Building beautiful American sports stadiums

One writer asks whether Americans can build beautiful sports stadiums:

So why don’t any of them look like the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux? For a country with such a deep and abiding love for professional sports and lighting money on fire, the U.S. really isn’t in the business of building iconic sports arenas. Museums: Fine. Libraries: We’re golden. Those things are built to make the case for themselves and their cities. It’s different with stadiums…France’s latest soccer stadium, which opened to great fanfare in September, is the work of Herzog & de Meuron. It was designed with an eye toward Bordeaux’s landscape, according to the firm’s website, with heavy emphasis on elegance and “geometrical clarity.” At a glance, it looks like a juiced-up John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Herzog & de Meuron are what you would call elite architects. The firm is best known for projects such as the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg and 56 Leonard Street in New York. Not that they’re not known for sports architecture: The firm designed the unforgettable Bird’s Nest Stadium, a collaboration with Ai Weiwei that served as the centerpiece for the Beijing 2008 Summer Games. Herzog & de Meuron has also produced jewel-box arenas for Munich (Allianz Arena) and Basel (St. Jakob Park).

But Europe is home to lots of ballparks and arenas by smaller firms that, for better or worse, push the boundaries of what stadium architecture can be. In the U.S., most sports venues are designed by one of a handful of giant specialty firms, namely Populous, HKS, HOK, AECOM, NBBJ, and a few others. While these are fine firms—great firms, even—stadium designs for American clients trend toward the conservative.

The argument seems a bit convoluted: local leaders, taxpayers, and teams are going to build more of these stupid things anyway so why not make them better looking? This could go a few different directions instead:

  1. Iconic buildings – those with unique architecture and often designed by starchitects – can become draws on their own. Both status and tourist dollars are at stake here. Of course, there are issues with promoting such iconic structures as they can often have little connection to existing styles in the community.
  2. Any sort of major public building, from museums to libraries to parking garages to stadiums, should be pleasing to look at and contribute to the community. For example, New Urbanists argue civic structures should occupy prominent locations and be landmarks for the community. In other words, you could have a beautiful structure but if it is located next to a highway junction to best serve those trying to get to the park or in order to take advantage of cheap land, what’s the point?
  3. What counts as a beautiful or well-designed building is difficult to define. Who gets to decide if stadiums are ugly? The fans who regularly go there? A survey of local residents? Team owners? Could utilitarian structures be considered beautiful in their own way? The example discussed from Bordeaux appears to be the sort of modernist structure that never really caught on in the United States. (For example, it never really gathered much steam for houses.)

Still, I imagine there are some American stadiums that the general public would consider more beautiful than others. Whether Americans want daring stadiums, ones that don’t look like the typical American stadium, may be a tough sell…

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