Aerial view of Minute Maid Park via Bing

Minute Maid and Marlins Park are the real gas-guzzlers among Major League Baseball’s six retractable stadiums.  Located in the US’s heat and humidity belt, they are both usually closed for home games and rely heavily on a massive amount of air conditioning to cool their interiors to a crisp 75°F. Their small size, urban setting and idiosyncratic features, under hulking retractable roofs, make them close cousins and prime examples of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too mentality of retractable roof stadiums.

Minute Maid Park opened in 2000, making it the older of the two.  Home to the Houston Astros, the new stadium replaced the vast Astrodome where the Astros had played for over thirty years.  While the Astrodome was impressive when it was first built, like many of the multi-purpose stadiums of their generation, it wasn’t a good place to watch baseball.  It was too big, its artificial turf felt, well, artificial and it lacked the essential charm and quirks baseball fans love.

Populous architects were charged with designing a new home for the Astros that would retain the comforts of the old Astrodome’s roof, while introducing some of the essential charms of vintage ballparks.

The decision to locate the new stadium in downtown Houston, adjacent to the former Union Station, instantly created a perfect link with urban ballparks of yore.  The 43,000-seat “Juice Box” is a much smaller venue than the 54,000-seat Astrodome and features natural grass.  A quirky urban bandbox, it is loaded with so many retro details (the Crawford Boxes, Tal’s Hill, an on-field flagpole, Conoco Phillips Homerun Porch) you would think it had existed on this site forever.

Outside the Left Field Entrance at Minute Maid Park via Houston Culture Map

The illusion that you’re watching baseball in another era is shattered upon looking up.  Hulking overhead is a three-part, 7,000 ton roof.  When fully retracted, the roof – designed by kinetic architecture specialists Uni-Systems – reveals the largest opening of all MLB’s retractable roofed stadiums – a claim that loses some of its luster considering the roof is generally in the closed position.

Minute Maid Park via MickWatson Flickr

The roof functions similarly to a locomotive train – running on tracks located on the east and west side of the stadium – a nice nod to the site’s rail transportation past.  As the roof closes, an elegantly detailed glass wall rises to enclose the west side of the stadium, framing views of the nearby Houston skyline.

The retrofitted former Union Station sits beyond the west wall, now housing team offices, providing a fine ceremonial entrance to the new ballpark.  A sign hanging below the owner’s office window indicates the distance (420ft) to home plate.  If these allusions to the site’s heritage are not obvious enough, an actual locomotive complete with an overall-ed conductor sits atop the arcaded western stadium wall.  The train runs at the beginning of each game and for every Astros homerun.

The exterior takes its cue from Union Station and is a fairly conventional mix of red brick and white limestone.  It’s hard to argue with this decision and along with the visible display of the roof’s steel trusses, the overall package is perfectly acceptable and consistent with its retro ambitions.  That Populous was able to integrate the smallness of the ballpark with the vastness of the roof above is impressive and commendable.

Aerial view of Marlins Park via Fishbat

Marlins Park opened this season and is the more architecturally ambitious of the two buildings, the result of a design-minded owner whose goal was for it to be “different and experimental”.  Home to a vibrant contemporary arts and architecture scene, Miami would seem a good place to strike a new contemporary model for baseball stadiums.  However, the selection of the ubiquitous Populous to design the new stadium was questionable given the design goal.

The result is a superficially contemporary, white stucco and black glass structure with no retro red brick or exposed steel trusses in sight.  Marlins Park may not be as dynamic as intended, but its stark, abstract exterior works well with the modern idea of a retractable-roofed stadium.

Outside Marlins Park via NPR

Like Minute Maid Park, the roof was also designed by Uni-Systems and functions similarly.  It rests on tracks on the north and south sides of the building and is usually closed for games – it was left open only eight times this season.  As in Houston, beyond the left field fence is a large glass wall that offers views to nearby Little Havana and downtown Miami, and operates independently of the roof.

The abstract volumes of Marlins Park exterior via Wikipedia

Although different in style to Minute Maid, Marlins Park is also loaded with quirky embellishments.  The centerpiece is the kinetic “Marlinator” homerun sculpture, designed by artist Red Grooms.  Other idiosyncrasies include two fish tanks behind home plate, and a nightclub – The Clevelander – beyond the left field fence, with its own swimming pool.  Outside, the Orange Bowl signage has been repurposed by Brooklyn-based Snarkitecture, while a banded-tile walkway, created by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez, leads fans inside.

Carlos Cruz-Diez designed banded-tile walkway via Wikipedia

The interior is decidedly more colorful than the exterior; most alarming is the harsh green of the outfield wall which climbs steadily to its climax around the Marlinator.  Other Futurist, Googie-inspired shapes like the giant videoboard -think The Incredibles – give the interior a surprisingly retro feel.  It feels like how a 1950s architect might have imagined the 21st Century.

Behind home plate at Marlins Park via Wikipedia

I would be more onboard with the playful-colorful-interior of a stark-white-exterior concept if it wasn’t undermined by the extremely boring Yankee Stadium-esque blue seats – I miss you Astrodome.  Marlins Park missed an opportunity to create a really playful interior.  If only Populous had been teamed with wacky British architect Will Alsop, the design goal might have been met.

Marlins Park disappointing blue seats via Counting Baseballs

The adoption of a contemporary design at Marlins Park ultimately seems both superficial and stylized, and disappointingly does not change or advance stadium architecture like a truly progressive building would.  Say what you like about Minute Maid Park and its un-ambitious retro design ideal – at least it’s consistent.

The effect of these unique elements of both ballparks is to create a strong home field identity for these franchises.  The desire to create exciting stadiums where even fans less interested in the game can come, enjoy and spend money, regardless of how good or bad the results are on the field, seems to be working.