Let’s speak plainly. Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic of the New York Times, is a fossil. Like a mosquito locked eternally motionless in fossilized amber, Ouroussoff is intellectually rigid within the layers of Modernist ideology in which he wrapped himself as a college undergraduate. He demonstrated his inability to see beyond his Modernist carapace in his recent critique of the two new baseball stadiums in New York City. He concluded his nose-in-the-air review with “. . . both stadiums will be a disappointment to students of architecture.”
Well, excuse me! I am a student of architecture, and I also happen to be a baseball fan. To me, and the vast majority of New York baseball fans who use these stadiums, these venues are not a disappointment – especially Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. What Ouroussoff meant to say was, “If you’re a fan of bizarre Starchitecture and a die-hard Modernist who relishes novelty for the sake of novelty, then these new stadiums will be a disappointment.”
Ouroussoff’s complaint raises fundamental questions for designers of public buildings. Does an architect design for the people who actually use the structures, or is an architect supposed to serve a “higher purpose” – striving to create architecture that conforms to some abstract theory and which is outlandish enough to earn kudos from a handful of architecture critics and editors of design publications?
Citi Field's nostalgic origins
The Wilpon family, owners of the New York Mets and the clients of Populous (formerly known as HOK Sport), which designed Citi Field, was astute enough to understand who the real audience for the new stadium was: the fans who the team hopes to lure to Citi Field – and who are expected to shell out major dollars for the experience. The Wilpons understand – as Ouroussoff does not – that baseball is a game steeped in history, more so than any other U.S. sport. And by telling the architects that they wanted to evoke memories of Ebbets Field, the Brooklyn home of the Mets’ predecessors in the National League, the Wilpons showed they’re conscious of the central role that tradition plays in the minds of baseball fans. Although the Wilpons are not New Urbanists, they intuitively understand the importance of “placemaking.” They created a place that, although brand new, provides fans with a life-affirming sense of being part of a never-ending stream of seasons past and seasons yet to come.
Ouroussoff, on the other hand, doesn’t comprehend baseball’s mystique; he wants a sensation-generating, Gehry-esque type of stadium that most baseball fans would hate – but which would please a handful of architectural theorists and critics (who don’t go to ball games). Ouroussoff hit Citi Field with the Modernists’ ultimate insult word: “nostalgia.” As part of his review, he sniffed, “American stadium design has been stuck in a nostalgic funk, with sports franchises recycling the same old images year after year.”
That last statement proves Mr. Ouroussoff has zero understanding of the psyches of the sports fans who actually attend baseball games. The next time his editors ask him to review a new sports facility, Mr. Ouroussoff should recuse himself!