Friday, March 28, 2003

Ballpark's too gaudy, architects say

Six pros agree that as a building, the Reds' new home tries to do too much

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Take six architects on a tour of a new ballpark, then sit them down in a room to review the place, and you might expect some disagreement. But that's not what happened when we convened a panel to "review" Great American Ball Park.

Riverboat-themed stacks will be the launch site for fireworks after Reds' home runs and victories. One architect said: "Things we have criticized will make slow innings go by a little faster."
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No, this group was unanimous. Their consensus: It's fragmented. It has too many elements and lacks a consistent overall design.

The group said architects HOK Sport of Kansas City created a basic structure that is erratic. They say the client, the Reds, added too much to please too many.

Our panel included academics and practicing professionals, some with experience in sports facility design. They took a 21/2-hour private tour of Great American Ball Park, examining details, asking questions, taking notes. They were given architectural plans and comprehensive background information. HOK Sport said a mission statement was not available.

We asked them to consider six questions. Then they sat down for a discussion. This is what they had to say:

Is Great American Ball Park well designed?

The answer was a resounding no. Too many influences result in a lack of continuity and order. Too many elements added later make for a disjointed building that has no soul, no interesting rhythms and textures and no memorable proportions.

[photo] Graphics, like the mural of the ball and bat from Pete Rose's record 4,192nd hit, should have been better integrated into the overalll design, the architects said.
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They believe the client was too involved the design. It looks as though the client visited different ballparks and took a few elements from one and a few from another, mixed them up and said, here's ours.

"There was so much junk thrown in there, it took away from the original intent," said Greg Tilsley of Tilsley and Associates. "It looks to me like there were 20 people saying: `I need a smokestack. I need double-hung windows because it reminds me of Crosley Field.' ... Hokey stuff like that distracts from the whole concept."

"It's the most assertive, aggressive background building you will ever see in your life," agreed David Niland, a retired professor of architecture who does not object to "hokey," if it is done right.

"Are you familiar with Michael Graves' Swan and Dolphin Hotel (at Disney World)? ... It's very, very active. It's high Baroque. But it all hangs together. There's this great diversity, this plethora of restaurants and special places, but it's all of one thing ... "

"It is a theme park with a bad structure," said Michael McInturf of Michael McInturf Architects.

"They conceptualized the building first, then figured out what it was going to cost," said Tilsley. "Then they stripped stuff off and added things. I think it was conceived one way and then manipulated into what we see here."

[photo] The Diamond Club, on a lower level, helped to give the architects the impression that they were in too many places.
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The panel felt even the basics - "something the architects and engineers could control" - lacked consistency in size, shape and choice of materials.

"We could forgive or have pity on the architects for having multiple owners to deal with, and having to decorate the place with all these little gadgets and toys, but in terms of the structural system, it should be clear," said Emilio Thomas Fernandez of SFA Architects Inc. "There should be a consistent pattern, language and way of detailing the entire building. ...

"The building is void of the romance that typically occurs in ballpark designs between the steel frame and the surrounding elements. There is no logic to the way the structural system was developed. A pancake effect occurs with each level having its own distinct framing disconnected from the next."

The panel liked the scale of the grand concourse with its exposed steel and "lots of activity." They liked the trusses beneath the upper bleachers: "They look potentially unstable but were the heaviest members and consistent throughout," said architectural historian Walter E. Langsam. "They're on a grand scale."

"The things we have criticized will make those slow innings go by a little faster," commented Carlos Rojas of Environ Group. "There's a lot of visual excitement; it's like going to Barnum & Bailey's circus. The ballpark has a huge emotional attachment for the fans. It is the home of the Reds and people are dying to get there. The magic happens once you get in your seat."

Did the architects succeed in what they set out to do?

No, the panel says, again citing client interference.

"The ballpark in many respects is a repudiation of the architects' intentions," said Niland, who as a member of the city's Urban Design Review Board was privy to the architect's original design.

"I have great compassion for the architects. I think we reviewed that project eight times. As we got closer and closer to the end, they had to be frustrated."

"They had a tall order of a lot of people to answer to," said Rojas. "The building lacks a singular spirit. It's a restaurant and it's this plaza, and then the field and the billboards. It felt like we were in eight different places."

