From The Pages Of Texas Architect: Il Duomo

Southwest
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
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The Astrodome's structure encloses so much volume that its roof provides no surrogate scale or visual weight. As experienced by visitors, the Dome's roof is a gossamer web of steel clouds drifting above the playing field, completing a vision of the cosmos and creating a new relationship between the players and the audience in the public ritual of sports. (Courtesy Texas Architect)

The Astrodome’s structure encloses so much volume that its roof provides no surrogate scale or visual weight. As experienced by visitors, the Dome’s roof is a gossamer web of steel clouds drifting above the playing field, completing a vision of the cosmos and creating a new relationship between the players and the audience in the public ritual of sports. (Courtesy Texas Architect)

[ Editor's Note: The following story, "Il Duomo," first appeared in Texas Architect's May/June 1990 issue. It was written by the late Douglas Pegues Harvey, an architect who graduated from Rice University and worked for Marmon Mok Architecture in San Antonio. It was written on the occasion of the Houston Astrodome's 25th anniversary as a sort of homage as well as a protest for the fact that the building was not chosen for the AIA Twenty-Five Year Award. Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch was. (Incidentally, another Houston project was chosen for the 2013 25-Year Award.) We are rerunning this story, with permission, because today, September 17, is the registration deadline for Reimagine the Astrodome, AN and YKK AP's Astrodome Reuse Design Ideas Competition. Due to the overwhelming enthusiasm surrounding the competitionwe've decided to extend the registration dealing to Monday, September 23. So if you were sleeping, wake up! Sign up today! (Also, if you have the chops to write articles like "Il Duomo" and want to contribute to AN Southwest, please contact Aaron Seward, aseward@archpaper.com.) ]

It’s not every building that gets to be known as The Eighth Wonder Of The World. Texas’ nominee, the Astrodome, opened 25 years ago as the world’s finest interior landscape. On Apr. 9,1965, a time when the hegemony of television and the standing of the Sunbelt in American life were not yet secure, the Astrodome opening struck a telling blow on their behalf. The occasion was a Houston Astro’s exhibition baseball game against the New York Yankees. With President Lyndon Johnson watching, Mickey Mantle (naturally) hit the first home run, but the Astro’s (necessarily) won.

The Astrodome site was excavated for construction next to the stadium where the Colt .45's, the National League team that became the Houston Astros, played in the open air. (Courtesy Texas Architect)

The Astrodome site was excavated for construction next to the stadium where the Colt .45′s, the National League team that became the Houston Astros, played in the open air. (Courtesy Texas Architect)

The experience left visitors, well, bug-eyed. At 642 feet, the Astrodome’s clear span more than doubled that of any previous enclosure. Its parking lot, the world’s largest, held 30,000 cars. That sort of thing. A few miles away, NASA was making its great thrust into the infinite, silent sea. It was one of those times when events get larger than life.

The Dome has had its true believers—evangelist Billy Graham, who held Crusade for Christ there its first year, and who knows something about the ancient world, has been credited with the “Eighth Wonder” phrase—and its critics—writer Larry McMurtry, for instance, described it as “the working end of the world’s largest deodorant stick.” In purely compositional terms, it may not have done much. Long-span technology and multi-use ingenuity have long since passed it by.

All the same, there are other measures of the success of this project. Not only did it bring the pageant of stadium sports inside, its introduction of Astroturf permanently changed the “envelope of performance” of all sports previously played on grass. Its “skyboxes” represent a milepost in the evolution of the contemporary notion of “upscale,” and transformed the financial structure of professional sports. It even created a new building type—a room where you could see cars colliding in mid-air. And to top it all, it was even a bargain: the construction cost of $18.7 million translates to $64 million in 1989 dollars (including financing, total cost was $107.1 million in 1989 dollars.)

But to posterity, the most important test of a building is not in the continuing influence of its various innovations but in how it engages and alters the mythic landscape. By this standard, the Dome is a landmark of the first order. At its opening the Dome was an instant celebrity and since then it has maintained a star billing that few buildings of any kind ever achieve. It is, as they say, the original.

