Can we pretty please not get stuck with an ugly ballpark?
Last week, sketches were released of the exterior of the new downtown stadium for the Tulsa Drillers.
It looks like a terminal building for a third-rate regional airport.
"Grace L. Ferguson Airlines and Storm Door Co. Flight 57 to Bokchita now boarding at Gate 1 -- the only gate we have."
The sketches show an emphatically horizontal structure of what appears to be brushed metal, mirrored glass, and beige masonry, an uninviting place for a pedestrian to walk past, which we can add to all the other uninviting blank walls and surface parking lots and mirrored glass downtown. There are no readily discernable entrances.
The City Council has forfeited to the Tulsa Stadium Trust any right the public has to influence any aspect of the new ballpark and its surrounding domain, but I still believe the public should make itself heard. We're going to be living with this building for a long time.
This is not a matter of personal taste. It goes back to something we discussed a few weeks ago. In the creation of individual buildings and the relationship of one building to another and to the street, there are patterns that attract human beings and bring a place to life, and there are "anti-patterns" that repel people and make a place dead and lifeless. These patterns work at the level of instinct.
Architect Christopher Alexander named this idea The Timeless Way of Building. In the book of the same name, he illustrated the concept by describing the challenge of making a winter feeding station in his yard for blackbirds.
"But it is not so easy to build a table that will really work. The birds follow their own laws; and if I don't understand them, they just won't come. If I put the table too low, the birds won't fly down to it, because they don't like to swoop too close to the ground. If it is too high in the air, or too exposed, the wind won't let them settle on it. If it is near a laundry line, blowing in the wind, they will be frightened by the moving line. Most of the places where I put the table actually don't work.
"I slowly learn that blackbirds have a million subtle forces guiding them in their behavior. If I don't understand these forces, there is simply nothing I can do to make the table come to life. So long as the placing of the table is inexact, my image of the blackbirds flocked around the table eating is just wishful thinking."
We want to repair our downtown to make it, as it once was, a place where people naturally flock. We want to undo five decades of bad decisions.
We want to protect and improve the good places that remain and connect them with, in city planner Ed Sharrer's phrase, "places in between the places."
Calling All Thinkers
Our forefathers seemed to know instinctively how to build pedestrian-friendly urban places. After World War II, builders forgot, driven by the imperative of building for the convenience of the driver rather than the person on foot, the growth of cookie-cutter chains, an ease of financing that encouraged disposable architecture, and the rising influence of inhumane architectural styles from "modern" Europe.
In 2003, Tulsans were sold a downtown arena with strong traditional influences. The pre-election sketches led us to believe that it would have a timeless appearance, with discernable Art Deco features. Some of us were hopeful that the end product might connect with the street in a meaningful way, with street-level retail around the periphery that would create interest and foot traffic even when nothing was happening inside.
What we got instead is an "iconic" lump of tarnishing metal surrounded by a useless, lifeless plaza.
(To be fair, the plaza isn't entirely lifeless. There's a fenced-off smoker's prison on the south side about where Elwood Ave. used to be, providing some street theater for passersby, who can stare and jeer at the confined nicotine addicts who have come outside for a mid-concert fix.)
HOK Sport, the firm of architects hired for this project, made its name on neo-traditional ballparks. The only reason they'd come up with something glass and metal and not discernibly a ballpark is if the client, the Tulsa Stadium Trust, insisted on it.
If so, it speaks once again to Tulsa's lack of self-confidence. A confident city could have a baseball stadium that looks like a stadium. An embarrassed and self-conscious city has to have an iconic thingamajig.
A building's frontage, particularly in an urban, pedestrian oriented area, should be permeable -- people outside should be able to look in, people inside should be able to see out. No reflective glass, no blank walls.
A building ought to be "legible." It ought to be easy for a passerby to able to "read" its purpose and how you get in.
A building, particularly a building of civic importance, ought to dignify its surroundings. It should appear solid, impressive, and permanent.
