• The 5.5-acre retractable roof employs 19,000 tons of steel. - photo by Kelly Gavin, courtesy The Texas Rangers

The green expanse always takes you by surprise. No matter how rough your day, how scorching hot, or how afraid you are that the home team might bungle the last game in the series and end their chances at a post-season slot — when you emerge from below the grandstand into the sunlight, the wide sweep of the field never fails to stir and right the spirit. All the world seems to fall into place around that energetic balance between the tight dirt diamond of the infield and the broad outfield: a miniaturization of the urban-rural symbiosis that has defined America. And when a pop fly vaults across that world-within-a-world, the universe seems to stop. We come to ballparks to be transported, to share surprise and be confronted with our own transcendence.

The task of ballpark architecture across its 150-odd-year history has been to mediate between this sacred ritual and the world around it. As Americans’ vision of the ideal urban habitat — as well as the economic engines driving that vision’s manifestation — have changed, so has the approach to crafting baseball’s homes. Tracking closely the emergence and aftershocks of modernism in architecture and urban planning, ballparks remain a lens through which to view the breadth of American urbanism. As the last 40 years of neoliberal policy and economics play out to their conclusion — the vast inequalities of late capitalism — vibrant, walkable urban places have become yet another amenity to appropriate for profit. Ballparks, true to form, have begun to follow.

Globe Life Field, the Texas Rangers’ new home ballpark — debuted in late July for COVID-era ballgames with empty seats — is among the first in a new era of ballparks: the “ballpark as theme park,” as architecture critic Paul Goldberger describes them. The architecture of the monumental, shed-like structure, designed by HKS’ experienced sports division, is focused on the interior fan experience, making for a successful new type of high-powered entertainment ballpark. However, its exterior is less resolved, particularly when compared to some of HKS’ other sports projects (like their football stadiums); it seems caught between vague postmodernism and unapologetic sculpturalism.

As we will see, Globe Life Field and the new urban district that is planned to surround it — a strange, corporate translation of the organic, fine-grained cities in which baseball was born — embody both the continuing reverberations of postmodernism’s heyday and the late-capitalist cultural condition that period bequeathed. In 2020, as baseball stadiums display only tenuous, commercialized links to real urbanism, architectural tradition, and ecological systems, we must ask: To what reality do they now speak? The answer may be none at all.

Playing to the Crowd

As with architecture at large, ballparks have always responded to their predecessors. The new Globe Life Field represents a deliberate spurning of its older stepbrother across the street: the Texas Rangers’ 1994 Ballpark in Arlington (later renamed Globe Life Park), which was designed by David M. Schwarz Architects. With its historically derived wrapper facade, exposed interior structure, and Texas iconography (think longhorn skulls and stars), the Ballpark in Arlington sits staunchly in the postmodern ballpark era that lasted from the 1990s through the 2010s. These ballparks, along with architectural postmodernism in general, were themselves reacting to the modernist, multi-sport “concrete doughnuts” of the postwar period, which encapsulated the urban planning trends of the time with their suburban locations and massive parking lots. Following 1992’s groundbreaking Camden Yards in Baltimore, new ballparks largely attempted to revive features of baseball’s early-20th-century golden-era stadiums, such as Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago. They imitated those older parks’ classical-industrial architecture, as well as their dense central-city locations, whose urban form literally shaped the parks and field dimensions, one of the most exciting and charming aspects of baseball. The most extreme example is Fenway’s Green Monster, its quirky 37-ft height meant to mitigate its proximity to home plate, which was necessitated by the old street network.

Globe Life Field leaves behind both wholehearted postmodern nostalgia and authentic urbanism, and represents a new focus on the interior, to which the architects directed most of their attention. According to Fred Ortiz, principal and director of sports at HKS, the Rangers management requested “the highest level of fan experience,” and they wanted to deliver. Such an ambition has long been part of baseball architecture: The Astrodome debuted the luxury suite and colossal animated scoreboards (now routine stadium features) under its audacious roof in 1965 (a year before Robert Venturi published his seminal “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture”), and stadium perks have only grown as teams have attempted to attract fans in the age of television. Today’s ballparks reflect an internalized, amusement-park-like adaptation of the real urban life one could once find outside.

