The Shine on the Diamond 

Opinion: Richmond’s baseball stadium is beautiful, thoughtful and brilliantly detailed, part of a long and rich architectural lineage.

click to enlarge back19_diamond.jpg

Scott Elmquist

Whether or not you’re a fan of baseball, if you live in Richmond you probably know The Diamond. The discussion surrounding the stadium’s future has been heated, with alternative locations proposed along with options for commercial development.

Negative scrutiny has included not only the site, but also the programmatic worthiness of the current structure: Does it meet the needs of a modern-day, minor-league baseball team and its audience? Yes, it has a field, team locker rooms, seating and special seating for those who want to pay more.

Should we be concerned about its physical condition? Of course. Every public facility should receive strict scrutiny to ensure maximum safety.

But an underlying and yet-to-be-articulated commercial agenda shouldn’t discredit a stadium that was expertly designed and built. The Diamond celebrates structural form and precast concrete, a rare standout in the genre of American sports buildings.

In a city characterized architecturally by brick and iron — a rosy lens too easily appropriated by new developments to say, “Hey. This belongs” — the broader infrastructural underpinnings of Richmond’s foundations easily are overlooked. These concrete elements shape the physical city, each with a distinctive imprint. The floodwall, the networks of railways and their cast pylons that serviced 19th-century industries and the major highway arteries, both sunken and elevated, provide striking moments of urban layering.

These major structural contributors to the cityscape reveal Richmond’s second identity, that of a concrete city. It is this tradition that our ballpark embraces.

The Diamond is unique to Richmond, bringing the considerable urban-scaled concrete components of the city into a singular structure in a prominent location. This use of concrete is part of an architectural legacy that shaped pre- and post-World War II Italy, and influenced the giants of architecture in the 20th century.

The influential architect engineer Pier Luigi Nervi achieved a radical shift to larger spans and building dimensions through innovations with concrete, liberating structural behavior as an aesthetic form. This tenet appealed to the modernist approach, and Nervi collaborated with pivotal architects such as Marcel Breuer and Gio Ponti on a variety of projects.

But many of Nervi’s best works are the stadiums, warehouses, airplane hangers and exhibition spaces he built throughout Italy — each advancing a nuanced exploration of large-scale structural systems, their finer components and the overall spatial effect. His works were celebrated internationally and featured prominently during the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Those games prompted their appearance in the United States, such as in Norfolk, which commissioned from Nervi an arena for its downtown cultural complex.

Richmond’s Diamond, built in 1985, is a direct descendant of Nervi’s work, most notably his 1930 municipal stadium in Florence. The Italian version resonates in The Diamond, and the stadium offers an eloquent evolution of the structural model that Nervi proposed a half-century earlier.

The Diamond creates an autonomous system of assembled scissor ribs freed from the interdependent tieback supporting structure, allowing the seating and cantilevered roofing to tectonically balance on the horizontal stiffening beam and buttressing columns.

The separation of the two systems allows for a suspended platform, the promenade. This elevated concourse is reached by a stairway from street level that is on-axis with and frames a view of the field. Patrons ascend to seating by crossing bridges spanning the hovering concourse.

The structure evokes a grand sense of space through the scale of structural members and striation of the precast seating risers. This textures the stadium and plays with light and shadow as the sun sets and the lights come on during evening games.

The Diamond is a beautiful, thoughtful and brilliantly detailed stadium that has an identity and impact on Richmond’s built landscape and is part of a long and rich architectural lineage. Superficial additions and minor negligence have eroded the vision and dignity of the original structure, but these things happen and are to be expected. They are certainly reversible.

The Diamond is also an example of a public project that was designed and built with a complex and restricted set of conditions, yet producing a carefully conceived work of art. There was a highly accelerated construction process: The previous stadium had to be demolished and the new one built between consecutive baseball seasons. The budget was tight and secured through collaborative efforts. The design team was responsible for creating a structure that would be iconic and befit a popular East Coast baseball franchise. Conceived, designed and built in approximately two years, this is a stadium of pure muscle and no frills. It far exceeded what could possibly have been expected at the start of the project.

Our stadium bucks the more recent trend that presents a nostalgic look hand-in-hand with auxiliary retail and commercial space. The introduction of retail space into sports facilities, presented as a desirable community amenity and woven into a once austere and utilitarian building type, creates the debate that hovers around The Diamond.

The vision of smashing a hybrid sporting arena and mini-mall into historic and tight-knit Shockoe Bottom really poses the question of where commercial space will be most successful. Baseball plays merely a heartwarming background role to remind the public that this is a feel-good and all-American endeavor. But if we collectively deem The Diamond to be a structure worth fighting for, it could stand for many more decades. S

Emma Fuller, a graduate of the Cooper Union School of Architecture, attended games at The Diamond as a child. She now lives in New York, where she is a design associate and visiting professor at the Pratt Institute.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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