There’s a scene in the Netflix documentary series Abstract: The Art of Design, where the subject of the episode, Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, describes one of this first projects. The site is in the Copenhagen docklands and was previously used for painting ship hulls. The original plan was to remediate the site by removing polluted topsoil. Sound familiar, Howard Terminal fans? The problem was that it would’ve cost a third of the allocated budget to clean and remove the soil. Ingels submitted a solution: build over the top of the site with a wooden skin, so that the soil doesn’t endanger anyone.
The result was a facility that serves dual purposes: a storage area/workshop for boats, and a playground/boardwalk area for children and families. I imagine that example, and some of Ingels’ more provocative work as part of BIG, Ingels’ architectural firm, helped attract A’s owner John Fisher and his staff.
Now, I do have some doubts about how scalable the methods used at the Maritime Youth House are. Both Howard Terminal and the Coliseum are on dangerous liquefaction zones, so some measures would have to be taken to anchor and strengthen whatever is built on top of them. I mean, no one in their right mind is going to build a massive stadium on wooden stilts.
The profiles of BIG and Ingels have grown exponentially over the past decade, with BIG winning numerous design competitions and the firm’s work featured all over the globe. However, there is a notable missing piece from the BIG’s portfolio. A young firm with designs on the world, it hasn’t yet completed any sports architecture work. That’s right, Fisher went with a rockstar architect with no stadium or arena experience. Maybe that will come with the to-be-located replacement stadium for FedEx Field in the DC area. Austin may finally being getting the Columbus Crew MLS franchise (tough week, C-bus), but apparently BIG’s design for a stadium at East Austin’s rodeo grounds isn’t in the cards. Mind you, I don’t mind hearing new voices in the sports architecture world. Given how Populous has dominated American sports for decades, Americans could use some fresh thinking.
It’s less clear when the new Washington football stadium will be built. The exterior of the stadium is funky, with a mesh skin and a moat that could serve as an ice rink in the winter. Inside it looks, well, like an updated version of Arrowhead Stadium. Which brings me to a greater point: I suggest not judging whatever BIG delivers until they present it in terms of renderings or sketches. Right now there’s a huge debate in social media over retro-vs.-modern design that BIG is “definitely” going to provide even though we haven’t seen slide 1 of their presentation. While it’s true that BIG’s work leans futuristic, that doesn’t mean that a futuristic ballpark is in the works. Since BIG is the master planner for the whole site, their idea may be to make the ballpark less of a centerpiece and more in service to the rest of the development. Open air ballparks aren’t all that tall or garish, anyway. And since I suspect Fisher will have a tight rein over the budget, a grand architectural gesture may be too rich for even Fisher. One thing I think is for certain: another retro design with manual scoreboards and bric-a-brac like lighting cues or a frieze probably aren’t happening.
You’ve probably heard of the other firm in the announcement: Gensler. They’ve done a lot of work for the GAP over the years, so you have to figure Fisher (known in the media as “Baby GAP”) knows them well. They were also tapped to provide design services for the A’s ballpark village in Fremont. You remember Fremont, right? Right near where there was a fire at the Tesla factory earlier today. Gensler also oversaw the refresh of the A’s spring training facilities in Mesa, so they know something about baseball.
I look forward to seeing what kind of innovation BIG puts forward. Because if we know anything about Howard Terminal, it needs a lot of innovation to make it work.