Marlins Park, the gleaming, contemporary, $515 million home of Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins, opened Wednesday night. The visiting St. Louis Cardinals won the game, but the debut of the new park, with its curving exterior, retractable roof, and lime-green interior color scheme was the true highlight. Greg Sherlock, AIA, a principal at Populous and an architect and project designer on Marlins Park, was among the crowd for the home opener. He spoke with ARCHITECT contributor Adam Mazmanian about the new venue.
Where were you sitting?
The firm sat as a group in the midsection of the park right near the right-field foul line, at an angle that allows you to see the whole ballpark in context. That particular angle gives you an opportunity to see spectators behind home plate, while off in the horizon is that view of the skyline. It was a very interesting evening to talk through these environments we designed, starting with static lines on paper. Unfortunately, the Marlins were not that great on the field, but in general, this site is unique in a lot of ways. The social behavior of Miami is very pronounced and has a distinct vibe that was brought into the ballpark last night.
Does Marlins Park represent the end of the neo-traditional or retro-bandbox ballpark design, or is it a one-off design to fit in Miami?
I think there will be more contemporary ballparks in the future. I don’t think the next one is going to be like … [this one], because Marlins Park is all about Miami. It’s consistent with the essence of the buildings that are down here—white plaster and graceful forms, which are somewhat of an abstraction of the look and feel of Miami Deco.
What was the role of Marlins owner Peter Loria, known as a collector of contemporary art, in evaluating the design?
Loria was fundamentally the visionary of this project. He certainly has a flair for understanding the subjectivity of art, and how people can appreciate art. He also very much understood our role as the architectural designers and sort of let us do our thing and explore something unique. We knew from the beginning that this was going to be something new and different.
I like to describe it as the perfect storm in a way. When you have an owner who is expecting something visionary and something creative; experienced architects [who have] done a lot of these things; and you hit the market when it's time to build the building—at a time when you can get aggressive pricing from the construction side—all those things came together. If you can get that kind of momentum in the beginning, then it’s a sign you are going to finish well.
When Baltimore’s Camden Yards was built 20 years ago, the popular narrative at the time placed it in opposition to Toronto’s SkyDome [now the Rogers Centre]. Do you think there is a future for these sorts of multipurpose, multisport, mixed-use stadiums?
It really does make a whole lot of sense to explore the nature of flexible buildings that transform themselves to different conditions. The more use you can get out of a building, the more sustainable it will be from many different angles. It’s kind of a tightrope walk. These buildings need to have a clear identity and that's one of the flaws in the old multipurpose facilities—they tried to do too much.
They lacked that sense of home. Maybe the Rogers Centre is a case of this. The SkyDome is a fantastic building and well designed, but lacks the pageantry of baseball, which is its major tenant.
Marlins Park seats about 37,000, making it about the smallest in baseball. Are there modular elements that would accommodate expansion?
It can be expanded. But I wouldn't say it's a key feature in terms of the design. From the concourse level, it would be easy to add seating tiers one-, two-, and three-rows back concentrically. But when you talk about allowing expansion in the future, it gets complicated. For every seat, you need facilities and concessions. It’s an expensive gesture to make it a building that allows for expansion. We’ve found through the studying of statistics, that while every market is different, [a seating capacity of] 37,000 or 38,000 is the sweet spot for Major League Baseball.
At the same time, you don't want to get locked into too much specificity, because then you can't transform into the future as the team brand changes and the culture of the game changes. Allowing for flexibility is a big challenge.
Baseball is, perhaps, unique among sports in that the boundaries of play are not fixed by rule, allowing the dimensions of every park to be different. As an architect, what do you talk about with the baseball people on the client side in terms of ballpark size?
Usually this is spearheaded by the franchise. It gets to the essence of what kind of team they want to be, and what they want their future to look like. It gets pretty deep—whether you want a hitters’ park or a pitchers’ park. What kind of prospects do they have in their farm system? When do they anticipate these guys maturing into Major League players?
The site drives the field dimensions, something you really see in [Boston’s] Fenway Park. We had site restraints that did drive dimensions because of the retractable roof. You have the unknowns: wind currents, humidity levels and their impact on the trajectory of the ball. You can test these factors with computer modeling and analysis—try to make predictions on how the ball will sail and put all those things together and start making decisions.
At last night’s game, Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton laced into a couple of balls pretty good, but they got hung up and were caught for outs. Were you guys talking about it?
Yes. I don’t know what the announcers said, but we were talking about it. They had the roof off and the humidity creates a bit of buoyancy. That could have helped the ball hang up a bit.
What’s interesting in the case of Marlins Park is that you have an array of options that create complications for players: whether the retractable roof is open or closed, whether the outfield wall is open or closed. This creates a dramatic range between outdoor humidity and an indoor, climate-controlled environment.
One player (Danny Espinosa of the Washington Nationals) recently blamed his subpar hitting this spring on a poorly designed batter's eye (the section of the centerfield wall that frames incoming pitches) at their home spring-training park. How much does the architect contribute to these kind of details?
We create the framework for the batter’s eye. Width and height we have to adopt to, but there are other conditions—what kind of sunlight hits at different times of day. A batter’s eye might even be vegetation, which gets much more subjective than a painted wall—which tends to be visually boring.
Ultimately, MLB comes in and advises the franchise. All these decisions are made in concert. Changes are done through the last few weeks of opening a ballpark. In the case of the Marlins, it was deemed that the wall needed to be painted a darker color: black. Originally it was green. Through visual inspections it was decided that the wall should be neutralized. They don’t want anything objectionable from the batter’s perspective.
A few teams make a virtue of their ancient parks—the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. Do you think those can be maintained indefinitely?