Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The new home for D.C.’s professional football team has an odd feature—one uniquely suited to its old stomping grounds.
Dan Snyder is pining for the District of Columbia.
That’s one way to make sense of the Bjarke Ingels Group design for the new Washington professional football team’s stadium, which does not yet have a home. While the team’s lease on its current stadium doesn’t expire until 2027, Snyder, the team’s owner, is already casting about for a new look.
BIG is a sweetener in Snyder’s plans to relocate his team. He is said to be talking with leaders in metro-area Maryland and Virginia, whom he will no doubt ask to subsidize the new venue. He appears to be playing hard to get with D.C. leaders. But this new design doesn’t make nearly as much sense in the suburbs as it does in the team’s former home.
The firm revealed its plans for the stadium to 60 Minutes, which caught the eye of The Washington Post’s Jonathan O’Connell. The stadium volume is typical BIG: a gently torquing hyperbolic paraboloid, something that looks vaguely like the design that the firm proposed for the Astana National Library in Kazakhstan. (Another dubious BIG client.)
The single most prominent, playful, and conspicuous feature in BIG’s design is the moat—yes, the moat—surrounding the stadium. This is where Snyder’s heart (what’s left of it) comes in: A moat around the former Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium site in D.C. would connect the venue with the nearby Anacostia River, which is popular with kayakers. The design looks like a love letter to the team’s old neighborhood.
“The one thing that everybody's sort of excited about is this idea that the stadium is designed as much for the tailgating, the pre-game, as for the game itself,” Ingels says in the 60 Minutes promo.
There’s no good reason to build a kayak feature for a site in Loudoun County, Virginia. Now, there’s no reason against it, sure. But BIG likes to draw a project’s site-specific context into the design itself. A moat might work (or not work) for any site that the team selects in the Washington metro area. But it only resonates at the one site.
Plus, a new stadium is consistent with plans by Events D.C., the city’s sports authority, which holds the lease to the RFK site, to maintain this campus as a broad, multi-acre entertainment nexus anchored by a series of arenas, museums, or stadiums. OMA, the architects designing the RFK campus master plan, are not working with BIG; but BIG’s model looks like it could be plugged into any as-yet-undisclosed plans for the area.
It won’t sit well with residents who live near the stadium (including myself). Many would like to see the area built out with amenities that benefit them more directly; some would like to simply see the land put toward badly needed housing. So long as Events D.C. controls the lease, those options are distant possibilities.
The chances that the Washington football team will return to D.C. are just as remote—so long as a progressive controls the White House. The National Park Service owns the land under RFK Stadium, and the Obama administration has signaled that it will not allow Snyder to bring his team back until he agrees to change its racist and offensive name. (It should come as no surprise that Snyder’s wife donated to Donald Trump’s campaign.)
Turning the stadium into an architectural icon at the center of a park is one way to reconcile a football stadium’s enormous footprint to its utterly limited use. If you build a moat, the kayakers will come? That’s odd thinking. But building a moat where the kayakers already are makes more sense, inasmuch as a moat ever does. Now, how to keep D.C. fans from peeing in it…