The introduction of climate control embodies that detachment from the world. A roof was a front-and-center request for the Rangers’ new park. For both fans and players, summer games in Texas can be unpleasant and occasionally unbearable, with game-day temperatures rising regularly above 100 degrees, a trend that has been exacerbated by climate change. According to the Dallas sportscaster Craig Miller, who was among the first to visit the new stadium, the air conditioning transforms the experience of Rangers baseball.

The goal of creating a single-panel operable roof largely drove the overall shape and orientation of the park and the size of the field. The 600-ft-wide parallelogram form was derived from solar studies to optimize sunlight for a healthy grass field; ironically, synthetic turf was ultimately selected. The roof design delivers one of the ballpark’s most compelling features: the quality of light as it filters through the paneled skylights along the central spine and clerestory windows at the gabled ends. Instead of glass, HKS employed ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), a translucent polymer sheeting that is cheaper and a better insulator. The sun casts crisp light patterns onto the field while rendering an overall diffuse glow in the space, another feature reminiscent of the Astrodome. The single panel is likewise an elegant solution chosen to minimize the bulky depth of the stacking panels seen in other retractable-roofed ballparks.

Under the vast canopy of this signature roof, Ortiz said the team tried to maximize two things: proximity of seats to the field and an openness between interior and exterior. “A lot of those older ballparks tend to create a fort-like effect,” Ortiz said, referring both to the original era of parks and postmodern ones like Globe Life Park: “not very welcoming or transparent.” As a design response, Ortiz’ team opted to pull service spaces out from beneath the grandstands to the perimeter of the building wherever possible. This allowed them to make the grandstand discontinuous, pulling apart and lifting individual seating segments to create more visibility into the bowl from the concourses and a more faceted and complex seating composition around the asymmetrical field. This is a ballpark that does feel more open than its precursors, at least visually; the Rangers’ emphasis on climate-control sealing precluded some of the passive-cooling, open-air strategies that HKS initially explored.

By making the grandstand more open, HKS could also pull fans significantly closer to the action than at the Ballpark in Arlington, echoing the intimate urban feel of historic ballparks. At home plate, the backstop and first row of seating are a cozy 42 feet away, the closest in MLB today and closer than the pitcher himself, 60 feet away. (Forty-two is symbolic; it’s the number worn by Jackie Robinson, the first Black player allowed in the major leagues.) At fieldlevel along both foul lines, HKS created sunken suites, allowing spectators to view the game as players do from the dugout. At 40,300, the total seating capacity is 9,000 fewer than the old park, following recent ballpark trends to more closely match regular season attendance and create fewer bad seats.

Another strategy to attract casual fans and cultivate the social atmosphere that meshes well with baseball’s slower pace is the dedication of more space to amenities like open seating and casual gathering spaces — beer gardens, a planned zone for kids’ games, a terrace with rocking chairs. There is even a “secret” speakeasy bar tucked around one corner — a nod to the team’s namesake, the Texas Rangers, who raided real speakeasies during Prohibition. Of course, hot dogs and watery beer are still available, but so are great brisket and an IPA. In sum, these meeting places — mostly accessible to all ticket-holders, rather than being restricted to VIPs — afford more opportunities for real, personal connections, even as they continue a trend toward all-inclusive, highly controlled sports experiences.

Conjuring Place

While the park’s interior is a home run of fan-focused innovation, the exterior is more ambiguous in terms of its ambition. The HKS team did not wrap the building in another quasi-traditional masonry-clad facade. “We know that many in baseball have held Camden Yards up as the example of retro parks,” says Bryan Trubey, FAIA, HKS executive vice president and head of the sports practice. “We want to make this ballpark the ‘next generation’ benchmark in Major League Baseball.” While early design sketches show compelling references to Texas’ vernacular sheds with their pitched metal roofs, the ballpark is simply too large and the roof too remote to provide much unity at ground level. The problem of mitigating scale is not unique to Globe Life Field; it has been a particular challenge of retractable-roof ballparks, and none of the other six roofed MLB ballparks have presented a successful resolution. But the vast, low-sloped roof, while producing a distinctive interior effect, might benefit from more scale-defining articulation on the outside.