While Art Deco is the first classic building style that comes to the mind of Tulsans, there are many other styles that could be used to create a ballpark that looks like it has been around for 100 years and will be around for at least 100 more.
We have lost so much dignified and beautiful downtown architecture. Why not seek to recreate in the ballpark the look of one of those lost buildings?
Architecture snobs will complain that we're being derivative or unoriginal. We shouldn't care. Because so much good architecture has been lost, we shouldn't apologize for wanting to build something new in a traditional style, whether it's simple Plains Commercial or dramatic Art Deco.
We could reproduce the exuberant Middle Eastern style of the late lamented Akdar Shrine Temple, later known as the Cimarron Ballroom, which once stood at 4th and Denver.
Or since this is a sports facility, we could take as a model the impressive façade of the Coliseum, which opened in 1926 on the east side of Elgin between 5th and 6th. The Leon Senter-designed arena was destroyed by a lightning-started fire in 1952.
We could borrow a magnificent and stately style that isn't represented in Tulsa, as far as I know, and is rare in Oklahoma, as its peak of popularity came just before statehood. Richardsonian Romanesque is solid, dignified, and impressive. It suggests permanence and its characteristic round arches would echo one of the oldest extant public sports venues, the Coliseum of Rome.
A round Roman arch was the distinctive feature of the façade of the Dreamland Theater. The Greenwood Ave. venue, which was rebuilt after the 1921 riot, only to be demolished in the '60s for expressway construction, once stood just 200 feet or so from the ballpark site. It too could serve as an inspiration for the design of the new stadium.
Looking for Quality
Classic major league stadiums like Philadelphia's Shibe Park, Boston's Fenway Park, Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, and Chicago's Wrigley Field varied in style, but all were designed to fit into an urban context, and like the commercial buildings of the early 20th century, they were built to last (even when stupid ideas like multipurpose stadiums and urban renewal led to their premature abandonment and destruction).
These stadiums inspired the neo-traditional wave of ballpark design, which began with Oriole Park at Camden Yards and continued through the 1990s with major and minor league stadiums across America, many of them designed by the aforementioned HOK.
To make it unique, the ballpark's design could speak to the history of the site.
From the 1910s until sometime in the 1990s, the site was bisected by the M. K. & T. railroad tracks. For the first 50 years of that period, the interurban from Sand Springs ran down the center of Archer until about a half-block east of Elgin, where the tracks curved northward, running roughly where the ballpark's outfield fence will be. The trolley tracks then ran down the middle of Greenwood Ave. from Brady St. to Haskell St., before veering off to the east to connect to the Santa Fe tracks to the north.
You can still see some old bits of the track behind the commercial buildings on the west side of Greenwood. The triangular shape of that block of buildings marks where the Sand Springs and Katy railroads crossed paths. If you look closely, you can see where the middle of Archer and the sidewalk on its north side were patched when the interurban tracks were removed.
Southwest of the Katy tracks were mostly industrial and warehouse uses. The northeast side of the tracks was bluntly labeled on the 1915 Sanborn Fire Map as the "Negro District." That map shows, within the future confines of the new ballpark, about 20 single-story dwellings of various sizes, plus a two-story rooming house on the northwest corner of Frankfort and Brady.
The 1939 map, showing the rebuilt Greenwood district, has a dozen or so smaller homes in the same area. By the '50s, the proposed ballpark footprint included several single-story apartment buildings and small dwellings, about 30 housing units in all.
The Stadium at Greenwood Junction would be an apt name and potentially a source of inspiration for the building's details. The site was both the crossroads of two railroads, but it was also on the boundary, in the days of racial segregation, between black and white Tulsa. The barrier that was the Katy tracks would become a place of gathering and unity.
For many, baseball's appeal is rooted in a sense of connection to a long-time American tradition. A timeless sport deserves a timeless design.
We already have one ugly downtown sports venue which will only look uglier and more dated with age. We beseech you, O Powers That Be, to make this park something beautiful, timeless, inspiring, and enduring.
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