Friday, February 03, 2006

The New Busch Stadium - Is it Ugly?

Here is a recent construction photo of the new Busch Stadium, in downtown Saint Louis, Missouri, future home of the Cardinals major league baseball team.

The team, by the way, is not named after the Electors of the Pope, but after the bird, the Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, a New World member of the Bunting family. The males of that species have a similar deep scarlet color as the clerical dress of the Cardinals in Rome, and that is where they get their name. The birds have a crest somewhat like a bishops' mitre, although turned sideways, a much more streamlined direction.

Some have said that the new ballpark is ugly, and it was a shame that the older, beautiful stadium was torn down. Since I tend to be an architectural traditionalist, and was originally in favor of the new Busch Stadium, I thought that I'd take a closer look at the new ballpark for myself. Even though I go to downtown Saint Louis frequently, and have driven near the new construction many times, I hadn't looked at it too carefully.

Ugly is accurate.

I wasn't exactly sure why I had that initial gut reaction. Not being a Modernist and stopping at my own emotions as the sole judge of aesthetics, I looked for objective reasons for this reaction. The brick pattern (or lack thereof) was the first obvious thing I discovered.

The exterior is made of brick, which is probably intended to harmonize with many of the 19th century buildings located nearby, and is certainly designed to hearken back to the days of the ballparks of the early 20th century, when baseball became the national pastime. The brick they use however, is the far-too-uniform brick that has been popular in local construction since the 1970s. Masonry construction used to be far less uniform than now: bricks, even in my house built in the 1950s, tended to be of various shades and a skilled mason could produce all sorts of interesting patterns of color. The brick color of the new ballpark seems to be a shade too dark compared with older buildings in the area, although much of the older brick is coated with a layer of dark ash from the days of coal burning which ended in the 1940s. I was not close enough to see if these bricks were made of clay or tinted concrete.

And since there are six different ways a regular brick could be exposed on the face of a wall—not counting even diagonals—the bond of the brick can lead to distinctive and attractive patterns. English bond and Flemish bond are just two basic patterns of laying brick with alternate headers and stretchers (bricks laid into the wall or along it), which were developed to increase the strength of the wall. Nowadays, brick is not basically structural, but is just an external adornment and defense against the elements, so technically speaking, any type of bond is strictly not needed, since this pattern of bricks does not add to the strength of the complete structure. So in the reductionistic architecture of the 1970s, a pure running bond was used: brick after brick, row after row, with no break or detail whatsoever: what wasn't required was eliminated. The new stadium uses this method mainly, with a decorative break in the pattern only after what appears to be about a hundred or so rows.

So both the bricks themselves and the pattern in which they are laid are dull and overly uniform, lacking human scale and detail. This is one of the general principles of Modernism that was retained in our current Postmodern architecture.

I think that being a construction worker may be a bit dull with this type of bland uniform architecture. The paycheck might be very good, and the final structure may well be a very nice place to view a baseball game, but it seems as if something may be lacking. In times past, the skilled trades were allowed much more aesthetic judgment: were their jobs also more rewarding? Did they perhaps have a greater proper pride in their work?

By no means am I calling for increased "creativity", that Marxist term for primeval artistic randomness, but rather for a more reasoned judgment of beauty. Tradition is almost always a sure guide, as is science backed up by solid experience. Back in the old days, trade guilds would foster this kind of experience, judgment, and proper pride in a job both well done and beautifully done. A relative of mine is a stonemason who shows this kind of proper pride in his work, even to the point of showing me how his stonework is superior to, and more attractive than others. Perhaps architects and general contractors should encourage and trust their skilled trades in this kind of judgment of beauty, and the trades themselves should encourage architects to develop more attractive building styles.

The building in general lacks human scale; everything is large; it has enlarged elements that would look fine in a much smaller building, but is not appropriate on a building of this scale. Where on the exterior are the elements that are of human scale? They eye delights when it rests on small things.

When I saw the great black curved truss-like structure over the main entrance it hit me: this building isn't serious. That element, perhaps reminiscent of the structural arches of the Eads Bridge, just looks funny and out of place. The large banks of lights over the ballpark have similar structural-looking arches, but they apparently are just for looks. Modern architecture stripped buildings of applied ornament, but now this Postmodern building has fake structural elements as applied ornament. This would be a funny joke, if it were a cartoon in an architectural journal.

Whimsy has a place in architecture, and in the arts in general. Just think of the gargoyles on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. But when the major architectural form is a joke....well, there seems to be a lack of respect for the owners of the building and the general public, upon whom this most public of public arts is imposed.

This ballpark was designed by the Saint Louis-based HOK, a giant of an architectural firm, which is well known for its Modern (and now Postmodern) designs. They have been criticized for creating a series of apparently cookie-cutter stadiums, but reply that this is what their clients want.

I'm sure that HOK has designed a ballpark that will be a fine place to spend an afternoon watching a game. I just wished that they made it more beautiful.

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