(WNS)–In any conversation about PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the talk soon gets around to “that view!” It deserves at least one exclamation mark. From prime seating behind home plate, a double deck of stadium seats embraces all three bases. The grassy outfield leads the eye on a running leap to the swoop of the Clemente Bridge, gateway to the Pittsburgh skyline and surrounding hills. Sunset sinks the colors into deep pink and violet with glints of gold. Few ball parks seem so at home in their surroundings. According to ESPN, which rates PNC as the top major-league ballpark in the nation, it’s “the perfect blend of art, architecture, and environment.”
The view from architect David Greusel’s office window is less spectacular, but he likes it. He looks out from the sixth floor of an eight-story E-shaped brick building that hasn’t forgotten its history: Kansas City Livestock Exchange is stenciled in big white letters along the top. The white walls of Kemper Area, home of the American Royal livestock show, rise from what used to be a maze of railroad track and feedlots.
Greusel is talking baseball, a sport he loves. He’s been known to rhapsodize about the perfect double play: “a tiny ballet involving six men, a bat and a ball …” But for him, a Pirates or Astros game is much more than batters and runners and exquisite teamwork. It has to be—”I’m the person responsible for what those ballparks look like.”
It might be akin to an author observing one of his novels being read on a plane—times 30,000 or so. “One day I will never forget was attending Game 3 of the 2005 World Series at Minute Maid Park. I had a nosebleed seat, and when I mentioned to the guy next to me that I designed the park, his reaction was a sarcastic ‘Yeah, right.’ That was priceless.”
The major-league projects came his way through HOK Sport, a Kansas City-based architectural firm. At the time, HOK had no serious competition for professional sports venues, making it the most obvious go-to firm for clubs seeking a new facility. The contracts with the Astros and the Pirates came through in the late 1990s, and Greusel was tapped as project manager, giving him a chance to exercise his basic architectural philosophy on a grand scale. That philosophy inevitably involves his faith. To the casual observer, ballparks and church may seem miles apart, but Greusel sees one obvious connection: “Christianity is a program for human flourishing,” he says, and architecture is a means for creating places to flourish.
Christianity also sanctifies community and relationship. Greusel’s first step for both projects was to visit Houston and Pittsburgh and get acquainted with each city’s history and culture. He took special note of the neighborhood as well as the terrain, not merely for logistics, but also to create a design that would be aesthetically pleasing while location-friendly. That view! from PNC Park is no accident: “I wanted to use both ballparks as a showcase for the city.” Any way that surrounding structures could contribute to the design, so much the better.
For example, Minute Maid Park actually incorporates the former Union Station depot as its main entrance. Ball fans pass under the old building’s pillars and arches to find the same arches echoed around the outfield. Colors are pale green and orange in tribute to the corporation that bought naming rights after Enron bit the dust. Minute Maid also gives the stadium its affectionate nickname: the juice box.
One of the park’s signature features almost didn’t happen. Because of the railroad connection, Greusel hatched the idea of a full-size replica steam engine running along the top of the left-field arcade. For months he included the train in his plans, until his boss nixed the idea. “Some time later, the Astros’ owner, Drayton McLane, came back from the opening game at Phoenix’s Chase Field infatuated with the swimming pool in the outfield. He wanted to know what our ballpark was going to have that would generate that much conversation. I put up my hand and said, ‘Well, we could do that train …’” And so, whenever the Astros hit a home run, the locomotive charges forward, whistle blowing, pulling a gondola piled high with oranges.
The integration strategy worked spectacularly in Pittsburgh. The limestone walls of PNC Park reflect the Allegheny hills, and steel truss work pays homage to the city’s industrial past. The seating design puts the farthest row only 88 feet from the field, giving every fan a straightline view. Pittsburgh has taken the stadium to its heart; on game days the Clemente Bridge is closed to motor traffic, allowing fans to park downtown and walk over to the ballpark. Boaters cluster on the river below the outfield wall, and since it’s only 443 feet from home plate to the water, some lucky sailor might catch a home run ball. A festival atmosphere rules, dampened only slightly by the Pirates’ 19-year losing streak.
Greusel retains a special affection for sports venues: “I get frustrated when I hear of a sports project that I wasn’t asked to design.” But times have changed. For one thing, HOK no longer exists, having been reorganized and rebranded as Populous™. And for another, two years ago the architect was told that his services there were no longer needed.
But the very next day came a providential call from city planners in Enid, Okla., who were interested in his ideas for a downtown renovation project. He got the job, and a new business: Convergence Design LLC, located in the heart of his home town, with a staff that now includes six architects and his wife, Theresa.
Hiring his wife as office manager isn’t just a happy accident; it’s an example of the firm’s basic philosophy. “We’re all about connecting the dots here,” Greusel says. He grabs a piece of paper and sketches out the firm’s logo: three overlapping circles. One symbolizes work, another family, and the third community. Convergence works in the overlap, aiming to create integrated spaces for integrated people.
He was able to clarify his own thinking about the overlap when he and members of his church embarked on an extensive “cultural engagement project.” For three years, the group met once per month to discuss assigned reading, visit local sites, and listen to guest speakers. One result of these meetings was a book by pastor Tom Nelson, Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work. For David Greusel, the experience forged a link between his own Sundays and Mondays, a space previously occupied by a balance scale.
Integrating work with family and faith shouldn’t be controversial, but over the years Greusel has found himself running counter not only to the architectural establishment, but also to certain strains of Christian fundamentalism. In an online essay called “God’s Trailer,” Greusel boldly states that “bad church architecture is as much the result of bad theology as it is of bad design”—meaning that an overemphasis on saving souls has blinded some congregations to the value of nurturing souls. Too many Christians buy into a perversion of the old architectural saw that “form follows function,” seeing their buildings as so many square feet of function with a cross stuck on, instead of a place to direct our attention to God’s glory.
Greusel likes to quote Winston Churchill: “First, we shape our buildings, then they shape us.” He believes the need for Christian architects who bring their worldview to their work has never been greater, for at least three reasons. One, the “creation mandate” (Genesis 1:28) implies that we can continue God’s work on earth by designing spaces that are both useful and beautiful. Also, as creatures made in His image, we honor God by following in His creative footsteps and striving for excellence. And finally, designing (and insisting on) beautiful buildings puts us on the front lines of the culture war: Against the dreary functionalism, commodification, and standardization of concrete boxes, our buildings can reflect both the glory of God and the humanity of man—whether their primary function is to encourage worship or to showcase a perfect double play.
Architecture is a serious calling, but also a joyful and optimistic one, combining the pragmatic with the poetic. In a conference room decorated with project drawings, Greusel and his project manager sit down with two engineers from a Midwest firm for a get-acquainted meeting. The thing David Greusel most appreciates in an engineer is collaboration: give-and-take at all stages of the project, as opposed to “send me the drawings and I’ll get back to you.” Teamwork should not be confined to the ball field.
His visitors seem to agree, and everybody shares favorite work stories, along with a laugh over contractors who “ask forgiveness instead of permission” to do things. Given the complexity involved—the designers and engineers and logistics managers and contractors and materials, with healthy allowances given for rocks, dirt, and human error—it’s a marvel that anything like PNC Park even gets built. But such marvels happen, if not as often as they should: functional spaces that can also lift the heart.