"It almost appears as though the design stopped at the schematic design level," said Fernandez. "I think some of the concepts they were trying to achieve were valid. How it was actually carried out is where they failed."

"You walk down Main Street and go in the little gap to the entrance and you are expecting this really great space and you are let down," said Tilsley. "You walk around the corner through the barricades and all you see is white steel. There is nothing well composed about it. They didn't even do a good job of place-making, which is one of the most basic urban design concepts."

"They made a neutral space," said Niland, "and then they filled it with diversions."

Where did they fall short?

The "black glass box" in center-right field that contains a party room and security cameras and is intended to block out distractions for the batter is out of place.

"You look at that black box ... and there's so much visual garbage - those smokestacks are absurd - surrounding it, it's a hoax," said Niland.

"The fact that the theme color for the building is beige," said Tilsley, "sums up what the architects intended - for the ballpark to be inoffensive. It is very noncommittal and really doesn't know what it wants to be. They recognized this later on and added the graphics, which may have been part of the original idea."

"Yes, but the graphics were never integrated," added Niland. "There's so much of that building that is cosmetic. So much is heavy-handed. To me it's the Tammy Faye Bakker stadium."

A set of double-hung windows used in an area where an elaborate track system was already in place produces a jarring effect. During the tour, the architects were told that a public relations executive was responsible for selecting the second set of windows.

"You don't start with one thing and then stop with another unless you are looking for the kind of discontinuity that ruptures the whole idea," Niland said.

One of the signature design elements, a wedge cut into the pie of the exterior allowing for views of Kentucky, also failed, the panel said.

"The wedge, the gap, the wedgie, whatever you want to call it," said Fernandez, "is misaligned. There's this great intention of being there off the street and being able to look inside the ballpark - they even suggested we might have a view to the river - and it is unsuccessful.

"They blocked it in because they needed to get more private boxes in there. One of the levels isn't even transparent. It just misses the mark. It could have been a wonderful connection piece, but it just looks like a missing piece."

"On the west side of the gap, several of us saw at least three structural systems stuck one on top of each other with absolutely no attempt to link them," said Langsam.

"Some elements like the `toothbrushes' (lights) weren't even touching the ground," added Fernandez.

"I'm sure you noticed there were cast iron pipes that were black, there were some kind of conduits painted white, then there were raw metal conduits just as they came out of the electricians' package," said Niland. "Wouldn't you want to paint it all white so at least there's continuity there?"

"Rarely do a group of architects go through a building without touching the materials," said Fernandez. "There just wasn't a whole lot you wanted to touch."

Does the ballpark fit into any particular style or trend in ballpark design?

"It was defined by negatives," Langsam said. "It wasn't nostalgic like Camden Yards. It wasn't retro. It wasn't cookie cutter or Cinergy Field. There were references to Crosley Field without ... looking at its character or atmosphere in any serious way. They simply didn't decide on a positive approach or a dominant image . . ."

The panel did identify architectural trends they felt the ballpark reflected.

"It's no mystery to me that there are these odd shapes and the gap," said Tilsley. "That's the way they are designing ballparks now. The Great American Ball Park doesn't capture a retro essence or the spirit of the old ballparks. Those old ballparks were quirky ... and all the elements - the billboards and the clocks and the things the owners liked - were all part of the culture and evolution of baseball. The Cincinnati ballpark is contrived."

All these stadiums are changing over, said McInturf. "They are adding more (private) clubs, because it is all economics driven. ... Everyone wants pampering. The people who can pay for the upgrade of the stadium want to be pampered, and their familiarity and aesthetics are geared more toward malls and theme parks than they are to the real taste of architecture."

Niland said there's a trend to avoid the symmetrical, which Great American Ball Park does. But so did Crosley Field, but only because of the "goofy configuration of the site" on which it's built.

He said that although the building is "of the time at the moment" it lacks the "continuity, consistency and unity" of Paul Brown Stadium, Coors Field in Denver and Camden Yards in Baltimore.

"Architecture in general is in a crisis because there is less respect for what we do out there than there is for construction managers," said McInturf.

