly funded stadiums. Teams had to share space, and designs were compromised for both: The circular seating bowl left fans of neither sport entirely satisfied with their sightlines and robbed the structures of any character.

But, at least in Kansas City, the trend would be avoided. The Chiefs said no to shared digs, and the taxpayers, having lost a baseball team to Oakland, Calif., approved $53 million to build side-by-side parks. The expansion Royals came to Kansas City while the new stadiums were under construction.

Separate parks for baseball and football was an idea that would take 20 years to catch on, but would eventually redefine the sports landscape. And Kansas City would be remembered as the ancestral home of the modern, single-sport stadiums that would pop up from Baltimore to Seattle in the 1990s.

A designer, Charles Deaton of Denver, was already on board for the job, bringing a sculptor's flair to the task. Combined with Labinski's hire as project designer, the mold was cast for something out of the ordinary, something beyond the cookie-cutter stadiums going up elsewhere.

"Stadiums were kind of a cut above parking garages then," he said. "When history looks back at stadium design, this will be a real turning point."

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