On ground floor in stadium game Designs: Ron Labinski set the standard for sports facility architecture. With the competition growing, he's looking for new arenas to enter.; STADIUM WATCH


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- On the wall of Ron Labinski's office, directly across from his desk, is a poster of "Big League Ballparks" circa 1987.

The framed and faded souvenir features tiny photos of all of the major-league baseball stadiums then in use, from Baltimore's Memorial Stadium to Seattle's Kingdome. None has been X'ed off the poster, although some might as well be.

Slowly but surely, Labinski, a founder and senior vice president of HOK Sports Facilities Group, the nation's leading designer of stadiums, has replaced or contributed to the replacement of an extraordinary number of the parks, most of them since opening Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992.

Labinski's firm has made its mark on the pro football landscape, too. The latest example is the Ravens' stadium -- Oriole Park's new next-door neighbor -- which is near completion and will hold its first NFL preseason game next month.

Labinski has been so successful that he's running out of stadiums to build and is looking to export his architectural revolution. He's trying to expand to cricket, soccer, rugby and other sports in other countries.

"The peak of the market has passed us. We have a lot more competition than we've ever had. What we're looking for now is )) the next new idea," he said.

Hence the Louisville Slugger cricket bat, sitting amid the baseballs and footballs in his memorabilia-strewn office. The room is surprisingly tight for a man who has brought comfort and spaciousness to sports fans worldwide. Out the window is a view of the muddy Missouri River.

On his door hangs an identifying sign: Grey Eminence.

"The world's our future, I believe," he said.

An important part of his past is in Baltimore. He had established himself in stadium design long before Oriole Park. But that project, more than any other, led to the boom in fan-friendly, architecturally sophisticated modern sports venues.

It vividly demonstrated how a stadium could be integrated into a city and how it could enrich the team financially. Sports hasn't been the same since.

Neither has HOK.

"That stadium was very important to us. I think it heralded a new generation of baseball stadiums," Labinski said.

That wasn't the beginning of the story for Labinski, 60, who had been breaking molds in his field -- and our fields -- for decades.

"Ron Labinski is the grand old man and HOK is the [General Motors] of the business. They created that business," said John Pastier, a Seattle-based architecture critic and stadium consultant.

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Labinski moved around the country with his family as a youngster. His father was in the wholesale food business and coached youth basketball and baseball.

Labinski, who played high school football, fell into stadium designing mostly by accident. He went to the University of Illinois, where he obtained a bachelor of architecture degree. A stint in the Army brought him to Kansas' Fort Riley as an engineer. Upon completion of his service duty, he interviewed with architectural firms in Chicago, Kansas City and Baltimore, but took a job with a local firm and established himself as a talented designer.

The Kansas City experiment

Another firm in town, Kivvett and Myers, recruited him after it was awarded the contract to build a two-stadium complex to house the NFL Chiefs and baseball's Royals. It would be a groundbreaking project in many respects, changing forever the course of stadium building in this country and Ron Labinski's life.

It was the early 1970s and the Dark Age of circular, multipurpose stadiums. The Astrodome was the state of the art, and, for a time, the public held sway in debates on publicly funded stadiums. Teams had to share space, and designs were compromised for both: The circular seating bowl left fans of neither sport entirely satisfied with their sightlines and robbed the structures of any character.

But, at least in Kansas City, the trend would be avoided. The Chiefs said no to shared digs, and the taxpayers, having lost a baseball team to Oakland, Calif., approved $53 million to build side-by-side parks. The expansion Royals came to Kansas City while the new stadiums were under construction.

Separate parks for baseball and football was an idea that would take 20 years to catch on, but would eventually redefine the sports landscape. And Kansas City would be remembered as the ancestral home of the modern, single-sport stadiums that would pop up from Baltimore to Seattle in the 1990s.

A designer, Charles Deaton of Denver, was already on board for the job, bringing a sculptor's flair to the task. Combined with Labinski's hire as project designer, the mold was cast for something out of the ordinary, something beyond the cookie-cutter stadiums going up elsewhere.

"Stadiums were kind of a cut above parking garages then," he said. "When history looks back at stadium design, this will be a real turning point."