"Even when they started the (new Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art) building they started with a budget set by Turner (Construction) before they had any architects involved."

Is the building better designed than Cinergy Field?

The consensus was no.

"It's the structural element," said Rojas. "For whatever reason, Cinergy didn't work as a ballpark. But at least it was consistent and you could mentally get your brain around the concept of the big round doughnut. ...

"That doesn't happen with the Great American Ball Park. It's a tough building to understand on several levels. It could have been done ... more elegantly."

"You look at Cinergy Field with its consistent rhythm of bays. There was order there," said Niland. "What we have all responded to at the new ballpark is the lack of a harmonic order on which coherent variations can be worked."

Does the ballpark fit into the Cincinnati skyline and riverfront?

The consensus again was no.

"If stripped of its applied decoration, inclusive of signage, the architecture of the ballpark is neither reflective of Cincinnati nor telling of what the community strives to achieve," said Fernandez. "... It doesn't even offer many postcard opportunities for the connection to the city to grow, as occurred with Cinergy Field."

"They intended this to be an urban ballpark that relates to the city, to the texture and context and color," said Tilsley. "Yet it's this big building that's not a landmark. It should have some landmark qualities besides the antennas sticking up saying I'm here...I don't see anything that is very compelling that makes me say I have to go there because it's an incredible place. It's not a monumental structure like Union Terminal or Paul Brown Stadium."

"None of the angles relate to the riverside," said Langsam. "It doesn't relate to the rhythms around it. It is totally separated from the larger environment."


Panel members and their credentials:

Emilio Thomas Fernandez

A graduate of St. Xavier High School and the University of Cincinnati, Fernandez is principal in charge of design at SFA Architects Inc. He oversees educational, health care, research, civic and residential projects. He is working on the Environmental Protection Agency Annex Building, the new East End School for Cincinnati Public Schools, the Advanced Technology and Learning Center for Cincinnati State, Lebanon High School, Fenwick High School and the Center for American and World Culture for Miami University. Recent restoration projects include Cincinnati City Hall and Krohn Conservatory.

Walter E. Langsam

Langsam is an architectural historian and historic preservation consultant who teaches art and architectural history at the University of Cincinnati. Educated at Miami and Yale universities, he is active in local and regional historic preservation and arts organizations. His book Great Houses of the Queen City: 200 Years of Historic and Contemporary Architecture in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky (1997) has recently been reprinted. He is also the author of Architecture Cincinnati: A Guide to Nationally Significant Buildings and Their Architects in the Cincinnati Area (1999).

Michael McInturf

McInturf established Michael McInturf Architects in 1995. He is an associate professor of architecture at the University of Cincinnati and received the 2000 DAAP Annual Award for Outstanding Research and Creative Work.

He has worked in notable architecture offices such as Skidmore Owings and Merrill and Peter Eisenman. During the six years McInturf worked with Eisenman, he participated in the design and execution of the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts in Columbus and UC's Aronoff Center for Design and Art. As the principal designer of the Aronoff Center, McInturf relocated to Cincinnati in 1994 to oversee the construction.

David L. Niland

A retired professor of architecture at the University of Cincinnati, where he taught from 1965-2001, Niland is also a member of the Urban Design Review Board, runs a private practice founded in 1962 and lectures internationally. He was honored in 1992 as National Distinguished Professor of the Year by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture and at UC he was named Professor of the Year in 1988 and received the A.B. Dolly Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1988. He earned both a bachelor's and master's of architecture from Yale University and was a Fulbright scholar to Copenhagen.

J. Carlos Rojas

Rojas holds a bachelor's degree in architecture from the University of He has been involved in commercial design and construction for more than 15 years. He is a vice president at the Environ Group. His experience includes projects in the commercial, residential, institutional and government sectors.

Gregory P. Tilsley

Tilsley founded the firm of Tilsley and Associates in 1991 and serves as principal in charge of design. His experiences include urban renovation and housing, adaptive re-use, meeting/banquet facilities, restaurants, retail, office buildings, golf course clubhouses and athletic facilities. Notable projects include General Cable Learning Center, Shaker Run golf course clubhouse and the Manor House.

- Marilyn Bauer

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