It certainly wasn’t just a “stadium.” Only Yankee Stadium, beneficiary of decades of press exposure in the more-or-less Capital of the World, has approached a similar status. But the Dome isn’t really a “building,” either. Ironically, one measure of its impact is that it has never been casually thought of or described in architectural terms. It is a different category of thing, ill-defined but clearly unique and “other.” In homage, equivalent buildings are customarily called “domes” even when they are not at all dome-like—the Hoosier Dome, the Pontiac Silverdome. Despite its cable suspension roof hung from four 300-foot towers, the sports and convention palace now being designed for San Antonio is persistently referred to as the “Alamodome.”

The story of the Astrodome’s creation is a form of surrealist frontier melodrama where financial risk-taking, political deal-making, and architectural daring intersect to recast the fates of humanity redefining our perceptions about the nature of buildings, the functions they contain, and the culture they represent. The Dome was a product of the unspoken conviction that there were, and could be, no limits.

Former Harris County Judge Roy Hofheinz is credited with conceiving the idea for the Astrodome in Italy, in hearing that the Roman Colosseum, home of blood sports and human sacrifices, had a retractable sunshade. (Courtesy Texas Architect)

Former Harris County Judge Roy Hofheinz is credited with conceiving the idea for the Astrodome in Italy, in hearing that the Roman Colosseum, home of blood sports and human sacrifices, had a retractable sunshade. (Courtesy Texas Architect)

Volumetrically, the Astrodome peculiarly resembles the Hyatt-Regency Hotel in Atlanta Ga., which opened about the same time. Both buildings redefined and revitalized a building type so as to create new images and possibilities, and they both did so in the same way—by going beyond Piranesi to create infinite space.

One of the recurring themes in American cultural history is the quest for Zion—breaking out into infinite space to create (or regain) the ideal landscape and community—to get back to the Garden. When NASA began giving that quest its ultimate form, a conceptual boundary was created that demanded a new understanding of architectural “space.” The significance of the Astrodome and the Hyatt-Regency lies in their re-presentation of this quest as an introspective one, by establishing the possibility of an infinite interior space.

The Astrodome engages the sense of the infinite paradoxically. A single-space building, no matter how huge, appears larger inside than outside. Once inside, you lose the scalar cues the landscape and sky normally provide and have only the structure itself as a frame of reference. But our personal and evolutionary experience with the natural world have conditioned us to interpret the background as all-encompassing. Therefore we read the distant walls as the natural background, and perceptually “overscale” any uncommonly large interior; the larger the room, the more pronounced the effect.

The Astrodome simply raises this effect to a higher order of magnitude. It encloses so much volume that the roof’s visual weight is inadequate to delimit the scale, and the space becomes perceptually unbounded. Viewed through our prejudice in favor of overscaling, it reads as bigger than immeasurably big—infinite. The roof is no more than a gossamer web of steel clouds drifting above the field, completing a vision of the cosmos. Because an infinite space cannot be “inside” anything, in the Astrodome, you are not, therefore, “inside.”

A parallel physiological effect then reinforces this message. When we gaze into the distance, the alignment and focus of our eyes gives us a certain neuromuscular feedback that we associate with the wide-open spaces. In neuromuscular terms, a sufficiently distant roof is the same as the sky.

The meaning derived from these phenomena are profoundly different from those evoked by the sense of being inside. Freed of ultimate closure, the Astrodome becomes a microcosm, as though it were a colony in space or on society’s conceptual frontier (which, in a sense, it was), with a wholeness independent of the outside world. It is even a dome—a form loaded with historical references to the sacred and the infinite. Its location at the edge of the limitless prairie, in a nearly infinite parking lot, heightens the air of surrealism while its name appropriates the aura of outer space on behalf of inner space.

The interior scale of the Astrodome is complemented by the vastness of its parking lot. (Courtesy Texas Architect)

The interior scale of the Astrodome is complemented by the vastness of its parking lot. (Courtesy Texas Architect)

Subjecting the building’s functions to such an articulate vastness gives them a jamais vu quality. By its association with the cosmic vision, any mass spectator event instantly becomes a grander, more intense, more focused spectacle; its emotional equations are transformed. The first indoor baseball game became, figuratively, the first game of all time.

