Nostalgia, drug of the unwashed masses

April 5, 2009

Well, Nicolai Ouroussoff has now decided to take on baseball fans, after aiming his critical jabs at museum goers, preservationists, and virtually every citizen in New York. The New York Times architecture critic offered his assessment of the city’s two new baseball stadiums in time for opening day, and had little good to say about either one. Both, he opined, were dragged down by their obeisance to “nostalgia,” his term for everything that is wrong with contemporary architecture. Never mind that baseball is America’s most tradition-bound sport, and that both Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium had seen their fair share of sports history through the years. History, it appears, has no place in serious architecture.

“American stadium design has been stuck in a nostalgic funk,” wrote the critic, “with sports franchises recycling the same old images year after year.” His view of the generally acclaimed turn towards “old fashioned” baseball parks with the Camden Yards design by HOK Sport about a decade ago was the same as his view of most American architecture–the Baltimore stadium was an example of populist design that eschews the avant garde in favor of mass appeal. Lowbrow culture was dragging down the quality of sports architecture as it had the rest of the public realm.

This kind of elitism has been the posture of “progressive” architects and critics for more than a century, and it led to the kind of cold, indifferent stadiums that are now being demolished throughout the world. The sporting public, at least those who cared enough about their teams to buy season tickets, demanded a more intimate and evocative environment in which to enjoy their hard-won leisure time. Down went multi-purpose stadiums in Houston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Cleveland and many other top sports venues, replaced by special venues for baseball, football and soccer. Fans loved the “new-old” look in many of these parks, and owners made significant profit from an increase in corporate boxes.

Of course, the age of excess that we have just left behind fueled some rather grandiose and wasteful spending on mega-stadiums for owners like George Steinbrenner and the partners in the New York Giants franchise. Old Yankee Stadium might well have been saved with Fenway Park had Steinbrenner not needed his puffed up revenue to buy more aging talent. The money and the architecture were tangentially related, as is often the case.

“Nostalgia,” a buzz word like “theme park architecture,” has taken on a new significance in cultural criticism of the kind practiced by Ouroussoff and many highbrow architects. Its mere invocation is meant to swipe away all pretense of design quality. A society infected by a desire to embrace the past in any form, according to this view, is a society in steep decline, and one that cannot support “new ideas” in architecture.  Should baseball fans, who carry around the history of the game in statistics and iconic performances, be branded with this epithet? Emphatically no; their allegiance to the history of their sport is no more a cultural stigma than the opera buff’s thrill at entering a grand old theatre. Mr. Ouroussoff is treading on thin ice when he attacks one of America’s most loyal sporting communities for their nostalgia, for he places himself in a political posture that tramples on a central myth of our democracy, the rights of the polis to its aesthetic choices, whether based upon tradition or rational judgment.

Are we a nostalgic culture? Probably not, but to the extent that our enduring values depend upon tradition and history, there is nothing wrong with a little nostalgia, especially as an antidote to “unprincipled change,” David Lowenthal’s term for the crushing march of technological progress. Using “nostalgia” as a pejorative code word is a weak critical strategy. Just as political name calling dragged our democratic process through the muck of several bitter presidential contests, finally giving way in 2008 to a new civility, it is time that cultural criticism shed its warlike subtext. Leave baseball alone, and let the fans enjoy opening day.

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