The most influential decision in sports in the last twenty-five years was not made by a general manager, coach, or athlete. In fact, it wasn’t even made on a field, pitch, court, or rink. Instead, this decision originated in the office and on the drafting tables of the architecture firm HOK. The architects and engineers decided, going against three decades of stadium designs, some of which were their very own, to not create another generic multi-sport indoor arena for the next Baltimore Oriole park. Rather, they designed a stadium that was considerate of its context, integrated beautifully within the city, and invited the citizens of Baltimore to enjoy watching their Orioles play. More on stadium design and Oriole Park after the break.
From a period beginning in the nineteen-sixties and lasting until the opening of Baltimore Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992, sports stadiums were designed as large indoor arenas that could hold upwards of 70,000 spectators and be used for multiple sports. These generic domes popped up in cities across the country, from New Orleans to Minnesota, from Oakland to Atlanta. They were generally located on the outskirts of a city, where there was ample room for parking, making the arenas often feel disconnected from any specific, unique location. This detached, distant existence led to a decrease in overall attendance for many baseball and football teams. One can infer that this decrease is because the stadiums all felt similar, and thus the physical act of going to a sporting event lost its unique appeal for fans. The stadium, and by extension the team, did not appear to belong to the city any longer, and fans stopped caring so much.
The designers at HOK realized that these generic, lifeless indoor arenas were alienating the fan bases they were designed for. So, with the proposal for the new Oriole Park, HOK decided to incorporate the new stadium into the city of Baltimore. The stadium was built on a former rail yard, with a large warehouse incorporated into the overall park as a reminder of the city’s former industrial past. The proposal also ignored the trend for multiple sports within one stadium, instead opting to tailor the park directly to watching and enjoying baseball. Another of the important decisions made was to locate the new Oriole Park near the Inner Harbor, the heart of Baltimore. In doing this, the stadium became a visual reminder that the Orioles were a part of and represented the city, giving the residents a reason to support the team.
In making Oriole Park a symbol for the city of Baltimore, and making the experience of watching a baseball game at the stadium exciting, the architects engaged the fans in a new and exciting way. This is most clearly represented in the attendance statistics since the park opened. In the years before Oriole Park was built, the Orioles were averaging about 25,000 fans per game. That number jumped to almost 45,000 in the ten years after the park opened. This rise in attendance led to a revitalization of the downtown Baltimore area, with new money and new projects proposed and executed to turn the city into a more friendly and enjoyable place to live. The rise in attendance was noticed by many of the other MLB owners, who were also dealing with half-empty stadiums and an apathetic fan base. In the 20 years since Oriole Park has opened, twenty of the thirty baseball franchises have built new, fan and city-friendly stadiums. These new stadiums often copy many of the ideas that were first executed in Oriole Park, which help to make the new parks become a part of the city and fan base that they represent.
In the years before Oriole Park was built, sports stadiums were designed and built as behemoth multi-sport arenas that had little connection to the cities they occupied. These arenas were generic and lifeless, and did little to foster a sense of individuality or uniqueness within the fan base of the team. When Oriole Park at Camden Yards was designed, it took into account the city it was placed in. The architects let the city of Baltimore influence the design, and attempted to incorporate it into the stadium. This integration of the city and the populace into the stadium was done beautifully, and is an excellent representation of how contextual elements can be used in a successful design.