Oracle Park in San Francisco
Jovannig Oracle Park in San Francisco

Candlestick Park, completed in 1960 on Candlestick Point, a peninsula just south of San Francisco, was a miscalculation in concrete with all the warmth of a Bay Area summer—which is to say, not much. I caught my only ballgame at Candlestick with a few friends in September 1999, and my lasting memory—apart from Barry Bonds, the Giants’ steroid-enhanced slugger, blasting two moonshot home runs—was of the swirling bay breezes that turned the afternoon into a perverse test of endurance.

The plummeting wind chill wasn’t the only thing that left us cold: The stadium itself, which also hosted football games for the San Francisco 49ers, typified the car-friendly, suburban behemoths of its time. It had no character, no soul—none of the intimacy or charm of Boston’s Fenway Park or Chicago’s Wrigley Field, none of the eccentricity of the old Polo Grounds in New York, the Giants’ home before the team decamped to the West Coast.

Candlestick Park, which was demolished in 2015
Historic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo Candlestick Park, which was demolished in 2015

Mercifully, in 2000, the Giants moved yet again: to Pacific Bell (now Oracle) Park, an HOK Sport (now Populous)–designed stadium that was everything that Candlestick was not. Built on the edge of the gentrifying South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco, it belonged to a new wave of retro ballparks that brought baseball back to the city. If you worked in the Financial District, you could stroll over to Oracle on a weeknight, order some garlic fries, and watch a few innings in the fading half-glow of a midsummer evening. If the experience conjured more than just a faint whiff of nostalgia for baseball’s golden era, well, that’s what Oracle was designed to do.

The Golden Age of Ballpark Design
In the Giants’ progression from the Polo Grounds, to Candlestick, and finally to Oracle, one can glimpse a larger story about our country’s urban development, from the explosive industrial growth that powered the city’s rise in the 19th century, to the suburban flight of the 1950s and ’60s, to the urban rebirth that began before the new millennium. For Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, the Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, the ballpark is a compelling lens for these larger themes, “an indicator not only of our architectural taste, but also of our attitudes towards cities and community, our notions of public space, and our changing views about the nature of place.”

"Most of the best ballparks … are irregular, opportunistic structures, often altered and adjusted over the years to respond to changing market demands and changing urban conditions ... [They] are better remembered for the world they made within, their magnificent juxtapositions of soft green playing fields and tough, lyrical steel and concrete structures. Ballpark architecture was never about the gravitas of form."

In his latest book, Ballpark: Baseball in the American City, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Goldberger contemplates the evolution of this quintessentially American architectural form and does a (mostly) satisfying job of tracing these larger themes across the centuries. In the mid-1800s, the ballpark came of age in concert with the movements to build urban parks and cemeteries, all those destinations affording blue collar workers the opportunity for some bucolic bliss, a respite from the harsh urbanity of the growing metropolis. But unlike, say, Central Park, which initially prohibited baseball and other sports, the ballpark was not a genteel retreat from the city so much as an exuberant part of it. “The baseball park could offer the chance to satisfy the desire for rus in urbe in a different way from the rural cemetery and the Olmstedian park; it allowed visitors to be rambunctious, to be celebratory,” Goldberger writes.

Stadiums of that era took shape on the edges of the developing city, where land was cheaper and more available, creating an interdependency with streetcar systems, which delivered fans en masse to the games (trolley owners purchased baseball teams and vice versa). The rise of intercity railroads, meanwhile, helped baseball become a national sport, with teams constructing ballparks that were ever more architecturally ambitious. If the early 20th century proved to be a golden age—the era of Fenway and Wrigley, of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and Tiger Stadium in Detroit—the postwar period gave birth to those Brutalist concrete donuts: the Oakland Coliseum; Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh; Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia; Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis. At least Busch was located in the city, and Edward Durell Stone, the consulting architect, imbued it with some referential flair: mini arches along the roofline that played off Eero Saarinen’s St. Louis Arch. Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, meanwhile, was one of the few midcentury ballparks to become a beloved icon—the place where, as Goldberger writes, “the spirit of the early ballparks met the age of the automobile, and sought to make common cause with it.” By and large, however, these concrete venues inspired a numbing banality. “I stand at the plate in Philadelphia,” Richie Hebner, a first baseman for the Pirates, said of Veterans Stadium in 1971, “and I honestly don’t know whether I’m in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, or Philly.”

An Unlikely Heroine
And then, finally, came the rebirth, both of the city and the ballpark, as the rise of Postmodernism presaged the arrival, in 1992, of Camden Yards in Baltimore, the original retro ballpark designed by HOK Sport. Baseball was still largely in the thrall of uniformity: Only a few years before, then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth had proposed that the major leagues adopt a standardized stadium design, drawn up by the construction firm Bechtel. But Larry Lucchino, the chief executive of the Orioles who had a fondness for Jane Jacobs, had something else in mind, something revolutionary.

