Benjamin Lisle on Stadiums and America

Benjamin Lisle, a visiting professor at Colby College, recently came out with a new book, Modern Coliseum, looking at the design of stadiums since World War II. With the book’s recent release, TKNN interviewed Lisle about the book’s topic.

TKNN: You talk about how many modernist stadiums had become very similar with few defining qualities. Why is that?

There are reasons both historical and practical. Modernist stadiums in the U.S.—those built between the mid-1950s up until the early 1980s—followed a similar program to “high” modern architecture more broadly. This is architecture that echoes some of those famous mantras of influential European architects. People like Le Corbusier, who thought that houses should be “machines for living in.” Or Mies van der Rohe, who famously claimed “less is more.” If you make a stadium like a “machine,” you strip away a lot of what makes it distinctive. So, we see a trend toward the simple geometries of the circle, which in a functional sense enables a stadium to “convert” between baseball and football formats more effectively (or, at least, so the logic went). But a circular stadium, with simple concrete walls (or sometimes encircled with concrete pillars) also satisfies the urge toward an engineered machine that visibly expressed the idea that “less is more” and an image of modern progress. The circle is an ideal, engineered form in this way. And so, it makes sense that it would be repeated in city after city, just as Mies’s boxy, slab skyscrapers with glass curtain walls were across the country.

But there are certainly more practical, less theoretically ideal reasons for standardization. The sorts of stadiums I consider in the book—places like Shea Stadium in Queens, the Houston Astrodome, and St. Louis’s Busch Memorial Stadium—are massive and expensive building projects. You see a lot of cross-fertilization of architectural and engineering firms, knowledge-sharing and consulting to diminish the risks involved. I certainly don’t think that’s unique to the modernist era, either. You saw a lot of that in the earlier generation of stadiums and so-called “classic” ballparks: Cleveland’s Osborn Engineering built a lot of stadiums before World War II. And we see it today, with Populous (previously HOK Sport) designing so many of our stadiums from the last couple decades. Of course, they quite consciously design them to seem unique—an expression of the times and a reaction to the modernist “concrete doughnuts.” While the visual experience of the stadium and its urban context can seem quite different today, scratch the surface and I think we see structures and experiences that are nearly as routinized as the moderns.

TKNN: The book brings up how many stadiums were built in large part with public funds, but then the private baseball teams raised prices and made more money. Is that evidence against public investment in ballparks?

I think we could have forms of public investment in stadiums make sense, but certainly not in the ways we have funded them in the past—or for the types of stadiums that we’re currently building. There is a strong consensus among economists that stadium-building is a bad economic deal for the public. I don’t think economic choices should drive everything we do, and I’m generally in favor of the public supporting projects that are democratically agreed upon. But I don’t think that description fits the history of public funding for stadiums. Historically, the side that supports public investment has had much greater resources to make their case—not just buying ad space, but by virtue of who they are—politicians who want to make a visible splash, news media who benefit from having major-league sports to cover, corporations that use major-league status as an executive recruiting tool, and the construction industry that builds the things. These are powerful groups who can shape the public conversation. Increasingly, we’ve seen that the old argument that stadiums are money-makers for communities is bogus, thanks to the work of economists. But we’ve also seen advocates for the public funding of stadiums change their tune, adapting to this, celebrating the spiritual intangibles of being a big-league community—this idea of the stadium as a social glue that stitches together diverse communities. But even when publics reject that argument, as we saw in Pittsburgh in the run-up to the construction of PNC Park and Heinz Field, the pro-stadium coalitions have often figured out ways to work around the public will to channel public funding to the projects. And these are stadiums that are increasingly difficult for many people to enjoy, due to the costs of attendance. I don’t think we should publicly finance stadiums for millionaire and billionaire owners, and I don’t think we should publicly finance stadiums that are designed primarily for the most affluent to attend. On the other hand, I would listen to an argument in favor of community-owned stadiums, housing community-owned teams, where a range of people from different economics classes, whose unifying characteristic was that they loved to watch sport, could afford to go. But that’s pretty unlikely given the ways our leagues and cities are constituted.

