Kauffman Stadium: The Forgotten Midwestern Gem

Nestled in the center of the country on the western edge of Missouri lies Kauffman Stadium, the most unheralded of architectural masterpieces in the realm of professional sports.

Originally completed in 1973 solely for the Kansas City Royals, Kauffman Stadium served as a supreme example of modern design in sports. Now, after $250 million in renovations for the 2009 season, the organization and city itself have ensured that the stadium will continue to serve as the crown jewel in all of baseball.

Built during an era where “cookie-cutter” designs had a stranglehold on stadium architecture in Major League Baseball, Kauffman Stadium was held to another standard and designed as a completely unique baseball-only stadium. The results emphasize their vision.

The architecture firm that created the original design was HOK Sport, a branch of the firm HOK. Over the years, the Kauffman design has transcended generations, just as the teams that have called it home. Nowadays, HOK Sport is known as Populous, responsible as well for the recent renovations.

Populous is an international design firm with its United States headquarters located in Kansas City itself. Besides “the K”, the firm’s most recent stadium designs also include the new Yankee Stadium in New York City and the 2012 Olympic Stadium in London.

During the renovation design phase, the architects of Populous completed a highly impressive small scale model.

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The final model – certainly one of many never shown to the public – was revealed to fans and the media in August of 2007. The replica itself took 1,500 combined hours to complete and weighs over 150 pounds. Needless to say, the organization and fans had plenty to be excited about even before construction began.

One of the most interesting new features of the ballpark is its emphasis on a complete experience, both on the field and around it. Promotional videos described the new design as a compilation of “friendly technology, landscaping, art, and destination events that engage and allow an immediate 360 degree sensory connection to the field of play and all that surrounds it.”

Approaches from any direction meet these expectations, not only visually with the architecture itself, but with the landscape and various events offered within it.

The most noticeable difference between the original design and other stadiums was the form of the upper deck seating. The uppermost barrier curves down towards the field, from home plate to the foul poles.

This is an especially successful design in the context; the edges of the upper deck are minimal around the outfield, opening up the surroundings of the mid-west, and creating a decisively singular design. The renovations are designed in a way that enhances this feeling of a completely circular design.

A regulation sized little league field, batting cages, mini-golf, an open barbeque, and other spaces supplement the stadium beyond its outfield. A rolling and natural landscape sits directly behind this newly designed “outfield experience”, giving the stadium a peaceful surrounding that suits it quite well.

Functionally, because the new exterior structure was built around the old concrete one, there are several important new benefits. The concourse space was more or less doubled throughout the stadium; the design expanded the upper deck with atrium spaces as well.

Also, increased entry spaces have opened up the exterior and interior, and visitors can see the field upon entering the gates.

Wings built of perforated aluminum are connected to otherwise exterior walkways, retaining an open feel within a safely enclosed space. The remainder of the exterior is mostly made of steel, other metal panels and glass, which all combine to give the structure a much lighter feel. This also serves as a nice contrast to the original concrete-heavy design retained within the new walls.

New seats were added in various spaces across the ballpark, most noticeably beyond the outfield fence and at the field level. The bullpens were turned 90 degrees to run parallel with the outfield fence. The additional space was used for more outfield seating.

In the original design, the fountains and waterfalls had nothing but grass and the outfield fence in front of them; with the renovations, the falls remain intact, but several rows of seats are now between them and the field. This is especially beneficial for the fans, giving them opportunities to be close to the outfield and the ever exciting home run.

Technologically, the biggest feature is the new hi-def screen, exceeded only by the Dallas Cowboys’ screen in the four major professional sports. The screen sits within the shape of a crown, the points of which have been an essential feature of the stadium since its inception. Known as “Crown Vision,” this screen keeps its fans up to speed with current times, without infringing upon the traditional nature of the remainder of the outfield seating and its waterfalls.

The architects of the renovated Kauffman Stadium found the perfect balance between modern technology and baseball tradition. They kept its best features and improved everything else, creating a baseball experience for the fans that no other stadium can duplicate.

Today, fans gaze in wonder at the most historical and traditional stadiums in the league, whether at Wrigley Field’s ivy covered brick walls or Fenway Park’s Green Monster.

Fifty years from now, after “the K” has been established as a classic, visitors will take in a baseball game before its waterfalls and fountains just as we do today before the ivy and the Monster. Fifty years from now, fans will treat Kauffman Stadium as the gem it deserves to be recognized as.

But we live in the present, and it’s important not to take this beautiful stadium for granted in 2011. Yes, the Royals have struggled in recent years – though they seem to be on their way up now.

Perhaps you didn’t watch your favorite team’s single away series a year in Kauffman Stadium because you didn’t think the Royals were worth watching. Maybe you haven’t caught a Royals game because national networks don’t air theirs often as others. If you can’t take a trip to Kansas City and “the K,” don’t miss out on your next opportunity to at least catch the game on TV.

Thankfully, the 2012 MLB All-Star game has been awarded to Kansas City, which will increase awareness about this generally forgotten stadium. Fans will visit from all across the country and be treated to Kauffman’s many new and unique features. Even those watching on TV will be able to see it in all its glory thanks to hi-definition. They can also look forward to a Home Run Derby that will see balls launched into the fountains themselves.

In the end, however, nothing beats an actual visit where one can see the various details of the architecture up close, and its interaction with fans and players alike. Take a trip to the city, sit in the stands and watch the game as it is meant to be watched. View the fountains as they go off in between innings, or take a walk on the concourse, which combines the original and recent designs.

Experiencing the space is something you can only accomplish in person, and Kauffman Stadium provides an experience you will never forget. Next time you want to catch your favorite team on the road, make it happen in Kansas City.

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