Among its innovations: an upper deck gracefully tapered on each side to pack more seats along the sidelines than end zones and a ring of skyboxes nestled between decks rather than just perched on the top of the seating bowl.

The success of the Chiefs' Arrowhead Stadium led to some job changes for Labinski. It also spawned three of the biggest firms now working in the field and established Kansas City as the center of the stadium-building universe.

Labinski became a consultant on the Buffalo Bills' Rich Stadium, which opened in 1973, and the lead designer/architect on Giants Stadium at the Meadowlands -- a building that, if aesthetically uninspiring, is considered one of football's best. That job led to contacts with the league that led to the job designing the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.

The club seat is born

More sports work followed, and soon Labinski was heading Kivvett and Myers' sports group. While pitching a job to the Canadian Football League's Edmonton Eskimos, he struck on a revolutionary concept. Why not, he asked, beef up the mezzanine level with upscale, climate-controlled accommodations?

"The idea I came up with was to enclose that level and give it a higher level of comfort and a higher level of food and charge more for it," he said.

The Eskimos job never got built, but the idea survived.

In 1973, he founded his own firm, known as Devine, James, Labinski and Meyers. Among the architects there was Joseph Spear, who years later would win accolades as the project architect of Oriole Park.

A few years after the new firm was founded, a national engineering company called Howard Needles Tammen & Bergendoff bought Kivvett and Myers and recruited Labinski back to help with the Indianapolis contract that it had landed.

He and his fellow architects found the culture at HNTB restrictive, and he began looking for other options. In 1983, he talked the St. Louis-based Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum Inc. into opening a Kansas City office devoted entirely to sports, to be called HOK Sports Facilities Group. Of 14 HNTB clients, 13 followed Labinski to HOK.

Among its early clients was one who thought the club-seat idea was a good one: Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie. He financed his stadium, which opened in 1987, on the anticipated revenues from the club level.

Just about every other facility built since has featured club seats, and their profit potential is largely responsible for the replacement of stadiums nationwide over the past decade.

Soon the firm was at work designing the new Comiskey Park for the Chicago White Sox. It opened a year before Oriole Park, leading off a remarkable decade of stadium building in this country.

"Comiskey Park was a sort of improved Royals Stadium. Oriole Park was the first of the new generation," Labinski said.

Impressive stats

And that generation has belonged to HOK. Of the 11 baseball stadiums opened since Comiskey, HOK has designed eight. In football, the firm is 7-for-10.

There have also been a slew of minor-league and spring training facilities. In all, HOK has been involved in 450 arena and stadium projects, working for 30 of the 31 NFL franchises and 22 of the 30 major-league baseball teams.

HOK Sports employment has swelled to 250, filling five floors of its office building. It is the world's largest sports architectural firm, having billed clients $68 million last year.

Among its major competitors is another Kansas City outfit, Ellerbe Becket, whose principals include Gordon Woods, who worked with Labinski on the Arrowhead project. It has one baseball stadium and several arenas to its credit. Labinski's old firm, HNTB, has one football stadium.

"In a business sense, their success was always undeniable. In an architectural or aesthetic sense, I don't know if the success is so undeniable," said Pastier, the architectural critic.

Among the projects that have failed to win universal applause: nTC Comiskey and the Washington Redskins' Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.

"They are the best in the business. And they are not in decline. Aesthetically, I think they are still in ascent," Pastier said.

But the gold rush may be ending. Other firms won the bidding for the four most recent baseball and three most recent football stadiums. And the newer parks could last 50 years, putting off the next stadium-building wave for a generation.

Hence Labinski's eye on foreign markets and the cricket bat in his office.

HOK has been signed as co-designer to build a new Wembley Stadium in London, hallowed ground for soccer fans worldwide, and led the design team that refurbished France's Toulouse Stadium in time for this year's World Cup.

It also worked on the London Arena, Hong Kong Stadium, the National Cycling Center in Manchester, England, and the Sydney Olympic Stadium in Australia.

That not only keeps HOK busy, but also ensures a global legacy for Ron Labinski.

"If there's one thing I really feel good about, it is the fact that this is going to have a life beyond myself," Labinski said. "This has already taken on a life of its own."

Pub Date: 7/12/98

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