TKNN: This book largely focuses on baseball and baseball stadiums. Why baseball and its stadiums and not football, for example?

Football plays an important role in the story of the modernist stadium, and I deal with that in the book. However, football takes a back seat to baseball as the primary driver of stadium construction and what it meant for a city to be “big-league,” particularly in the 1950s and through much of the 1960s, when the modernist form was getting worked out. In the late 1960s, baseball purists began fretting quite a bit about the ascendance of professional football and its impact on stadium design—which includes the installation of artificial turf. Baseball might seem foregrounded in the book, because it was the dominant professional sport at the time when the book picks up the stadium story, in the late 1940s. But by the 1970s, professional football had arrived and its pace, violence, and sense of spectacle seemed to baseball purists the epitome of what had gone wrong not only with sport and the stadium, but society as a whole. But even if we look to the early 1990s, when football had seemingly surpassed baseball as the national sport, we still see baseball’s significant influence on stadium design. The rejection of the maligned multi-purpose concrete doughnuts is led, of course, by Baltimore’s Camden Yards. And its celebration of place—and rejection of that standardized placelessness of the moderns—is something that has shaped the design of football-only stadiums in recent decades.

TKNN: You talk about the impact baseball had on its community and social progress. Does baseball still have that potential for impact?

I’m resistant to the idea that baseball or other sports are uniquely qualified to build community or advance social progress. That doesn’t mean they can’t or don’t. It’s a component of society where we work out and reflect ideas about ourselves. I do think that the performance of those ideas is meaningful. So, yes, I definitely think that our sports can cultivate a sense of community and sometimes advance progressive ideas, but I think they are just as likely to be divisive and regressive. (And I would be careful to distinguish between community and progress—sometimes ideas about community can be quite exclusionary, tribal, and regressive.)

One thing that makes professional sport distinctive is its scale. It is a prominent stage that commands the attention and devotion of millions. So it can resonate symbolically in ways that are quite powerful. Think of the attention Colin Kaepernick attracts—and he has been joined by many other athletes in calling attention to racial inequality today. But while I deeply appreciate his willingness to express himself, risking his career as he does, many if not most respond quite differently to athletes expressing more left critiques of social institutions. I think Kaepernick is an agent of social progress, but the response to him is quite regressive. So sport is both progressive and regressive at once, just as complex as society is.

TKNN: When we look at the relationship between baseball and American history in the 20th century, how much of it is baseball affecting America versus America affecting baseball?

As my response to the previous question suggests, I don’t think you can separate the two. Sport is historically embedded and thus expresses what is going on at any given time—even if it is functioning as a form of escape, as I think the stadium was for many new suburbanites fleeing the city and its perceived problems in the 1950 and ‘60s (or today with the Braves’ move to Cobb County). That’s what makes sport such an interesting site to examine who we are as Americans. It’s a bit clichéd to take the case of Jackie Robinson, but it illustrates this complex and fascinating relationship between sport and society quite effectively. Robinson is certainly a civil rights icon, but he is just one in a vast, rich history of civil rights activists—known and unknown—fighting the centuries-long and unrealized battle for racial equality and justice. Indeed, he was a very visible one—a powerful symbol of equality, as he revealed the tenaciousness of white racism. Where does sport start and end in his story? What are the boundaries between the athlete and the activist? Billie Jean King is both an agent of progress and a symbol of progress made; her “battle of the sexes” with Bobby Riggs in the Astrodome in 1973 comes a year after Title IX is enacted and the Equal Rights Amendment passed Congress (before its later defeat). Of course, sport is just a single component of society broadly conceived—in all its social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions. But it is a form of culture that can have outsized influence, both progressive and regressive, because it is so popular.

TKNN: You write about the Astrodome being a reflection of Houston. How common is it for a stadium to be a reflection of its city?

In one sense, it’s unavoidable for a stadium to reflect its city. All stadiums are conceived, developed, built, and experienced in a local context. The construction of a new stadium is justified in local terms. This is a key idea in the book—that each of these modernist stadiums, from Shea Stadium to Dodger Stadium—reflects local peculiarities both materially and culturally.

