04 April 2008

Goodbye to Shea, Goodbye to Modern Baseball

I think the least-loved building that I love, and which also happens to be a work of modern architecture, is Shea Stadium. It is a big, impersonal bowl, one of the first of many major league stadiums built in that style, and even today, when I walk up the ramps and get my first look at the field, I grin with something like the same joy I felt on my first visit, in 1964, the year it opened.

In those days we almost always sat in the nose-bleed section. You could get a seat by giving the ticket taker 10 side panels cut from Borden’s milk containers, a promotion akin to sending in a cereal box top for a prize. The side panels had to be those with the Mets promotion on it, of course, but when we didn’t drink enough milk, my father would simply cut off all the panels and sandwich the ordinary ones inside the good ones, so it looked as if we had the right 10.

I was amazed, a number of years ago, to hear that people, even Mets fans, did not like Shea. When it opened it was nicer, to my 10-year-old sensibility, than Yankee Stadium, which until it was rebuilt in the mid-70s was an old dump. Unlike Yankee Stadium, it was new, clean, convenient, colorful – those big, corrugated steel panels on the fa├žade look like the prototype for this blog – with plenty of parking, and it was modern, built next to the World’s Fair, a showplace of the modern world.

In truth, after it was renovated, Yankee Stadium was nicer. But I loved Shea more because I loved the Mets.

Both now are in their last seasons, and both will be replaced by the newest trend in new ballparks – ballparks built to look old. Which brings me to this question:

In the last 25 years, Americans have designed, built and enjoyed modern office buildings, modern libraries, modern museums, and modern houses. Why is it so hard to build a baseball stadium that looks like it belongs in the 21st century?

There’s more about that, here, in a good post by Michael Bierut on Design Observer. He argues persuasively that a new modern stadium for the Mets would have been perfectly justified:

But in reality Flushing Meadows is hardly the middle of nowhere, and has a potent design tradition of its own. Originally a city dumping ground memorialized as The Great Gatsby's "valley of ashes," it was cleared by parks commissioner Robert Moses for the 1939 New York World's Fair, and fifteen years later, the 1964 World's Fair. Its grounds were the site of some of the most iconic and entertaining visionary architecture ever built in North America: Wallace Harrison's Trylon and Perisphere, Norman Bel Geddes' Futurama at the General Motors Pavilion, not to mention the Unisphere, which still stands today within sight of the new Citi Field. Wouldn't any of these have made great precedents for a new pleasure dome to be built in Flushing Meadows? Or, to go a little further afield — but at least within the same borough — how about Queen's greatest piece of architecture, from the same year as Shea, no less: Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal?

I also found a great video on this blog. -- ta


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