However, intensifying the ritual to such a degree also transforms it into entertainment. Beginning with that first indoor baseball game, the sense and even the pretense of continuity and reciprocity between participants and spectators (such as that postulated by the Texas A&M “twelfth man” tradition) were forever abandoned. The first spectators in the Astrodome became the live audience in the world’s largest television studio, furnished with theater seats, not bleachers, with a scoreboard that lit up like a game in an arcade. Finally the Caesars in the skyboxes had a suitably spectacular barbarity to entertain them.

Success, it is said, has a thousand fathers. It may already be too late to establish with certainty who originated the idea for a covered, air-conditioned baseball stadium. It is clear that various business owners in Houston during the 1950′s were campaigning to bring major league baseball to town. There were studies for a “War Memorial Stadium” that even became the Astrodome in order to cement the design with the National League.

Public sentiment credits Judge Roy Hofheinz, the Dome’s guiding genius and co-owner of its master lease. One story has it that he got the idea for a sports stadium as a tourist in Italy, on learning that the Colosseum (home to blood sports and human sacrifices) had a retractable sunshade. Prior to getting involved in baseball, certainly, the Judge was in a race (won by Frank Sharp at Sharpstown) to develop Houston’s first air-conditioned shopping mall, and was thoroughly familiar with the design and construction of long-span, air-conditioned assembly spaces. Moreover, the idea was already in the air. Tycoon Glenn McCarthy may have proposed a covered stadium during the 1940s. Walter O’Malley considered building a covered stadium for the Dodgers while they were still in Brooklyn, and Harris County officials met with him in Los Angeles in the late 50s.

But in mythological terms the Colosseum connection is true, regardless of its actuality. It invokes the laying-on of hands, conveying the splendor of ancient Rome from its Pantheon to the new cathedral of America’s sports religion. In an article in Architectural Design in 1970, Peter Papademetriou equated the Astrodome to St Peter’s as a gigantic urban-edge project that established a defining physical and social form.

In the beginning, the glory of Rome gave a desirable gloss to the Astrodome’s image. But today comparisons to either St. Peter’s or the Colosseum are redundant. The Dome, not Rome, is the archetypal social form across the land. With the coming of the Dome, spectacle at last reached the intensity necessary to bridge the mythic distance from baseball, diffuse and subtle, to football, especially professional football, a gladiatorial contest worthy of the first Colosseum.

The elevation of the spectacle also transformed the nature of the “occasion” surrounding football as ritual event. Formerly, the game itself was only the zone of greatest density of meaning imbedded in an extended activity. In the ancestral pattern, getting there was half the fun—the journey, visits to relatives or friends, the tailgate party, the post-game celebration. (The old ways survive in Dallas the night before the Texas-Oklahoma football game and during “Texas Week” at Texas A&M.) Even the game’s prostration before the elements, though sometimes inconvenient, was symbolically meaningful. Through this, the larger event maintained its ties to, and signified its place in, a world larger than the game itself.

No longer. Thanks to the possibilities for artifice liberated by the Astrodome, the Event has been freed from its dependency on Nature’s caprice and God’s sky. The Game has achieved purity of essence. It is reborn as a feature attraction in the world of focused entertainment values based on network television and the ultimate macho voyeurism of Monday Night Football. The feat of mythic transformation wrought by the Astrodome is acknowledged by the attitudes of professional sports leagues towards indoor play. Even though baseball is always postponed for bad weather, major-league baseball will not consider indoor locations for prospective expansion teams. On the other hand, football, which is traditionally played regardless of the weather, has wholly embraced indoor stadiums.

Whereas baseball is a ritual celebration of mythic space, football possesses and defines it. So while baseball needs the presence of the outside world and is diminished indoors, football is only rendered more intense and primal by the technical refinement that indoor play makes possible.

So where has the Astrodome been all these years? Somewhere at once beneath the notice of the architecture profession and beyond its imagination. What if the Astrodome didn’t further the “ennobling” of architecture—it forcefully, purposefully, massively, irredeemably changed the social landscape. If any building merits the AIA’s 25-year award, it’s the Astrodome. That the architecture profession has failed to recognize it as a key monument offers strong evidence that our criteria for measuring architectural quality remain woefully narrow, drawing so heavily on fineness of composition and on an abstract view of form that they blind us to the emotional, experiential character of our relationships with buildings.

Douglas Pegues Harvey

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