The perfect diamond

ORIOLE PARK AT CAMDEN YARDS / Fifteen years since it opened, it remains the standard for urban ballpark design

April 08, 2007|By Childs Walker and Bill Ordine | Childs Walker and Bill Ordine,Sun reporters

When Camden Yards hosted its first home opener 15 years ago, many already regarded it as a triumph for Baltimore and the Orioles.

"Field of Dreams Comes True in Baltimore," gushed the headline in The New York Times.

Less obvious was that the park - with its brick exterior, exposed metalwork, city backdrop and incorporation of existing architecture - would become the template for a generation of baseball stadiums.

Today, with a more modern park featuring concrete and glass rising up along the Anacostia waterfront in Washington, that wave might be over. But for lovers of baseball and architecture, Camden Yards has kept much of its allure.

"Over the 15 years, I feel the park really has held up well," said Timonium resident John Ross, a season-ticket holder for more than 20 years. "But I can't say the same about the team."

The park's creators hoped such sentiments about the stadium would endure.

"I really do feel that the patina of time has served Camden Yards well," said Janet Marie Smith, who helped oversee the park's design and construction for the Orioles. "We were anxious to design something timeless and of the ages. That's very hard to do, but I believe that it's just as wonderful a place to be, maybe more so, than the day it opened."

Little has changed at the park in 15 years. A new warning track has been installed this year, and a new video board is on its way, but that's about the extent of it.

An survey last year ranked Camden Yards the third-best park in baseball behind its conceptual heirs in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. National columnists who deride the Orioles often hasten to add that Camden Yards remains a grand place to catch a game.

Architects praise the park for reminding us of the delightful symbiosis between old stadiums and city neighborhoods.

"The overriding influence that Camden Yards has had is the understanding that putting these facilities in downtown is a great thing for any city," said Ron Turner, a Los Angeles architect who has consulted on designs for Milwaukee's Miller Park, Seattle's Safeco Field and Arizona's Chase Field.

The idea for Camden Yards seemed simple: hark back to the brick and metalwork that distinguished old ballparks, tailor the configuration to Baltimore's downtown and fill it with all the shopping and food amenities that a family could want on a night out.

But that cocktail proved so potent that stadium builders in other cities almost had to follow the blueprint for more than a decade.

"What has been a pleasant surprise is that Camden Yards was the first page in another chapter on ballparks," Smith said. "I don't think that's something you can possibly expect in real time."

The stadium drew rave reviews and huge crowds from Day One and inspired the notion that new ballparks could translate to big revenue increases for their occupants.

The formula worked in Cleveland, San Francisco and Seattle, but the effects were more temporary for Milwaukee; Detroit; Arlington, Texas; and Denver.

"Camden Yards changed the nature of the discussion about baseball parks, and mainly for the better," said Philip Bess, a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame and author of City Baseball Magic: Plain Talk and Uncommon Sense about Cities and Baseball Parks. "But at the same time, Camden Yards, rather than the best features of the ballparks that formed the basis for Camden Yards, became the paradigm for new construction."


Camden Yards feels less gimmicky than many of the parks that followed. There's a deliberate neoclassicism at work, but the park's configuration was determined by the space in which it was plopped. The brick warehouse was already in place.

"We tried not to be cute about it," Smith said. "I cringe a little bit when people throw around the term `retro.' It wasn't meant to be retro. We were attempting a serious study of the way older parks meshed with their neighborhoods and surroundings."

Some imitators are so crammed with features stolen from the parks of yore that they feel like the creations of greedy children who just couldn't say no to that last bit of candy. And those features aren't determined by the neighborhoods around them.

"The older [parks] were site-constrained, and new ones are program-driven and not nearly so constrained," Bess said. "That's why the eccentricities for new parks are a little artificial, because there's no real reason to have them."

Turner noted that new stadiums in New York will virtually copy significant features from Yankee Stadium and Ebbets Field, and he's not a fan of such direct imitation.

"That didn't happen at Camden Yards," he said. "I applaud that design. It doesn't replicate anything. But in the time since then, we should have evolved rather than have to copy Yankee Stadium or Ebbets Field. It's not a good thing for our society. ... It doesn't elevate anyone's understanding about architecture, which is what we should do."

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