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That home-field edge

Dodger Stadium, a rarity amid retro cookie-cutters, stands as a venue that uniquely reflects its time and place. It's a model, in its way, for a bold next wave.

June 05, 2005|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

There were two kinds of projects that modern architecture proved particularly ill-suited to take on during the height of its American influence in the decades after World War II. The first was design at the scale of the city: Modernism and urban planning turned out to be a terrible match, producing towers-in-the-park schemes, hulking expressways and other architectural disasters.

The second was the design of baseball stadiums. From the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, 17 major-league teams moved into new ballparks. With their strict symmetry and stripped concrete exteriors, the stadiums were full of disdain for the history of architecture -- and of baseball. By the end of the 1980s most of them had become unloved white elephants, sitting forlornly in the middle of lake-sized parking lots.

They fell flat, in part, because they tried to impose Modernism's utopian formulas on the least utopian of American sports -- a game whose biggest stars have usually been flawed eccentrics and in which failure at the plate two-thirds of the time, extended over the course of a career, will win you a place in the Hall of Fame.

The great exception was Dodger Stadium, which somehow managed to suggest that baseball and postwar architecture were made for each another. When it opened in spring 1962, it demonstrated -- like all of the best midcentury architecture in Los Angeles -- how much could be gained by treating the rigid rules of Modernism more like open-ended guidelines.

The park, designed by architect-engineer Emil Praeger -- with plenty of detailed input from owner Walter O'Malley -- was streamlined and forward-looking. But it also had an unshakable sense of place: Though it incorporated details from baseball's oldest parks -- particularly the steeply pitched upper decks that keep fans in the cheap seats close to the action -- it was loosely informal and extensively landscaped, taking advantage of its spacious hilltop site. It didn't take long for Praeger's stadium to earn a reputation as the best-designed ballpark in the major leagues.

Dodger Stadium's singular charm -- what makes it work so well architecturally, and why -- is worth examining anew for a number of reasons. The most obvious is the controversial $20-million renovation that the team's new ownership carried out over the winter, on the heels of a $50-million redesign in 2000.

On top of that, a new wave of high-profile stadium design is beginning to crest. Some of architecture's biggest talents, including Herzog & De Meuron, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster and Santiago Calatrava, are working on sports facilities. And as cities around the world jockey for attention and status, more will surely look to dramatic stadiums as an effective form of global marketing. It even appears possible that stadiums will be to the next 20 years what museums have been to the last 20: architecture's most dynamic specialty.

The most recent renovation at Dodger Stadium, by the Los Angeles firm Turner Meis + Associates, has drawn fire from sportswriters, season-ticket holders and architectural purists alike. But its scope, at least, is modest. It has added 1,600 premium seats, priced as high as $400, at field level and removed the same number from the upper reaches of the stadium, keeping the park's capacity at 56,000. It has also attached hyperactive video screens to the facing of the second deck.

According to Drew McCourt, the Dodgers' 23-year-old vice president of marketing (and the son of owner Frank McCourt), further renovation work is in the planning stages. It will involve replacing the physical seats in every section and may include a long-overdue overhaul of the pavilion seating area behind the outfield. But first the team must deal with continuing fallout from the off-season redesign, which was complicated by the fact that its architects, Dan Meis and Ron Turner, split professionally not long after winning the Dodger contract.

The views from the new seats have been the source of particular controversy, with some season-ticket holders complaining that mostly what they can see now is the person sitting in front of them. But the view of the new seats from the rest of the stadium isn't terribly distracting.

The only place the design goes noticeably wrong is in the U-shaped concrete semicircle that runs between the new sections and the seats rising behind them; that area, which was added in 2000 and expanded over the winter, is entirely too bulky, as if it shelters some underground bunker where the Dodgers and their wealthiest season-ticket holders can seek safe haven if things get especially out of hand on a $2 Tuesday.

Otherwise, Dodger fans who haven't been to a game this year may be surprised at how such limited work could have produced such a nasty reaction.

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