The Retractable Roof: White Elephant or Silver Bullet?

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With two weeks in and one round down, the MLB playoffs have been filled with a lot of things: dramatic comebacks, virtuoso pitching performances and stunning displays of hitting prowess. What they haven’t been filled with is camera shots of one of the retractable roof stadiums that make up 20% of the parks in the league.

Although none of the six Major League Baseball teams that play in stadiums outfitted with massive retractable roofs found their way to the playoffs, it seems like a pretty far stretch to make any assumptions about how making their home in such extraordinary feats of engineering affects their ability to compete. But, given the historical success (or lack thereof) of these teams, the question remains: are these buildings the silver bullets modern baseball franchises would like you to believe or just expensive stadium accessories?

Yes, they allow fans to travel great distances without fearing a cancelled game should skies darken, but when the roofs are closed, they require massive, energy-consuming air conditioning that produces minor gains in fan comfort.  Owners like these roofs as they allow them to stuff the schedule with events all offseason long, maximizing their investment (or helping pay off stadium loans), but due to their size, complexity and relatively short lifespan, many retractable roofs are not opened enough to truly respond to weather variations.

Retractable roofs started appearing on the baseball scene in 1977 when the Montreal Expos moved into Olympic Stadium following the Summer Games of 1976.  A flawed structure that never properly worked, the roof was permanently closed in 1987.  Despite this inauspicious start, why do teams continue to build stadiums with retractable roofs?  One reason is that as Major League Baseball has continued to expand its franchises to cities without passionate fan-bases, owners are constantly looking for ways to make this funny game more attractive and hospitable to lukewarm supporters.  But in their massive scale, size and complexity, do stadiums with retractable roofs lack the purity and calmness that made baseball stadiums so appealing in the first place?  Is watching a game in a cavernous space – roof opened or closed – nice?  Is there a time and place when retractable roofs are worth the effort and times when they are nothing more than a costly gimmick?

To help answer these questions we’ll spend the next week looking at the six stadiums in their three regional categories, whose unique climatic conditions directly inform the roofs and how they are used: down South, Minute Maid and Marlins Park fight back crippling heat, humidity and flash thunderstorms, up North, Miller Park and the Rogers Centre protect their fans from early season cold, while out West, Chase and Safeco Fields both battle unpredictable weather patterns for ultimate fan comfort.

Each stadium presents a unique and sometimes conflicting case for the need and implementation of the retractable roof. This season the Miami Marlins played 90% of their home games with the Marlins Park roof closed, while the Seattle Mariners played 85% with the Safeco Field roof open.  Although it sometimes feels like retractable roofs are almost always closed, when it first opened in 1998, the Arizona Diamondbacks used their retractable roof with such frequency that the roof manufacturers had to mandate a drastic reduction so that the roof would not breakdown from overuse.

The types of retractable roofs are numerous and varied, from “the Fan” at Miller Park in Milwaukee to “the Umbrella” at Safeco Field in Seattle, yet as a group they are all shining examples of the modern idea that we can control nature for our own pleasure and the enhancement of our leisure activities.  However, unlike the great modern icons like the Crystal Palace in London or Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye outside Paris, which use minimal moves for maximum gain, the retractable-roof stadium seems to use maximum moves for minimal gain – as in, is a 9 million pound kinetic roof overhead necessary for the enjoyment of a simple ball game?

By looking at the relationship between these six franchises and their retractable roofs we will try and uncover their motives for incorporating them in the design of their new stadiums.  In doing so, we will question the ultimate value and architectural significance of the retractable roof – the ultimate symbol of of the 21st Century American Stadium.

Matthew Brown is an architect who writes about stadia and sport venues past and present on his own blog and Twitter.

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