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The wild pagan roots of Mission Valley's Jack Murphy Stadium

Imagination dominated by spectacles of violence and hysteria

The modern stadium sometimes fills us with a twinge of unease. Memories of Nero and Hitler.
The modern stadium sometimes fills us with a twinge of unease. Memories of Nero and Hitler.

If any proof were needed of the continuity of a given architectural form in a given civilization, that of the arena stadium in the West would be it. Take San Diego’s own Jack Murphy Stadium in Mission Valley, designed by Gary Allen in a space-age, high-tech style and opened in 1967. For all its morass of trendy ’60s concrete and equally trendy, sleek brutal-ism, its essence is purely Roman.

Outer Wall of the Coliseum. Unlike other Roman forms such as the church, the arena was effectively forgotten until the 20th Century.

Standing with a kind of lonely grandeur at the center of a vast, slightly angled parking lot dotted with pine trees, it has more than a passing resemblance to a Roman ruin. Its skeletal frame, with rectangles of empty space, gives it the half-ruined aspect of an ancient arena like that in Arles or the Coliseum itself, as if the architects had been unable to resist a pun or a parody with the Roman model in mind. Even the great circular turrets (which give the building the look, at least from a distance, of a Crusader castle rather than a Roman arena) fail to efface this impression.

“The stadium made people in San Diego feel they had finally arrived, that this was, indeed, a major-league city."

And since the function of the Roman arena and that of the modern American one is essentially the same — the management of huge collective public spectacles — the retention of this pure, severe, oval form is extraordinary. Why, after all, shouldn’t a stadium be square or an octagon? Why do the Coliseum and San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium have nearly the same proportions?

Lewis Mumford, in The City in History (1962), gave a penetrating analysis of the Roman arena and its role. It was, he said, the summation of Roman engineering prowess and ingenuity. But it was also the place where the Roman imagination allowed itself to be dominated by spectacles of violence, hysteria, and collective emotionalism. It expressed demagoguery and voyeurism as well as civic pride. It was the heart of the pagan city, where the people came to discharge their emotions in one place and in one concentrated spectacle.

Unlike other Roman forms such as the church, the arena was effectively forgotten until the 20th Century. The rediscovery of that pagan festival, the Olympic Games, at the end of the 19th Century recreated the stadium and, one could say, the democratic-pagan mentality of the arena. The arena reinvented the nature of modern spectacle, making it more hysterical, more lurid, and more violent. Our own media culture is directly indebted to it. And just as the Roman arena has something of a dubious reputation in the Christian imagination (it was, after all, where the faithful were gobbled up by lions), so the modern stadium sometimes fills us with a twinge of unease. Memories of Nero and Hitler.

The stadium is the heart of an American city, just as the arena was of a Roman one. George Mitrovitch, president of the City Club and a former member of the Stadium Authority Board, thinks that Jack Murphy, the late sportswriter whose name it bears, was right to promote the development of Mission Valley in terms of a stadium.

“The stadium,” he said in an L.A. Times story last July, “made people in San Diego feel they had finally arrived, that this was, indeed, a major-league city. If there were ever serious doubts about that, San Diego finally had a tangible piece of evidence to offer the dissenters and doubters.”

Of course, there have always been catastrophe theorists who have seen the stadium as the cog around which the hideous development of Mission Valley got underway in the mid-’60s. But the opening of Mission Valley Center in 1958 had been the real catalyst, and the feeling in the following decade was that if San Diego didn’t get a stadium it would remain a backwoods town indefinitely. In the early ’60s, 71 percent of voters agreed to finance the construction bonds to the tune of $27 million, something that would be unlikely to occur in any American city today. The stadium, in other words, was massively popular (and populist). For even if we no longer throw Christians to animals for entertainment, the law of “bread and circuses” remains.