Camden Yards
Cal Sport Media Camden Yards

Goldberger discovers an unlikely heroine in the story of Camden Yards: Janet Marie Smith. Unlikely because Lucchino, on a whim, had plucked her résumé out of the slush pile and hired her to be his in-house architect, but not before offending her with his first interview question (Which league has the designated hitter?). Smith made it clear that she knew baseball, and to whatever extent she battled sexism in her subsequent career (Goldberger doesn’t say), she has become a leading light in ballpark architecture, renovating both Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium, to dazzling effect. It was Smith who served as the Orioles’ liaison with HOK Sport, handling the day-to-day details of the project, and helped persuade the firm to discard its initial design, which resembled a spaceship, and instead pursue something sui generis and sensitive to the site. The most significant decision was to incorporate an old eight-story-tall Baltimore and Ohio Railroad brick warehouse into the project, which, as Goldberger writes, “not only [framed] and visually [enclosed] a portion of the outfield, [but] gave the park a sense of connection to Baltimore’s architectural history and [enhanced] the tie between ballpark and city.”

What Goldberger doesn’t much object to is how ballparks have turned into “upscale bubbles.” Nor does he mount an impassioned argument against the billionaire owners who have squeezed taxpayers for public financing to build their stadiums.

The retro stadium was now the thing, and HOK Sport emerged as the leading purveyor of this throwback genre. Baseball had returned to the city, with one glaring omission: Manhattan. In the 1990s, when the Yankees and Mets were looking to build new ballparks, they both considered a location just west of Pennsylvania Station. But then the backdoor political maneuvering commenced, and today the site is home to Hudson Yards, that towering monument to gilded excess. Imagine instead the masses flocking there for a Yankee game and consider what was lost in the bargain.

Regrettably, the answer may be less than one might imagine, for the latest iteration of ballparks have actually come to resemble Hudson Yards in all its consumerist glory. Teams are now building small villages around their stadiums—theme parks—both to control the immediate urban experience and, of course, through the attendant restaurants, shops, and condos, shake down the fans for even more money. The Battery at SunTrust Park in Atlanta (the stadium designed by Populous, the surrounding hotels, cinemas, dining, and retail by local firm Wakefield Beasley & Associates) may be the most prominent example.

The Battery at SunTrust Park

“[F]rom the moment visitors enter the project until they reach the new home of the Atlanta Braves, they will be immersed in a comprehensive entertainment experience unlike any other in the Southeast,” boasts Wakefield Beasley. Goldberger is far less sanguine: “It is a bubble, and like all such bubbles, it has a superficial appeal, but it is disingenuous to claim that it represents something truly urban: it is just too clean and neat for that. SunTrust is a mallpark as much as it is a ballpark.”

An Ode to Organic Locatecture
This, more than anything else, becomes Goldberger’s animating theme: That the best ballparks are intimately connected to vibrant, public, urban spaces, with all their diversity and unpredictability. The baseball stadium “contains a garden at its heart, and as such it evokes a tension between the rural and the urban that has existed throughout American history,” he writes. “In the ballpark, the two sides of the American character—the Jeffersonian impulse toward open space and rural expanse, and the Hamiltonian belief in the city and in industrial infrastructure—are joined, and cannot be torn apart.”

One can read Goldberger’s book (in part) as an elegy to the jewel boxes from baseball’s golden age, an ode to architecture that prioritizes problem-solving over form-making, contextual subtleties over grand gestures. “Most of the best ballparks … are irregular, opportunistic structures, often altered and adjusted over the years to respond to changing market demands and changing urban conditions,” he writes. “[They] are better remembered for the world they made within, their magnificent juxtapositions of soft green playing fields and tough, lyrical steel and concrete structures. Ballpark architecture was never about the gravitas of form.”

Fenway Park in 1914
John F. Riley Fenway Park in 1914

Consider Fenway Park, a “compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities,” as John Updike famously described it in The New Yorker. It was designed in 1911 by a 37-year-old local architect named James McLaughlin, who, as Goldberger notes, “saw architecture as a matter of meeting functional challenges in an aesthetically pleasing but not intellectually challenging way.” The shape of the lot meant that Lansdowne Street impinged on left field, which prompted the construction of a large fence—what would later become the Green Monster, the 37-foot-high wall that looms over left field just 310 feet from home plate. The ballpark wasn’t celebrated from the start; it wasn’t until the Osborn Engineering Co. renovated it in 1934 that the interior was painted its trademark Dartmouth green, helping to unify the various sections of seating that had been added ad hoc over the years.

