- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The long-awaited Nationals ballpark mediates between contemporary and nostalgic stadium architecture without delivering a real “wow.” The building tries to be sleekly modern in its exposed steel structure, metal panels and glass bays, but doesn’t quite break with the past. Its stone-like concrete facades, asymmetrical seating bowl and old-fashioned signs fit with the “retro” generation of ballparks started in 1992 with Baltimore’s brick-clad Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

This middle ground provides no iconic, stirring symbol of Washington or baseball. The most forceful part of the architecture isn’t part of the ballpark at all, but an angular, concrete-enclosed staircase for the Nationals’ offices at the southwestern corner. It comes to a sharp point that recalls I.M. Pei’s East Building at the National Gallery of Art. This sculptural element and the adjacent glass-covered walls serve as a modern gateway to introduce the building from the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge.

The lack of a fresh, exhilarating design is disappointing, but perhaps it couldn’t be avoided given that the lead architect, Joe Spear of Kansas City-based HOK Sport, is responsible for 10 of the last 14 major league stadiums. Spear and his team designed the Nationals ballpark in collaboration with District-based Devrouax & Purnell Architects, and their combined experience paid off in orienting the building north to the city rather than south to the river so fans feel connected to Washington. They also made an effort to introduce stores, restaurants, windows and gated openings around the stadium to reduce its apparent mass and activate the building during the offseason.

Photos: Building the stadium

Each side of the building assumes a different guise in response to the site, which stretches from N Street SE in the north to Potomac Avenue in the south and in the east and west by First and South Capitol streets SE. While this approach doesn’t always make for coherent architecture, the breaking down of the 1.1-million-square-foot structure into smaller pieces makes it feel approachable and neighborly.

Each building block allows the stadium bowl, topped by an arcing metal canopy, to disappear and reappear at certain points. Along South Capitol Street, the architects have mostly concealed the ballpark with bland, rectilinear sections of glass and metal devoted to offices and a conference center. To break up the long expanse of the facade, the architects bent a portion inward to express the curve of the ballpark, but this recess only creates an awkward juncture between the adjacent bays, made worse still by its blank concrete wall at ground level.

TWT Video: The stadium’s architecture

While they bear no decorative flourishes, some of facades reflect the division of base, middle and top characteristic of classical architecture to relate to Washington’s monumental buildings. Along First Street, for example, the stadium is clad in subtly striped, light-colored concrete below a “frieze” of corrugated and smooth metal panels and a “cornice” formed by the steel structure of the top seating tier.

By far, the worst part of the building complex is a pair of five-story concrete parking garages on N Street at the northern end of the site. These clunky boxes, flanking the main gates at the terminus of Half Street, are hardly the civic markers needed at this location. Even covered in colorful signs, they are not a welcoming sight for the 75 percent of fans who will enter this way. To make matters worse, the entrance plaza just beyond the gates is cluttered with a cylindrical restaurant and a block of restrooms to detract further from a clear sense of procession and arrival.

All the design effort seems to have gone into what will be the least-used end of the building at the intersection of South Capitol Street and Potomac Avenue. This section, housing the offices and club member facilities, centers on a kiosk-lined entrance walkway decorated with numbers signifying significant years in the history of Washington baseball. It’s unfortunate some of this pomp wasn’t applied to the Half Street portal.

Though oriented to the city, the building doesn’t turn its back on the Anacostia River. Along Potomac Avenue, a broad staircase extends from a gap between the stands to connect the ballpark to the waterfront and a future retail development planned for the parcel on the opposite side of the street.

The inside of the 41,888-seat stadium is a happier story than the outside. Predictably, the interior color scheme is patriotic with blue and red seats and nearly white concrete. At about 102 feet by 47 feet, the scoreboard is the biggest in baseball.

Ramps offering city and riverfront views lead to spacious, no-frills concourses where the structure is made manifest in tilting steel columns and trusses and the concrete underside of the seating decks. Affixed to the top of the canopy are banks of lights that provide a rhythmic visual order.

Throughout the interior, the feeling is more open than Camden Yards. Concession stands are placed at the outer perimeter to allow unobstructed views of the field from the concourses so you don’t miss a play while grabbing a hot dog or a beer. Private suites and clubs for high-rollers don’t ring the entire bowl but are limited to within the infield skin. That allowed the architects to lower the deck facing right outfield by about 24 feet and project it forward to allow more folks to experience the thrill of being close to the game.

The ballpark was initially billed as offering impressive vistas of the Capitol, but only a few rows in the higher left and right sections offer them and the architects were prevented from cantilevering a set of ramps over South Capitol Street to gain more views of its dome. Most seats focus on the much less inspiring sight of tiered restaurants facing center field, parking garages flanking the Half Street entrance and glass-sheathed buildings rising on the blocks to the north. This view will continue to change as this Southeast neighborhood is transformed with new development on properties situated around the ballpark.

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