It is arguable that the stadium today is really a pagan monument. People used to come together in huge religious ceremonies and state occasions. Now it’s baseball games and rock concerts, avatars of pagan revel. When the Padres won the National League pennant in 1984 (the only Jack Murphy stadium hosts to win a championship) by beating the Cubs in game five, it seemed to those present that the soul of the city was there in the stadium, concentrated in one cathartic moment. Recalled the Padres’ rightfielder, Tony Gwynn in the aforementioned L.A. Times piece, “Game four was like the coming together of a whole city in one moment...the atmosphere was so powerful I get a chill thinking about it even now.”

The city now actively gleans hundreds of thousands of dollars from rock concerts staged in the stadium: The Who in 1983 and 1989; the Stones in an all-day do in 1981 that was barely passed by the stadium committee; 1992’s spectacles of Ice-T, Body Count, and Guns N’ Roses netted over $250,000, giving a clear indication of what the stadium is likely to be doing increasingly in the future. It was here that Roseanne Barr gave her infamous rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (grabbing her crotch and spitting), bringing down upon her head the wrath of George Bush, who declared her a traitor and a blasphemer. The arena is not just a sports venue; it has an obvious symbolic and political dimension that is quite easy to exploit.

This other dimension can be seen in the very architecture itself. Grandiose, imperial, demagogic arena architecture brings forth certain emotions, as it’s supposed to. Here, the meeting of impeccable modernism with Roman severity results in an imposing and quietly histrionic building which, with its massive ramps and stark bulwarks, its powerfully simple lines, and its gray, undecorated surfaces, imposes upon the spectator feelings of both exhilaration and quiescence. Jack Murphy may have been the first stadium in America to introduce fish tacos and sushi lunches as regular ballpark fare, and local Democratic assemblyman Mike Gotch may well be lobbying furiously to have that gigantic Marlboro Man dismantled from his time-honored niche over centerfield, but this pure, rugged example of the immortal arena form would have suited either Hitler or Nero just fine. As Roseanne Barr found, all you need to manipulate a crowd is the right architectural setting.

As for all that monumental and possibly somewhat dated concrete, the stadium manager, Bill Wilson, put a brave face on it. “The building is in as good a shape as it’s been for the last five or six years,” he told the L.A. Times. “One concern is that as concrete ages, it gets brittle and pulls away from its steel reinforcement. But we’ve withstood the earthquakes just beautifully. We checked it out thoroughly after the most recent shakes, and it looked just fine. The concrete and plumbing are the same as when it opened 25 years ago, though the cast-iron sewage pipe is starting to go. So in the next couple of years we’ll turn our attention to that.”

Grim and unstable concrete or no, the vast, echoing oval, the tiered seats (almost 60,000 of them), the brutal majesty — all recall the stabs at immortality made by the Roman engineers. And in some distant future, San Diego Jack Murphy stadium might well be some ivy-covered Coliseum in the center of a ruined, half-excavated San Diego, surrounded by screaming little Italian cars and crawling with romantic, necking tourists trying hard to imagine a long-distant Chargers game and the gesticulations of a famous orator named Roseanne. On the other hand, they might pull it down and start growing zucchinis again. The question for both the stadium and for San Diego is really whether the city will measure up to the stadium that was designed for it 25 years ago. Or whether, like the amazing monuments of Mussolini in small towns in Italy, it will seem like a giant without a bed to lie in.

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The modern stadium sometimes fills us with a twinge of unease. Memories of Nero and Hitler.
The modern stadium sometimes fills us with a twinge of unease. Memories of Nero and Hitler.

If any proof were needed of the continuity of a given architectural form in a given civilization, that of the arena stadium in the West would be it. Take San Diego’s own Jack Murphy Stadium in Mission Valley, designed by Gary Allen in a space-age, high-tech style and opened in 1967. For all its morass of trendy ’60s concrete and equally trendy, sleek brutal-ism, its essence is purely Roman.

Outer Wall of the Coliseum. Unlike other Roman forms such as the church, the arena was effectively forgotten until the 20th Century.

