I’ll Show You the Bronx

In recent years, my wife has developed a passion for architecture, and in particular New York City architecture. She’s taken a pair of classes taught by architecture historian Barry Lewis at the New School over the past couple of years, along the way assimilating more information on the entire discipline than I ever have. Having attended the Yankees’ recent stadium-opening exhibition against the Cubs (she was with a childhood friend who used to work for the team, while I was in the bleachers), she’s been on an extended rant about the architecture of the new park, a rant whose vitriol surprises even me.

She’d get a kick out of Mark Lamster calling bullshit on the coverage the new stadium has received in the design press. Lamster, in addition to weighing in on the eternally partisan scrap that is the AL East at YanksFanSoxFan, is a true Renaissance man. He’s the author of a terrific book about the most ambitious baseball barnstorming expedition of all time, Spalding’s World Tour and a forthcoming book on 17th century painter Peter Paul Rubens (mmmmm, Reubens…). He’s also an editor-at-large at Princeton Architectural Press. In a piece for ID magazine, he takes some of the architects of the puffery surrounding the stadium to task:

The problems with these new ballparks go far beyond mere questions of style; they strike at the essence of what it means to create good design.

The new Yankee Stadium, for instance, is costing American taxpayers several hundred million dollars and the local community a cherished park. In exchange, we’re getting a stadium with fewer seats, a dramatically higher percentage of which will be at luxury price levels. Gone is one of New York’s great public spaces: the vast upper deck of the much-maligned old stadium, which was rebuilt in the 1970s. Perhaps that building was not an architectural showplace, but when it was packed with fans for a big game, there was no more electric place in the city.

Sadly, as is so often the case in the public discourse on architecture, the debate about this new ballpark and its cousin in Queens defaulted to questions of superficial formalism. The New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff set the tone in his initial critique of the Bronx park, panned for its “faux historical” envelope. Destruction of the standing building, however, was not at issue. “There are those, no doubt, who will complain about the loss of the site of some of the most memorable moments in the history of sports,” he wrote. “I am not one of them.”

I am, but perhaps that’s not the point either. New York has lost one of its great public spaces, the experience of the average fan has been compromised, and the community has been asked to pay astronomical sums for a work of (mediocre) architecture. Aren’t these the real design issues at stake?

In a blog entry, Lamster further elaborates on the Times article, noting that Ourossouff “does not mention any of the controversy surrounding the stadium’s financing, its appropriation of public land, or the fact that the average ticket is 76 percent more expensive than last year, according to a recent study,” and taking issue with The New Yorker‘s recent take as well. Smart stuff.

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