THE (LESS THAN) WILD WEST

A FIVE-PART SERIES ON THE SIX RETRACTABLE ROOF STADIUMS IN MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CLASSICAL

Safeco Field roof via Cruiznbye Flickr

CHASE FIELD AND SAFECO FIELD

Chase Field in Phoenix and Seattle’s Safeco Field are baseball-only stadiums with roofs regularly used to respond to their respective town’s beautiful – if unpredictable – west coast climates. While both stadiums are located in downtown neighborhoods, here their similarities end – their architecture is as diverging as these two vastly different cities.

Chase Field is the only ballpark the Arizona Diamondbacks have ever called home, opening in 1998 when the team began play.

Aerial view of Chase Field via Stadium Travel Guide

Designed by Kansas City-based Ellerbe Becket, Chase Field is located in a developed if low slung area of downtown Phoenix.  Nearby are the 20,000-seat US Airways Center, home to the Phoenix Suns, and the sprawling 24-acre Phoenix Convention Center.  For the most part though, Chase Field towers over this downtown neighborhood, as one of MLB’s tallest stadiums.

View behind home plate at Chase Field via Wikipedia

The Chase Field roof is unique in that it relies on drawbridge technology with an extensive network of cables instead of the gears and tracks of its five counterparts.  The frequent Phoenix dust storms force the roof to be as simple and gear-free as possible.  A two-part roof, when opened each half remains to the east and west of the north-south oriented field and come together above centerfield when closed.

Outfield at Chase Field with panels open via Ballparks of Baseball

Due to the extreme daytime heat, the roof is kept closed when the sun is directly overhead, allowing air conditioning to cool the interior to a comfortable temperature.  When the sun goes down and the dry, cool desert air sets in, the roof is then opened up.  When it first opened, the Diamondbacks frequently moved the roof to respond to weather patterns; it was opened and closed (one cycle) over three hundred times in its first season.  However, to preserve the lifespan of the roof and its motors, they now operate it more like two hundred times per year, and the effect has been a roof with few mechanical failures in its lifetime.

View from high atop upper deck via Ballparks of Baseball

The outfield wall primarily consists of six oversized panels that function on a pivot and can open independently of the roof, offering views of Camelback Mountain and the Arizona desert beyond.  Despite their independence, these panels are usually opened and closed in sync with the roof overhead.

Chase Field’s outfield panels opened via Wikipedia

The stadium’s exterior is a patchwork of red brick, green and white panels, exposed structural steel, glass and Diamondback signage, which breaks down the enormous scale of the rectangle-shaped stadium and feels more ‘Arizona modern’ than old-timey baseball.

Inside, Chase Field does have some gimmicky features, like the swimming pool beyond the centerfield wall – $3,500 gets you a night’s rental.  But overall, the stadium feels much less traditional than other modern-retro parks.  Its 48,000 capacity is not so small and, as most seats are between the foul poles, the upper decks are some of the highest in baseball.  Overall, the roof and building feel well integrated at Chase Field and the effect is a fairly cohesive, modern baseball stadium.

Chase Field north facade and plaza via Wikimedia

However, fairly cohesive and modern has not exactly brought in the crowds, as the D’backs have finished outside the top 10 in NL attendance for the last 7 years after their first six years as an organization. For context, their expansion twins, the Tampa Bay Rays, have finished in the top 10 only once, two years after their dramatic run to the World Series in their 14 years of existence.

Safeco Field opened a year after Chase Field in 1999 and replaced the colossal, concrete Kingdome which had housed Seattle Mariner baseball and Seattle Seahawk football since the late 1970’s.  Unlike the Kingdome, Safeco Field is a baseball-only facility and, other than the roof overhead, it feels like all the design decisions were intended to make this new stadium feel as different to the Kingdome as possible.

Aerial view of Safeco Field via Seattle.gov

Like true urban ballparks of the past, Safeco Field conforms to a city block in downtown Seattle.  The main entrance to the park is at the corner of Dave Niehaus Way and Edgar Martinez Drive and, although it feels more Barnes & Noble bookshop than stadium, the cylinder through which you enter is a nice feature and a true link to urban ballparks of the past.

The corner of Dave Niehaus Way and Edgar Martinez Drive via Peter Ehrlich

Safeco Field sits within the SoDo warehouse district of Seattle, adjacent to Puget Sound.  It’s therefore no surprise that the exterior is a mix of red brick, exposed structural steel and glass.  This decision feels right, if uninspired, given its particular setting in the city.

The interior is decidedly less quirky than other retro-inspired stadiums and, like Chase Field, features a symmetrical playing field.  The stands wrap around the outfield of Safeco Field and it all feels like a very traditional park – if it weren’t for the roof that sits awkwardly on top of the stadium, as if designed as an afterthought.

The roof sits awkwardly above the stadium proper via Wikipedia

The Safeco Field roof is similar to Minute Maid and Marlins Park in that when opened its three parts contract together in one mass.  Unlike those stadiums however, Safeco Field is never totally sealed to the elements.  When closed, the roof functions like an umbrella, the sides of the park remain open to rain and wind.  Along with Seibu Dome in Japan, they are the only covered baseball stadiums in the world with sides open to the elements.

Despite Seattle’s rainy reputation, it actually gets some of the lowest total rainfall of any city in Major League Baseball during the season.  Given the relatively mild, dry Seattle summers and memories of being forced to play baseball inside the Kingdome fresh in the mind, the Mariners opt to keep the roof open as a default setting – it was closed for only twelve games this season, making it the most opened of the retractable roof stadiums in baseball. Occasional, prolonged rain forces the closure of the roof to allow the game to proceed, and this just feels like the way a retractable roof should be used.

View from the Safeco Field upper deck via Wikipedia

Though Safeco Field is a great place to watch a game and the M’s determination to build the best baseball facility possible is admirable, the lack of integration of the giant roof overhead with the stadium below feels like an oversight.  The ghost of the Kingdome still haunts Seattle.

It hasn’t seem to have bothered fans, however, as last year was the first to not see the Mariners in the top 10 in attendance since their arrival at Safeco, despite some truly putrid seasons of recent vintage. Which, is not surprising given Seattle’s reputation as an intense and intensely loyal fan base, but could become problematic for the Mariners in the future, especially if the decline in attendance turns into a trend.

The roof closed at Safeco Field via Seattle Times

What these inconsistencies between stadium design, team performance and attendance perhaps illustrate is the degree to which architecture can or cannot change human behavior.  In Seattle, where large numbers of people live in or near the downtown area the Mariners playing is a nice event during summer months whether or not the M’s are playing good baseball.  A well designed alternative to the Kingdome put M’s games on the list of “things to do” in Seattle.  While in Arizona, summers bring both intense heat and reduced populations of fleeing snowbird communities lead to minimal attendance records exacerbated by poor performance by D’backs.  Regardless of how well composed the Chase Field façade is or how well the roof and mechanical systems control the indoor climate, there is only so much architecture can do to bring lukewarm fans out to the game save giving tickets away.