At the same time, this localism is also in tension with universalism. As you noted earlier, the modernist stadium is noteworthy for its standardization—it is dismissed as the “concrete doughnut” because it seems so routinized in city after city. And there is some validity in that.

I hope that my book adds some texture to this latter perspective, showing how the modernist stadium was both an expression of the local and the national at the same time—and tracing the ways that tension worked itself out in these different cities. For me, that is one of the compelling things about modern life, this material and cultural negotiation between the global and the local.

TKNN: Baseball stadiums are still being built, where do you see stadiums going in terms of design and culture?

One of the things the book does is connect the stadiums of today to the modernist stadiums of an earlier era. Most of the conversation around these two generations of stadiums focuses on the differences; I think there are many similarities worth noting. One of the trends that we can track from the 1950s to today is a gradual, but relentless, gentrification of stadium spaces. Of course, this is uneven from stadium to stadium and city to city, but taken as a whole, stadiums are increasingly more expensive and more geared to a casual and affluent consumer (over a less monied sports fan).

If this trend continues, the cartoon version of the stadium of the future would be just walls of luxury suites, upscale clubs, and fancy restaurants surrounding the field. At the same time, the spectacle of the noisy, faceless crowd is important to our collective imaginary of the stadium. So, maybe this future stadium is half hyper-elite luxury space, half bleacher seats staffed by Oakland Raider-type rowdies. The one percent and the ninety-nine percent (or at least what that looks like in the imagination of the one percent). If stadiums reflect their historical moments, this would be an appropriate stadium to reflect the economic inequality of our era. (I say this half-jokingly, but just half.)

Some recent projects use stadiums as anchors of larger entertainment zones. This isn’t something new, of course. Norman Bel Geddes mocked up such a structure for Walter O’Malley in Brooklyn in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Astrodome anchored a larger convention and amusement park district in the late 1960s. Busch Stadium in St. Louis was conceived as part of a larger downtown gentrification project in the mid-1960s (including hopes for a midwestern Disneyland). Places likes Camden Yards or Nationals Park have also played major roles in urban redevelopment. The new Rams and Chargers stadiums in Inglewood will presumably be joined by a new arena for the Clippers, as part of a bigger mixed-use development focused on upscale consumption. “Battery Atlanta,” home to the new Braves ballpark, combines restaurants and cocktail bars, shopping, a music venue, hotels, and offices. So, this old trend will probably continue, amplifying the idea of sport as part of a buffet of consumer entertainment options—a further departure from the iconic stadium experiences of the past, in places like Ebbets Field, or legacies of those cultures, at places like Fenway Park. I love a good cocktail to be sure, but I don’t think this does much for the stadium experience—or at least the ones I’ve valued in my life. And I’m not all that interested in sharing my sporting experience with people who came to the game because there’s a renowned restaurant in the same complex.

We also see an accelerated turnover time for stadiums and ballparks, and I can’t see that slowing down. Arlington is planning a new ballpark for the Rangers to open in 2020, though their current stadium is just twenty-three years old. The Braves lasted just twenty years at Turner Field. Technological change, shifting consumer demands, and the cutthroat competition that derives from monopolistic league structures suggest we might see stadiums’ life cycles shrink. As a sports fan and historian, whose early fascination with stadium culture was stoked by places like Oklahoma’s Owen Field in the 1980s, Fenway Park in the late 1990s, and Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane in the early 2000s, I find this deeply alienating—and to be honest, it makes many of today’s stadiums so ordinary and predictable that I can hardly be bothered to go. A sense of place and connection has to be earned over time, but I don’t see an appetite for patience among sports owners and the entertainment shoppers they value. Again, this isn’t necessarily new, but it is more starkly clear given the state of the stadium today and those being planned for the coming years.

About Tyler

Tyler is the chief media reporter for TKNN, with the news organization since its founding in November of 2010. He has previously served as chief political reporter and chief political anchor for TKNN.

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