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All-star architecture

Sports | Christians often speak of 'human flourishing' and quote God's instructions (in Jeremiah 29:7) to 'seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.' But what does that mean in practice for a Christian architect adept at designing ballparks?

Issue: "The brain trust," June 30, 2012

KANSAS CITY, Mo.-In any conversation about PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the talk soon gets around to "that view!" It deserves at least one exclamation mark. From prime seating behind home plate, a double deck of stadium seats embraces all three bases. The grassy outfield leads the eye on a running leap to the swoop of the Clemente Bridge, gateway to the Pittsburgh skyline and surrounding hills. Sunset sinks the colors into deep pink and violet with glints of gold. Few ball parks seem so at home in their surroundings. According to ESPN, which rates PNC as the top major-league ballpark in the nation, it's "the perfect blend of art, architecture, and environment." (See "Fan tested, player approved.")

The view from architect David Greusel's office window is less spectacular, but he likes it. He looks out from the sixth floor of an eight-story E-shaped brick building that hasn't forgotten its history: Kansas City Livestock Exchange is stenciled in big white letters along the top. The white walls of Kemper Area, home of the American Royal livestock show, rise from what used to be a maze of railroad track and feedlots.

Greusel is talking baseball, a sport he loves. He's been known to rhapsodize about the perfect double play: "a tiny ballet involving six men, a bat and a ball ..." But for him, a Pirates or Astros game is much more than batters and runners and exquisite teamwork. It has to be-"I'm the person responsible for what those ballparks look like."

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It might be akin to an author observing one of his novels being read on a plane-times 30,000 or so. "One day I will never forget was attending Game 3 of the 2005 World Series at Minute Maid Park. I had a nosebleed seat, and when I mentioned to the guy next to me that I designed the park, his reaction was a sarcastic 'Yeah, right.' That was priceless."

The major-league projects came his way through HOK Sport, a Kansas City-based architectural firm. At the time, HOK had no serious competition for professional sports venues, making it the most obvious go-to firm for clubs seeking a new facility. The contracts with the Astros and the Pirates came through in the late 1990s, and Greusel was tapped as project manager, giving him a chance to exercise his basic architectural philosophy on a grand scale. That philosophy inevitably involves his faith. To the casual observer, ballparks and church may seem miles apart, but Greusel sees one obvious connection: "Christianity is a program for human flourishing," he says, and architecture is a means for creating places to flourish.

Christianity also sanctifies community and relationship. Greusel's first step for both projects was to visit Houston and Pittsburgh and get acquainted with each city's history and culture. He took special note of the neighborhood as well as the terrain, not merely for logistics, but also to create a design that would be aesthetically pleasing while location-friendly. That view! from PNC Park is no accident: "I wanted to use both ballparks as a showcase for the city." Any way that surrounding structures could contribute to the design, so much the better.

For example, Minute Maid Park actually incorporates the former Union Station depot as its main entrance. Ball fans pass under the old building's pillars and arches to find the same arches echoed around the outfield. Colors are pale green and orange in tribute to the corporation that bought naming rights after Enron bit the dust. Minute Maid also gives the stadium its affectionate nickname: the juice box.

One of the park's signature features almost didn't happen. Because of the railroad connection, Greusel hatched the idea of a full-size replica steam engine running along the top of the left-field arcade. For months he included the train in his plans, until his boss nixed the idea. "Some time later, the Astros' owner, Drayton McLane, came back from the opening game at Phoenix's Chase Field infatuated with the swimming pool in the outfield. He wanted to know what our ballpark was going to have that would generate that much conversation. I put up my hand and said, 'Well, we could do that train ...'" And so, whenever the Astros hit a home run, the locomotive charges forward, whistle blowing, pulling a gondola piled high with oranges.

The integration strategy worked spectacularly in Pittsburgh. The limestone walls of PNC Park reflect the Allegheny hills, and steel truss work pays homage to the city's industrial past. The seating design puts the farthest row only 88 feet from the field, giving every fan a straightline view. Pittsburgh has taken the stadium to its heart; on game days the Clemente Bridge is closed to motor traffic, allowing fans to park downtown and walk over to the ballpark. Boaters cluster on the river below the outfield wall, and since it's only 443 feet from home plate to the water, some lucky sailor might catch a home run ball. A festival atmosphere rules, dampened only slightly by the Pirates' 19-year losing streak.

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