Fond of the future

June 11, 2005|By Will Englund

THERE WAS A TIME when the world was new, when things looked bright, when progress was in forward gear. The fuddy-duddy '50s had at last been left behind. The most popular pavilion at the New York World's Fair could be called "Futurama," and without a smirk. Everywhere, singers had stopped crooning and were picking up electric guitars. Television was the new medium, and it was cool. Cars were shedding all that clunkiness. Astronauts began hurtling into space, and not only would a moon landing by 1969 start to seem plausible, but after that the horizons were limitless; in fact, there would be no horizons, only a universe to explore. The future was better in those days.

The 1960s were what seemed like the beginning of a heroic age. Architects responded with what seemed like heroic buildings. They did some terrible damage. Too many people forgot that cities depend on an urban fabric to keep body and soul together. But the architects of that age sometimes captured an exuberance (in reinforced concrete) that still speaks to us, across all these years of disappointment.

A first-time visitor to RFK Stadium in Washington is struck by the confidence of the place, a perfect Platonic circle, an atomic nucleus surrounded by electron fields of parking lots. The sight of those shallow ramps puts a spring in the step; the powerful undulations of the roofline tell of excitement within. In 1961, when the place was built, it was still amazing that you could have a stadium where you just drove up, and then just drove away afterward; where there wasn't a pillar, anywhere; where the outside was so clean it was white. And if that wasn't enjoyment enough, inside there were all those plastic seats in a palette of eye-stinging artificial colors. Wow - the whole arena just seemed to be a model of physics and chemistry in action.

No one would argue that RFK is a pinnacle of the International (or any other modern) style. It's no Oriole Park at Camden Yards, either. RFK is nobly situated on an axis in line with the Capitol and the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, the result of a sweeping vision that's unfortunately best appreciated when looking at a map. Camden Yards is snuggled into downtown, comfortably so. Camden Yards is a rejection of all that RFK stands for, with its built-in quirkiness and dark green seats and abundant folderol. It's the Katzenjammer Kids vs. the Jetsons - if, that is, the Katzenjammer Kids had somehow been revived in the 1990s and allowed to wear their pants slung low.

Washington should be careful about replacing RFK. The 1960s were not nothing. You can find, among those who remember the decade, a nostalgia - a nostalgia for the futuristic, as Martin Moeller, of the National Building Museum, aptly puts it - and the cool optimism of that era exerts a pull even on younger generations, drawn by the music and design.

RFK at least is an authentic artifact of the 1960s, and as such a reminder of all the high expectations and painful consequences of that seminal decade. What might have happened is the implicit question it asks today (starting with its name). Successful as it is, Camden Yards is a reworking of something else. It's a place to enjoy odd corners. RFK is a place to have your heart lifted, by its sheer brash scale and its expansive vision. Camden Yards closes in on the field - not a bad idea for a ballpark, by any means - but RFK feels like it offers you and 40,000 other people a connection to the galaxies above. Yes, even from those lavender-taupe not-quite-liver-colored seats in the upper deck - but, honestly, what were they thinking?

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