When the designers set out to create Oriole Park, it was obvious where they needed to look for inspiration: Chicago's ivy-ringed Wrigley Field, Boston's quirky Fenway Park, Kansas City's clean and efficient Kauffman Stadium.

But where to find spiritual guidance for football, the sport of gargantuan, concrete ovals?

That is a challenge for the people building the Ravens stadium and other National Football League fields now in the works. For a league that has achieved a breathtaking dominance of American sports, the NFL has so far failed to open a single soul-stirring field.

Oh, there are stadiums with heritage and character. Chicago's Soldier Field has its lake-front location and handsome exterior flourishes. Giants Stadium in New Jersey's Meadowlands moves people in and out rapidly and is considered well engineered, though visually unremarkable.

Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego won design awards and boasts some thoughtful features and innovative finishes. The Charlotte Panthers' new home has been well received, but most of its applause has been for large and easy-to-find restrooms. Hardly the stuff of Architectural Digest centerfolds.

There is some nostalgia for college stadiums, such as the University of Pennsylvania's Franklin Field in Philadelphia, which are aesthetically and historically significant. The recently demolished Yale Bowl in New Haven, Conn., was also well regarded.

"But none of them are especially revered," acknowledges Gordon Wood, a vice president of Ellerbe Becket in Kansas City, Mo., a major architectural firm active in stadium design. Fact is, when it comes to stadium design, football - especially the NFL - is dull, dull, dull.

The reasons are both subtle and obvious. Size is a big part. Baseball stadiums tend to run small, a relatively cozy 45,000 seats or so. This affords designers more flexibility in laying out a seating plan. Packing 70,000 seats into a football stadium requires the orderly use of almost every square inch, eliminating the gaps and angles that can give a park character.

The sheer bulk of a football stadium also defies a tidy integration with the cityscape, a la Camden Yards.

"Unfortunately football stadiums are such immense beasts that they can't fit into their cities ... because of their size and shape and parking requirements, they're not easily assimilated," said John Pastier, an architectural critic and stadium consultant from Seattle.

A bigger size means a bigger price tag, too. Less money is left over for luxuries and extras that can make a stadium unique.

The shape of the field also presents limitations. Baseball is played on a diamond, but several basic dimensions, such as the distance from home plate to the outfield walls, are not standard. This gives designers the opportunity to shorten, say, the right field line and compensate with a towering wall - as was done at Oriole Park.

By contrast, there are only so many ways to array seats around a rectangular gridiron.

"Once you get past the rectangular field you can do what you want but the tendency is to get people as close to the action as you can," Wood said. "What's the benefit to the fan if you put in nooks and crannies and it moves the fan away from the field?"

Also, the relationship between the fan and the game is different. Baseball's best seats are close to the players, at field level. The start-and-stop nature of the play, and the temperate summer weather, encourage fans to meander through concourses and linger in the stadium.

"In Baltimore, a trip to Camden Yards is a very complex experience and the game is only one part of it. The culture of football is much different than the culture of baseball, which leads to very different stadiums," Pastier said.

The most coveted football seats are dead-center, well above the field so plays can be seen unfolding and players on the sideline don't obstruct the view.

"One thing you want for football is a sense that the crowd is right on top of you and into the game," he said. "Baseball is a reflective game."

The rapid action of football also has structural implications: fans tend to surge to the concessions and washrooms at the same time, in three massive waves at the start, middle and end of the game.

There's also the relative youth of the sport. The NFL has been around since the 1920s, but it didn't emerge as a major league until the 1960s. It would be disingenuous for a football stadium to evoke nostalgia in the same way that Oriole Park made use of 19th-century baseball touches.

This has practical implications, too. Communities weren't investing in football stadiums in the first half of the century, when baseball and boxing were king. In those years, NFL teams were shoehorned into baseball parks. Or plopped into massive, round coliseums built for Olympic track and field competition, world fairs and other events.

For a while in the 1970s, a slew of ugly, "multi-purpose" stadiums popped up around the country, designed to accommodate both baseball and football. These left fans and team owners in both sports dissatisfied.

"The whole idea of two-sport stadiums is an exercise in trying to square the circle - you'll never get it," Pastier said.

It's only been recently that the NFL has amassed the economic and political clout to demand its own, single-purpose parks. An unprecedented wave of stadium construction is under way, driven largely by changes in the financial underpinnings of the sport, and the desire for more revenue from luxury seating and concessions. This has given designers a new opportunity to focus solely on football and to create a standard.

New or overhauled stadiums have recently opened in Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla. Others are being built in Landover, Md., Baltimore and Cleveland. Plans are under way for more in Cincinnati, Tampa, Seattle, Denver, Chicago, and Detroit.

Will the designers rise to the challenge? There is reason for hope, but whether anyone has struck upon a formula that will finally give football its own Wrigley Field - or Oriole Park at Camden Yards - remains to be seen.

"I think everybody is out there looking for the unique images and design - everyone would like to do it," said Wood. "There has been some discussion of trying to create unique seating areas people can take pride in."

Ravens stadium, for example. Its upper deck is going to be built in four sections, with the two end zones floating on their own, tucked in closer to the field. The open "notched" corners will provide a glimpse of the outer skyline, and a welcome break from the NFL's boring oval.

Cleveland's new stadium is also being built lopsided, with the upper deck higher along one sideline than the other, so fans on the north side can peer over those on the opposing side and see downtown. In homage to the former Cleveland Stadium's famed "dawg pound" rooting section, the eastern end zone will be distinct from the rest of the stadium, cut off with giant slots that will afford a view of nearby lake -front attractions.

In Cincinnati, the Bengals' stadium plan calls for perhaps the boldest shape of all. Along the sidelines, the upper decks will bulge in the middle and thin out at the ends - packing more seats in the middle of the field, where fans want to be. The end zone sections will be separate, asymmetrical and modernistic. Seen from the field, the end zone decks will be shaped like curved wedges, taller at one end than the other.

An asymmetrical bowl is not a new idea. College stadiums have routinely been built this way, generally because funding is unpredictable and stadiums add upper decks in fits, often only on the side that faces the sun. The University of Maryland's Byrd Stadium, for example. But making it work in the context of the NFL's mammoth capacity and economic demands will be tricky.

"You have to build them to accommodate the customer. The sight lines are what is important," said Robert Leffler, a local sports marketing executive and amateur stadium historian.

Jon Morgan covers the business of sport for The Sun. His first book "Glory for Sale: Inside the Browns Move to Baltimore and the New NFL," examines the economics and history of stadiums and will be published this fall by Bancroft Press.

Pub Date: 4/27/97

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