BALTIMORE – After designing Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the mammoth architecture firm of Helmuth, Obata, and Kassabaum (HOK) was credited by some Maryland architects with helping to usher in a development renaissance in downtown Baltimore.
Now, with two NFL football stadiums scheduled to begin construction this year, HOK’s Sports Facilities Group will again make a major contribution to the landscape of Baltimore and suburban Washington.
Jeffery Spear, an HOK architect working on Redskins Stadium in Landover, compared modern sports stadiums to medieval cathedrals. “Though not as lofty,” he said, stadiums “are a source of pride for their cities.”
Once the two projects are completed, HOK will have designed three of the four facilities used by major league sports teams in Maryland. The exception is USAir Arena in Lanham, which the Washington Bullets will vacate next year.
HOK has won wide acclaim for its work and is considered among the nation’s top architecture firms.
Speaking recently in Baltimore, Joseph Spear, an HOK architect who worked on Oriole Park at Camden Yards and brother of Jeffery Spear, described how the firm incorporates details that are visually related to the city.
When the Nashville Arena is completed, an imposing silver broadcast tower will loom near the entrance — a nod to the city as a music capital, Spear said. At a soccer and polo stadium surrounded by a lush, green park in the middle of Hong Kong, the crowning curves resemble a “seashell in a sea of green,” referring to Hong Kong as a city on the sea.
Jim Wheeler, a Baltimore architect who worked for two years in HOK’s St. Louis office, noted that Oriole Park managed to evoke its home city “through the bricks, the steel, the way they painted it.”
Jeffery Spear said each design team works together to find the way to make a project work.
In designing Redskins Stadium within the tight budget, the team left off the “skin,” or a decorative facade like the brick veneer of Oriole Park. Instead, Spear said, what the architects dubbed “the trees” — huge concrete trusses supporting the stadium’s upper deck — will have a massive “sculptural” feel, providing a very modern look.
But Spear stressed that the architects do not see the process as mere problem solving. “There is passion involved,” he said, particularly when a general design idea is found and details begin to fall into place.
Spear said the Redskins’ straightforward design reflects team owner Jack Kent Cooke: “He likes [buildings] to get down to business and do what they do.”
Even so, elements of the stadium are meant to evoke Washington, DC. Spear noted that the “trees,” which “reach toward the sky,” have a monumental quality echoing local landmarks such as the Washington Monument.
But some find that incorporating a city’s character into a design, dubbed “contextualism,” leaves a lot to be desired.
“If it’s a lousy city, you get lousy architecture,” said Robert Bliss, former dean of the University of Utah architecture school.
Bliss also criticized Oriole Park, meant to echo beloved older ball parks: “It’s is a real throwback … they’re trying to cater to some old-timey vision.”
“It becomes simply surface. It’s not architecture, it’s just stage sets,” Bliss said.
HOK has drawn criticism in other cities.
Its Salt Lake City basketball arena, opened in 1994, was lambasted by some for looking too ominous and uninviting. A critic at the Salt Lake Tribune wrote that the new arena would “look just fine, if this were Berlin in 1939.”
And a Chicago Tribune critic called the White Sox new Comiskey Park a “soulless suburban park masquerading as a festive urban ballpark,” with an upper deck so high it gives fans “nosebleeds,” and a pitch so steep it is “better suited to mountain goats than human beings.”
HOK architect Jim Chibnall noted that though some projects were not well-received, “We’re not so arrogant that we can’t admit out mistakes.”
While Oriole Park is a “dated, historical piece,” he defended the look as appropriate given the brick warehouse skirting the outfield and the rowhouses in the surrounding neighborhood.
The football stadium’s look will be “classical,” not old- fashioned, drawing upon varied sources including old Ivy League football stadiums, Chibnall said.
The design will be “more progressive,” since the site is more isolated from neighborhoods than Camden Yards, he said.
The football stadium will share the same “palette” of brick, iron, and paint as Oriole Park. But the team’s new name, the Ravens, with its reference to Edgar Allan Poe, will not be manifest in the stadium’s look, Chibnall said. These structures can be expected to be used for at least 20 or thirty years, barring unforseen economic changes, Jeffery Spear said. -30-