White Elephant or Silver Bullet?

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Proponents of retractable roofs would have you believe they are essential to the game of baseball.  They argue that, without these roofs, the frigid early spring in Milwaukee or the prolonged rain in Seattle or the searing heat in Arizona, Texas and Miami would keep baseball from being played and fans from coming out.  Convincing as these arguments may seem, one only has to look to professional baseball being played under open skies in Arlington, TX, or Minneapolis, or Chicago to question the necessity of these expensive, highly-engineered ballpark accessories.

Prior to Marlins Park opening this season, it had been over ten years since the previous retractable roof stadium had been built.  Nine new stadiums opened without roofs before another retractable roof ballpark was built.  Retractable roof football stadiums have opened in 2006, 2008 and 2009, suggesting they are valuable and viable for winter-season sports.  Conversely, for baseball, a game played in the most ideal months of the year, one has to question their ultimate worth.  Despite this, the trend continues, as just last week new, albeit sketchy, plans were unveiled for a mixed-use, retractable roof stadium and housing village for the Tampa Bay Rays.

In light of the extraordinary financial and environmental cost it takes to operate a closed stadium, it would be interesting to think of an open-air alternative that would bring the same level of comfort and assurance of games being played as a retractable roof does.  A recipe that brings together new advancements in synthetic surfaces, creative passive heating and cooling strategies and partial roof coverings for spectator comfort could provide such alternative.

In 2009, the University of Oregon opened PK Park, a 4,000-seat baseball-only stadium, home to the Ducks baseball team and Eugene Emeralds minor league club.  PK Park features an all-weather, baseball-specific FieldTurf, with clay mounds and bullpens that is being used for college facilities across the country.  Not only does the FieldTurf play like natural grass, but it looks like it too.  It uses two colors of turf that resemble freshly mowed grass and a brown that looks like infield dirt, such that you have to look twice to see this is not the real thing.  It’s not, but the impact is that the Ducks can begin play early in the season like their southern rivals when the rainy days are still long and frequent in the Pacific Northwest.  The turf drains well and with a tarp and a good squeegee it can be ready to go following the strongest of rain storms. 

The must-have amenity for European football stadiums are big roofs.  Wembley Stadium, Arsenal’s Emirates and Allianz Arena in Munich are three examples of big football stadiums built in the past ten years whose expansive roofs cover the entire seated section, leaving only the playing field open to the weather above.  These structures keep fans warm and dry during the winter months, while allowing rain and wind to play their part in the game on the pitch.  Along with new grass-like synthetic surfaces, large roofs could help create an atmosphere similar to the best a retractable roof could offer.

The trajectory of the retractable roofs we have looked at follows a bell curve whereby the majority opened around the late 90’s and early 2000’s with outliers in the late 80’s and just this past year.  We started in 1989 with the opening of the Rogers Centre in Toronto (then SkyDome) a multi-purpose cavern remnant of the late 20th Century multi-purpose facilities long since demolished.  Ten years passed before the next such stadium opened in Phoenix.  Chase Field (then Bank One Ballpark) is an airport hangar of a stadium whose massive square shape forms a fairly cohesive pairing with the hulking roof above.  One year later Safeco Field in Seattle opened, a true throwback ballpark running from the ghost of its Kingdome-past, whose roof is the least used in the majors.  Minute Maid Park opened the next year in 2000, and is another retro-modern park located downtown, whose roof remains closed much of the season, allowing fans to watch ball in crisp, air-conditioned comfort, despite the hot humid summer weather outside.  The following season in Milwaukee, Miller Park opened as yet another retro-modern bandbox featuring a flamboyant - if complicated - fan-shaped roof, which is forced to remain half-closed to prevent excessive shadows from hitting the field.  Another ten years would pass before the opening of Marlins Park this past season in Miami, a park that attempts to shake free of the retro-modern orthodoxy and forge a new contemporary expression for ballpark architecture.

These ballparks all represent extraordinary efforts to use architecture to forge new identities for baseball franchises.  The inclusion of large retractable roofs ensures the ultimate gameday comfort for fans and establishes a club on the city’s sporting scene and the larger baseball world.  As we have seen, such a model can lead to improved attendance and revenue but rarely leads to sustained performance on the field; ultimately it is up to the Front Office and the players to ensure prolonged success for the franchises.

Architecture can only do so much to help a club gain its foothold and retain strong fan bases.  Despite these inherent limitations, clubs must remain ambitious and creative, retractable roofs or not, in their quest to create the best and most exciting ballparks possible to cater to and help craft future fans.

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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