Architect like a proud papa Few nitpicks aside, designer most pleased with Ravens' stadium

Stadium Watch

August 02, 1998|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

He had seen samples of the bricks to be used on the Ravens stadium long ago. But beholding the collage of masonry, green glass, pewter-colored steel and thousands of fans surprised the stadium's chief designer.

"It's a bit more rich and maroony than I would have expected," said James Chibnall, gazing up at the new NFL Stadium at Camden Yards. "That's OK. I still like it."

Chibnall, a senior project designer for HOK Sports Facilities Group, of Kansas City, Mo., flew to Baltimore on Thursday to see his handiwork in use for the first time during a scrimmage that attracted 36,000 fans.

Chibnall spent two years on the project, sketching the building on tissue paper and watching as it blossomed from a desktop-computer image to a three-dimensional mountain of brick and steel.

But it had been empty and lifeless.

"That's something you can never understand, how people will interact with it," he said. "How this comes out is very powerful."

Standing on the grass outside the building as the multitude poured in from parking lots, Chibnall acknowledged some opening-night jitters.

"You live with these things for years. Yes, there is an excitement about it. But you also have a sense of relaxation, because you've done your job, and now, let's see how people respond to it," he said.

Soft-spoken but passionate, Chibnall has risen quickly to the top of his game. At 37, the architect is a vice president and senior project designer at HOK. He was the lead designer on Cleveland's Jacobs Field and is now working on that city's football stadium. He also has worked on projects ranging from a cricket stadium in New Zealand to an arena in Italy.

Last week, he brought with him all the worries that had dogged the Baltimore design process, issues that were laboriously debated among architects and engineers.

Would the building be too big, dwarfing its surroundings? Would its color and detailing evoke its industrial setting, or merely confuse? Would fans and the city view this as a grand civic monument, as they do HOK's Oriole Park, or a disappointing sequel to that hit?

"Overall, I'm really pleased with it," he said.

Chibnall, in tan slacks and an olive-green sports coat, intently studied the hordes of T-shirted fans. He watched to see if they were drawn to the building, or seemed put off by its hulk.

Designers and the Maryland Stadium Authority had fretted from the start about the size. The stadium was shoved as deep as it could be, to just above the water table and a massive city sewer line that runs a few feet beneath the 50-yard line.

But it still looms 165 feet above ground level, forcing designers to employ all their tricks to reduce the visual heft.

"Looking at it now, the building does scale well for the size of building it is," he said. One of the designers' techniques was to alter the way people perceive the stadium as they make their way inside -- something Chibnall called the "arrival sequence."

Chibnall gave Baltimore's new stadium a staged entry: first you pass through one of the large, brick arches, then, a few steps later, dark green iron gates intentionally set back from the arches. Then you head into a concourse.

"Instead of entering a building that's like a parking garage, we wanted a sense you are penetrating this domain," he said. "One of the challenges we face is to make stadiums more of a building."

He had hoped to accent this effect with 18-foot canopies that were to protrude from the archways. The idea was to create a psychological sense of entry by putting a roof over a fan's head before he or she ventured inside.

These were very costly, however, and had to be cut to make budget. "I think they would have helped that aspect of entry," he said.

Approaching the grand, northern entrance, Chibnall liked what he saw in the late evening sunlight: hundreds of people trekking over a broad expanse of decorative tile from Hamburg Street to )) the stadium's main gates. This is real estate that could easily have been appropriated for cash-generating parking or corporate tents.

But Chibnall urged, and the state and team owner agreed, to preserve this as an open space for pedestrians. It is fed from the north by a broad, tree-lined walkway that snakes down from Oriole Park's Eutaw Street plaza.

"I think the space works really nice," he said.

Looking up, to the overhung concrete upper deck, and the 35-ton steel rakers that hold it aloft, he was delighted by the effect.

"We've done a million computer drawings, but it's more dramatic than I thought," he said.

His reaction was the opposite inside the concourse. The chrome-mesh screens hanging from the ceiling, shrunk to save money, are too small to cover unsightly pipes and electrical conduit.

"I don't think they are as effective as they could have been," he said.

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