A 1917 map depicting Fenway's oddly shaped site
Bromley Real Estate A 1917 map depicting Fenway's oddly shaped site

Fenway’s charm grew over time, and the quirks of the field, like the Green Monster, became an advantage for the Red Sox, whose left fielders mastered the angles at which balls caromed off the wall. The ballpark was of its place, gave fans an intimate perspective of the action, and, not least of all—because it served as a repository for sporting history, the site of dramatic moments and legendary players—grew to become that fabled “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark” that Updike championed.

What Fenway and other classic ballparks represent is a kind of organic locatecture, which stands in sharp contrast to so much of what gets built today—not only the moneyed globe-trotting projects but also the insipid office or condo buildings that have spread across our urban landscapes like a visually dulling plague. One thinks of the anonymous corporate mediocrity of Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.—nothing more than “a machine for baseball and for sucking the money out of the pockets of people,” as Philip Kennicott, The Washington Post’s art and architecture critic, describes it. Even the hallowed temple of Wrigley Field has been hemmed in by the encroachment of sterile and bland development, including a hotel, the Zachary, named after Zachary Taylor Davis, Wrigley’s original architect.

Fenway today
Peter Conner Fenway today

The Rise of the Upscale Bubble
So much of our affection for ballparks is borne of nostalgia, which envelops baseball like a dense morning fog. At its best, the retro movement produced some of the finest ballparks we have today: Oracle in San Francisco, PNC Park in Pittsburgh. At its worst, it perpetuated a stylized fakery: unlike the Fenways and Wrigleys, whose eclectic dimensions were a direct response to the constraints of their urban sites, some retro parks mimicked these dimensions not out of necessity (the lots were plenty large) but to create instantaneous character—a patina in a bottle. Most egregiously, the retro movement traded on baseball’s golden past, when ballparks tended to be democratic strongholds that celebrated the diversity of the masses, the raffish everyman, even as it betrayed that democratic past by catering to the corporate class with an embarrassment of posh amenities. Consider the new Yankee Stadium, which has fewer seats than its predecessor but three times the luxury boxes.

Goldberger, no slave to this nostalgia, has clear affection for Miami’s Marlins Park, an aggressively modern and self-assured venue that represents a clean break with the past. Designed by Populous and completed in 2012, it resembles a “huge marshmallow,” according to Goldberger—“big and gentle and porous.” He has but one objection: When the retractable roof is closed, as it often is in Miami’s heat and humidity, fans lose their connection to the city, their sense of place.

Miami's Marlins Park
Rod Mar Miami's Marlins Park
The 2017 All-Star Game at the park
ZUMA Press The 2017 All-Star Game at the park

What Goldberger doesn’t much object to is how ballparks have turned into “upscale bubbles.” Nor does he mount an impassioned argument against the billionaire owners who have squeezed taxpayers for public financing to build their stadiums. (The construction of the new $2.3 billion-plus Yankee Stadium included $1.1 billion in public money and tax breaks, including $431 million in federal subsidies, according to a 2016 Brookings Institution report, which finds little to recommend the practice: “Academic studies consistently find no discernible positive relationship between sports facility construction and local economic development, income growth, or job creation.”)

Goldberger often tends towards the encyclopedic rather than the critical: His narrative can slow to a trot as he unwinds the backstory of yet another stadium, letting his fellow critics pinch hit instead of taking cuts of his own. And then there’s the question of the small typos in Ballpark, which wouldn’t be worth mentioning except for the one spelling of Willie Mays as “Willy,” a howler that only serves to undermine Goldberger’s baseball bona fides.

Still, the book’s premise is clever enough—that the ballpark is a revealing lens through which to consider our architectural and urban moment. Witness the current debate over the Oakland Coliseum, a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill–designed donut completed in 1966, long reviled, that has suddenly inspired a belated appreciation now that it could be replaced by a new Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG)–designed venue. In the same way that Brutalism and Postmodernism have enjoyed a recent rediscovery, so too has a newfound nostalgia helped inspire the recognition of the charms of the Coliseum, that most detested of midcentury monoliths. The fact that BIG, in its initial drawings, has recycled various ideas from its previous projects, and the fact that the ballpark’s new location, Howard Terminal, along the waterfront, isn’t particularly transit-friendly, only increases that affection. In the end, the Coliseum will assuredly be demolished or redeveloped; to construct the new stadium, the Athletics intend to rely on private funding, but they are also courting public subsidies as part of a deal to land the development rights for the Coliseum site, where they plan to build affordable housing, among other things. Will this be a progressive leap forward or another miscalculation by the bay? The next chapter awaits.