A historic view for spectators Through the ages: In ancient Greece and Rome, leaders built stadiums in hope of pleasing the masses. Nowadays, states and cities want to please, too.


The ancient Greeks built them long and narrow, in the shape of a slender horseshoe, and cut the seating area into the side of hills. The Romans, who had the advantage of concrete and iron clamps, made them free-standing, self-supporting structures, the most famous being the Colosseum in Rome.

So stadiums and opening days with big crowds are not entirely new.

Watching a baseball game on Opening Day -- or pondering the design of a new stadium for football -- is an endeavor with well-established precedents. The new Olympic stadium in Atlanta? The Greeks were building Olympic stadiums by 700 B.C. The word itself comes from the Greek unit of measurement called "stade," the 600-foot distance covered in the footraces at the first Olympic games.

In ancient Greece and Rome, leaders built stadiums in hope of pleasing the masses. Emperors wanted to provide the public with entertainment. "That would keep the people happy and the emperor in power," says John Pastier, an architectural historian.

States and cities want to please, too.

"In a predominantly secular society such as ours, sports are playing a role that overlaps with the older role of religion," Mr. Pastier says. "Instead of sects building churches, you have the state building stadiums."

The first Greek stadiums were used for those footraces, then came musical performances and plays. Then came the invention of the hippodrome, the long, narrow course broadened to accommodate a four-horse chariot race.

Rome improved on the hippodrome to create the "circus," a hairpin-shaped structure with a dividing wall down the middle and decorated with statues and obelisks. The chariots in effect raced around the wall. The amphitheater became the next architectural innovation, a game field enclosed on all sides and designed to give the maximum number of people optimum views.

With the fall of Rome in the 7th century, stadiums went into a decline that lasted more than a thousand years. Cathedrals supplanted stadiums as the public architecture that communities valued most.

The revival of the form began with the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896. Athens was the first host. It rebuilt a marble stadium erected in 331 B.C. and made it the Olympic playing field. Virtually every other Olympic city has followed Athens' lead; thus, new, architecturally significant stadiums in London (1908), Stockholm (1912), Paris (1924) and Amsterdam (1928).

American football by then inspired a new shape, the elliptical bowl, beginning with construction of the Yale Bowl in New Haven in 1914. And then came roofs to protect spectators against the sun, beginning with the opening in 1923 of triple-tiered Yankee Stadium in New York.

One problem was that the columns supporting the roof blocked people's views. Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium, which opened in 1959, became the first tiered stadium to guarantee a column-free view from every seat.

In 1965 the domed stadium made its debut with Houston's Astrodome. It was quickly copied. A dome allowed the facilities to be used all year, but they are criticized for being "cookie cutter" in design and failing to offer a distinctive sense of place.

Fashion changed again to favor the open air, as at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The latest trend? Retractable domes. They are included in the design of at least three stadium projects already on the drawing board.

"These things run in spurts," says Mr. Pastier, who was a consultant on the design of Camden Yards and is advising Seattle on construction of a new stadium. "If people can figure out a way to make a retractable roof that is less cumbersome than it is in Toronto or Fukuoka, [Japan,] that will be one of the things that people will be clamoring for."

Meanwhile, Atlanta is hurrying to finish its 85,000-seat stadium for the 1996 Olympic Games, opening July 19. The games last 17 days; when they are over, the northern end of the stadium -- 35,000 seats -- will be demolished. In their place will go a pub, scoreboard, bleacher seats and ticket office -- the better to make a permanent baseball stadium for the Atlanta Braves.

Pub Date: 4/01/96

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