Architectural Firm Is Busy Making Lovable Stadiums

IF, as some have said, sports stadiums are the cathedrals of our time, then one of the chief American cathedral-builders is a Kansas City, Mo., architectural office of 140 people devoted to sports projects.

Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Inc. (HOK), the Sports Facilities Group, is taking plenty of bows this week as its latest design gem, Oriole Park at Camden Yards (see accompanying story), opens in Baltimore to a chorus of flattering reviews.

HOK Sport projects seem to be popping up all over these days as the United States experiences a boom in stadium construction and renovation.

Other recent additions to the company's portfolio are New Comiskey Park in Chicago, Joe Robbie Stadium in Dade County, Fla., the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, and Pilot Field in Buffalo, N.Y., which played an instrumental role in showcasing how a new ballpark with modern amenities could be made to look like a classic old ballyard. New baseball stadiums for Cleveland and Denver are on the drawing board.

Joe Spear, the principal designer of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, says that Pilot Field has made people realize "that you don't have to have a field that looks like a concrete donut." The classic old ballparks, he says, took on lovable idiosyncrasies and quirky features as their capacities were expanded.

Now, because of HOK's experience in refining what works in the nuts-and-bolts of sports-facility design, the firm can concentrate on "making a stronger architectural statement," according to Dennis Wellner, a principal of the firm.

"We have time for consideration of the environment, of the architecture of what makes a baseball game."

Ron Labinski, a senior vice president, says that computers have aided and speeded the design process. "Twenty years ago, somebody would come in and say, 'What if we make all the seats 20 inches wide instead of 19 inches?' I'd say 'Give me two or three days and I'll get back to you,' " Labinski says. "Now we can look at that sort of thing on the computers in minutes to hours. We have the ability to select any seat in the stadium and check for sightline problems."

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