The most successful architectural expression (and most explicit historical reference) is a monumental arcade marching across the outfield, highly visible from both inside and outside. Composed of 18 massive red-brick arches rising three stories in the air, it is a staunch base for the roof track above. According to Ortiz, the arches were initially a design reference to the arched facade of the Ballpark in Arlington; they also recall arches found at some of the Texas missions, Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and the brickwork of ancient Rome. The arcade at once expresses the grandeur of the park and retains a connection to human scale, sheltering visitors as they promenade around the field and, from the home-plate side, presenting a strong visible backdrop beyond the left-field fence.

Within the context of the stadium exterior, the arcade seems to stand on its own rather than form an integral part of a cohesive architectural idea, but it does present a strong front to the plaza on the north facade, which is intended to anchor the new shopping and entertainment district. The intention is clear: to conjure up something of the spontaneous city life that surrounds the historic ballparks. At present, however, the only completed parcels breaking up a sea of parking are Texas Live!, a covered, open-air music venue, and the Live! by Loews hotel, both corporate chains. When the third wall of the plaza — currently bounded by the stadium and Texas Live! — is completed, as renderings show, the space should gain a comfortable urban enclosure and could well become the kind of successful social space that the modernist ballparks certainly lacked.

Master plans show additional development extending outward from this plaza and connecting Globe Life Field with the other nearby stadiums. Mixed-use residential, office, and commercial uses are planned, along with a new convention center for the city, in an attempt to create a more vibrant and diverse urban place. The existing bones of this suburban area — wide roads and large block sizes — do not make for a comfortable pedestrian experience, but, if concerted efforts are made to rethink the street design, the area has potential to become attractive, pedestrian-scaled urbanism.

Outside the park, however, heavy Rangers branding, as shown in renderings by the developer, The Cordish Companies, blurs the boundary between corporate control and publicness, undercutting what Jane Jacobs observes as the very nature of cities: They “have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” These new districts, planned by developers primarily as entertainment zones, could, through city incentives and policies, grow beyond that initial plan to become lively places for a broad range of people. If not, they might become, in a decade or two, merely another disconnected place for diversion or, worse, zombie districts without a true public heart.

Reality at the Bat

The professional ballpark has, for the past century, been a kind of civic institution, a public trust. It is both commercial and communal. The city of Arlington — and any other municipality — should insist that ballparks endeavor to capture the collective imagination and not merely frame a branded experience. Controlled sameness is a killer of wonder and vitality. Since studies show public investment in stadiums is almost never recouped economically, the city could have compelled more in the way of livability paybacks. Vast parking lots might have been designed with abundant trees or pervious paving to mitigate the atmospheric warming to which the new air-conditioned park will contribute. For the larger common good, the city might have demanded a higher level of sustainable construction and operation of the ballpark while gently showcasing those features to the public, educating patrons that global temperatures indeed continue to rise due to human activity — a factor that, in part, made the new roof necessary just to maintain a basic level of fan and player comfort.

The climate crisis — a product of the excessive consumerism that corporate urbanism embodies — is confronting us with reality in a manner similar to what the baseball field does. We want to be called to something more, to create meaning, to find harmony with the world around us. While the earliest ballparks clearly defined the inner world of the game, they were rarely indifferent to their urban context. Entertainment districts may provide distraction or even delight for a few hours, but our architectural and urban spaces might contribute more to human flourishing if they cultivated a sense of deeper significance and connection to the real world. Globe Life Field and its environs have many admirable features, but we ought to ask more of our ballparks, and we ought to enact public policy that incentivizes community-focused, urban development and minimizes generic, corporate-controlled public space. Baseball parks once showed a way to our better selves. In an era of global economic and environmental crisis, it’s time that they — and we — again step up to the plate.

Gabe Colombo is a Master in Architecture student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Kennedy Colombo, AIA, is a principal at Jackson Galloway FGM Architects in Austin.

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