In praise of Emil Praeger

TextI'm not certain that I had ever heard his name until now, but Emil Praeger was the architect and engineer of Dodger Stadium. He and his 43-year-old creation, and especially its recent renovation, are the subject of a mostly positive architectural critique by Christopher Hawthorne in Sunday's L.A. Times Calendar section.

But first, on the field, the Dodgers got a good start tonight out of rookie pitcher D.J. Houlton and back-to-back home runs again from J.D. Drew and Jeff Kent to creep one win over .500. It still looks pretty bleak, though. The pitching is almost the league's worst, and since late April the Dodgers are nine losses under .500. Only that 12-2 start is masking the truth that for two-thirds of the season the Dodgers have played like a fourth place, no-chance-of-the-playoffs team.

OK, back to Hawthorne:

There were two kinds of projects that modern architecture proved particularly ill-suited to take on during the height of its American influence in the decades after World War II. The first was design at the scale of the city: Modernism and urban planning turned out to be a terrible match, producing towers-in-the-park schemes, hulking expressways and other architectural disasters.

The second was the design of baseball stadiums. From the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, 17 major-league teams moved into new ballparks. With their strict symmetry and stripped concrete exteriors, the stadiums were full of disdain for the history of architecture and of baseball. By the end of the 1980s most of them had become unloved white elephants, sitting forlornly in the middle of lake-sized parking lots...

The great exception was Dodger Stadium, which somehow managed to suggest that baseball and postwar architecture were made for each another. When it opened in spring 1962, it demonstrated like all of the best midcentury architecture in Los Angeles how much could be gained by treating the rigid rules of Modernism more like open-ended guidelines.

The park, designed by architect-engineer Emil Praeger with plenty of detailed input from owner Walter O'Malley was streamlined and forward-looking. But it also had an unshakable sense of place: Though it incorporated details from baseball's oldest parks particularly the steeply pitched upper decks that keep fans in the cheap seats close to the action it was loosely informal and extensively landscaped, taking advantage of its spacious hilltop site. It didn't take long for Praeger's stadium to earn a reputation as the best-designed ballpark in the major leagues.

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