- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

From its inception, the architecture of the new Washington Nationals ballpark was meant to be the antithesis of Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It was to be “fresh, exciting and unique to the District” in the words of Allen Lew, CEO of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. It was to be boldly contemporary, not timidly old-fashioned in design.

Given those expectations, the ballpark design by architects HOK Sport and D.C.-based Devrouax & Purnell, unveiled at a press conference yesterday, disappoints. The 41,000-seat stadium is engulfed by a dull ensemble of blocky, precast-concrete-and-glass structures that would look at home on K Street. This is retro architecture that harkens back to the 1970s. No strong, memorable image stands out.

The new ballpark does what a lot of well-meaning buildings do in Washington. It respects the L’Enfant plan for the city and recedes into the background. On the positive side, this approach means it is not a big bowl surrounded by a sea of parking lots like RFK Stadium.

The new ballpark is more park than stadium, with the field placed at the center of the site. It forges connections to existing streets with plenty of openings for entering the huge complex and viewing a game. Each side of the superblock is different, designed to respond to the particulars of its surroundings. This variegated street frontage prevents the stadium bowl from overpowering the neighborhood.

Given its location in Southeast D.C. near the Anacostia River, this urban design strategy is sound, if safe, and provides a framework for redevelopment around the stadium. But the site, bounded by South Capitol, N and First Streets and Potomac Avenue, also could have been a good place to set a new direction for this area where city officials hope a mix of commercial and residential buildings will emerge. Instead, the ballpark’s various structures are team players not virtuosos and fail to advance an exciting architectural agenda.

Along South Capitol Street, the architects have proposed a row of flat-topped, modernistic buildings that are meant to strengthen the monumental character of this boulevard leading to the U.S. Capitol. Like Camden Yards, they express nostalgia for a bygone, albeit more recent, era.

The most attractive, though hardly inventive, is reminiscent of I.M. Pei’s East Building at the National Gallery with a triangular point at its south end.

“The East Wing was the kind of building that this project needs to become,” architect Joe Spear of HOK Sport said. “It still looks fresh. We wanted that timeless quality.”

The imitative Pei structure will house administrative offices for the Nationals. It’s curious that this sculptural design treatment was applied to an office building and not the more public conference center next door, which will occupy a bland box. Adjacent to this meeting hall will be a 500-car parking garage at the corner of South Capitol and N Streets that will be hard to disguise as monumental. Instead of presenting a unified, civic front, the trio of structures convey the mediocre modernism of many postwar commercial buildings found downtown.

Visitors approaching the stadium from the Metro stop to the north will be greeted by the four-level garage and a matching one at the northeast corner of the site. Unfortunately, the garages flank the main entrance plaza, sending a message of utilitarianism rather than inspiring design to those entering by foot.

The ballpark also will double as a shopping mall. Buildings, including the garages, around the periphery will incorporate ground-level storefronts that are meant to generate street life when the ballpark isn’t in use. A circular restaurant at the end of the main promenade from N Street and facing the outfield also will be accessible during days when games aren’t being played.

Between 16,000 and 36,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space — more, Spear says, than any other ballpark complex he has designed — is planned for the project.

More mundane commercial space fronts the ballpark along Potomac Avenue, where a grand staircase will lead down to the street and beyond the Anacostia River. Here, the sweeping curve of the stadium, its glassy concourses and upper decks break free from the more straight-laced sides of the complex.

Just like HOK Sport’s recent ballpark designs, the concourses will be sheathed in glass with views of the field from every level and glimpses of the river. Atop its structure, sunscreens made of perforated metal are meant to create a recognizable profile but seem hardly noticeable. They, too, appear to be a design throwback to the 1960s and 1970s.

Like Camden Yards and so many of HOK Sport’s previous designs, the Nationals’ new ballpark is a hit in the area of urban sensitivity. But in terms of architectural excitement, this design strikes out.

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