Americans should build fewer ballparks and arenas. But if we’re going to keep building no matter what, we should put some effort into them.

The Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, a soccer stadium that opened this month in Boreaux, France.

This stadium, this gorgeous artful building, is nowhere near Washington, D.C. It’s the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, a whole ocean away, in Bordeaux, France. What went wrong, D.C.? Why can’t we have nice things?

After all, in the District, every mayor gets a stadium. Since D.C. is not a state, there is no career ladder up from the Wilson Building: no run for state senate, no bid for House representative, no push for the governor’s mansion. A District mayor can’t even make a lateral move to an elected position in Virginia or Maryland. So, in lieu of better opportunities, D.C. mayors get to put their name on a new stadium for their favorite sports team.

At least, that’s my best explanation for the nonsense going on in the District right now. The city is building a new soccer stadium, contemplating a new basketball training facility, and courting the Washington professional football team that decamped 17 years ago to suburban Maryland with talk of still another stadium—all within 20 years of building a combined basketball and hockey arena as well as a baseball park. With the exception of the Verizon Center (a dual-use arena), each of these venues has cost or will cost the public gobs of money.

There are many reasons to be upset by these developments. There are sports reasons: The Washington Mystics, for example, may not even want the arena that the city intends to build for them, since it will be several thousand seats short of the crowds they usually draw. (Their fans certainly don’t want it.) There are neighborhood reasons, too: Residents who live near the unused Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium have a whole laundry list of things they’d rather see there than the return of Washington’s professional football team. (All those ideas are terrible, but whatever.)

It goes without saying that there are financial reasons to question stadium giveaways. Across the U.S., sports venues have cost taxpayers more than $12 billion in the past 15 years alone. The return on the investment doesn’t come close to justifying these public expenditures. Leaders just can’t resist handing over huge purses to billionaire team owners.

But let’s just say for the sake of argument—and also because it’s true—that cities are going to keep financing these boondoggles no matter what. That it’s a given. More stadiums are coming to D.C. than most cities, but there are plenty in the pipeline around the nation.

So why don’t any of them look like the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux? For a country with such a deep and abiding love for professional sports and lighting money on fire, the U.S. really isn’t in the business of building iconic sports arenas. Museums: Fine. Libraries: We’re golden. Those things are built to make the case for themselves and their cities. It’s different with stadiums.

Herzog & de Meuron designed the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, which opened in September. (Herzog & de Meuron)

France’s latest soccer stadium, which opened to great fanfare in September, is the work of Herzog & de Meuron. It was designed with an eye toward Bordeaux’s landscape, according to the firm’s website, with heavy emphasis on elegance and “geometrical clarity.” At a glance, it looks like a juiced-up John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Herzog & de Meuron are what you would call elite architects. The firm is best known for projects such as the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg and 56 Leonard Street in New York. Not that they’re not known for sports architecture: The firm designed the unforgettable Bird’s Nest Stadium, a collaboration with Ai Weiwei that served as the centerpiece for the Beijing 2008 Summer Games. Herzog & de Meuron has also produced jewel-box arenas for Munich (Allianz Arena) and Basel (St. Jakob Park).

But Europe is home to lots of ballparks and arenas by smaller firms that, for better or worse, push the boundaries of what stadium architecture can be. In the U.S., most sports venues are designed by one of a handful of giant specialty firms, namely Populous, HKS, HOK, AECOM, NBBJ, and a few others. While these are fine firms—great firms, even—stadium designs for American clients trend toward the conservative.

And why wouldn’t they? There’s no question that Major League Baseball got stuck in a rut with retro-modern ballparks that all look and feel the same. I like going to games at Camden Yards, sure, but seeing the same template copied and pasted into different cities over the past 20 years has been dispiriting. It’s simply cheaper to go with a format that works, rather than try something new that fits a city in a unique way. And when team owners (especially professional football team owners) ditch their stadiums after cycles that grow shorter and shorter—17 years for Washington!—it doesn’t make great sense to invest heavily in design.

And yet Americans do invest heavily in these stadiums, through enormous subsidies. The football stadiums are especially egregious, since they offer so few uses per year and require so many parking spaces (and to be Super Bowl–eligible requires still more parking). Maybe if fans and voters were buying something a little more precious and personal for the money—and not necessarily at any greater cost—then that purchase would be more permanent. Voters might feel more reluctant about parting with stadium simply because the team’s ownership decides that too much time has gone by without a move. That’s the part of American stadium design that bothers me, broadly speaking: When stadiums look disposable, it nakedly reflects the fact that owners and leaders are flushing away taxpayer money.

Now, I don’t think design is a solution to the sports-subsidy craze in the U.S. Just stop financing them. Better not to build them at all. But unless and until that political reality changes, I would still like to see teams build better stadiums. And framing ballparks, arenas, and stadiums as subjects worthy of better design might help cities think more carefully about building stadiums when they do.

As my colleague Eric Jaffe wrote some years back, urban form and growth patterns are some of the most important factors that determine whether a stadium will succeed in an urban environment. Just as a one-size-fits-all approach to sports architecture hasn’t served sports or cities well, neither would anyone want to drop this specific elegant structure by Herzog & de Meuron into the middle of Pittsburgh.

That may be why Pittsburgh is going with Bjarke Ingels Group, the Danish architecture firm and another MVP in the world of design, to lead its Civic Arena redevelopment effort.* BIG will design public areas and 1,100 residences associated with the 28-acre site. The Pittsburgh Penguins already have a new arena (designed by Populous); the redevelopment effort will try to stitch the site together with downtown. It’s a start. Judging from the firm’s past work, the effort will be unmistakably BIG in design, but also distinctly Pittsburgh in feel.

D.C. could take Pittsburgh’s lead. (Sorry, Caps fans.) Or maybe D.C. could instead not build new stadiums for almost every team in town asking for handouts. (It seems like the Washington Spirit and D.C. Divas are the only teams without paid-up arenas.) So long as we’re building wasteful stadiums anyway, we might as expect better than the bare minimum. We should strive for more than a mistake that we can live with.

The Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux (Herzog & de Meuron)
The Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux (Herzog & de Meuron)
The Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux (Herzog & de Meuron)

*Correction: This post originally stated that the Pittsburgh Penguins had hired Bjarke Ingels Group to design a new arena. The firm will design housing and public spaces around the existing arena. The post has been corrected.

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