Standing with a kind of lonely grandeur at the center of a vast, slightly angled parking lot dotted with pine trees, it has more than a passing resemblance to a Roman ruin. Its skeletal frame, with rectangles of empty space, gives it the half-ruined aspect of an ancient arena like that in Arles or the Coliseum itself, as if the architects had been unable to resist a pun or a parody with the Roman model in mind. Even the great circular turrets (which give the building the look, at least from a distance, of a Crusader castle rather than a Roman arena) fail to efface this impression.

“The stadium made people in San Diego feel they had finally arrived, that this was, indeed, a major-league city."

And since the function of the Roman arena and that of the modern American one is essentially the same — the management of huge collective public spectacles — the retention of this pure, severe, oval form is extraordinary. Why, after all, shouldn’t a stadium be square or an octagon? Why do the Coliseum and San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium have nearly the same proportions?

Lewis Mumford, in The City in History (1962), gave a penetrating analysis of the Roman arena and its role. It was, he said, the summation of Roman engineering prowess and ingenuity. But it was also the place where the Roman imagination allowed itself to be dominated by spectacles of violence, hysteria, and collective emotionalism. It expressed demagoguery and voyeurism as well as civic pride. It was the heart of the pagan city, where the people came to discharge their emotions in one place and in one concentrated spectacle.

Unlike other Roman forms such as the church, the arena was effectively forgotten until the 20th Century. The rediscovery of that pagan festival, the Olympic Games, at the end of the 19th Century recreated the stadium and, one could say, the democratic-pagan mentality of the arena. The arena reinvented the nature of modern spectacle, making it more hysterical, more lurid, and more violent. Our own media culture is directly indebted to it. And just as the Roman arena has something of a dubious reputation in the Christian imagination (it was, after all, where the faithful were gobbled up by lions), so the modern stadium sometimes fills us with a twinge of unease. Memories of Nero and Hitler.

The stadium is the heart of an American city, just as the arena was of a Roman one. George Mitrovitch, president of the City Club and a former member of the Stadium Authority Board, thinks that Jack Murphy, the late sportswriter whose name it bears, was right to promote the development of Mission Valley in terms of a stadium.

“The stadium,” he said in an L.A. Times story last July, “made people in San Diego feel they had finally arrived, that this was, indeed, a major-league city. If there were ever serious doubts about that, San Diego finally had a tangible piece of evidence to offer the dissenters and doubters.”

Of course, there have always been catastrophe theorists who have seen the stadium as the cog around which the hideous development of Mission Valley got underway in the mid-’60s. But the opening of Mission Valley Center in 1958 had been the real catalyst, and the feeling in the following decade was that if San Diego didn’t get a stadium it would remain a backwoods town indefinitely. In the early ’60s, 71 percent of voters agreed to finance the construction bonds to the tune of $27 million, something that would be unlikely to occur in any American city today. The stadium, in other words, was massively popular (and populist). For even if we no longer throw Christians to animals for entertainment, the law of “bread and circuses” remains.

It is arguable that the stadium today is really a pagan monument. People used to come together in huge religious ceremonies and state occasions. Now it’s baseball games and rock concerts, avatars of pagan revel. When the Padres won the National League pennant in 1984 (the only Jack Murphy stadium hosts to win a championship) by beating the Cubs in game five, it seemed to those present that the soul of the city was there in the stadium, concentrated in one cathartic moment. Recalled the Padres’ rightfielder, Tony Gwynn in the aforementioned L.A. Times piece, “Game four was like the coming together of a whole city in one moment...the atmosphere was so powerful I get a chill thinking about it even now.”

The city now actively gleans hundreds of thousands of dollars from rock concerts staged in the stadium: The Who in 1983 and 1989; the Stones in an all-day do in 1981 that was barely passed by the stadium committee; 1992’s spectacles of Ice-T, Body Count, and Guns N’ Roses netted over $250,000, giving a clear indication of what the stadium is likely to be doing increasingly in the future. It was here that Roseanne Barr gave her infamous rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (grabbing her crotch and spitting), bringing down upon her head the wrath of George Bush, who declared her a traitor and a blasphemer. The arena is not just a sports venue; it has an obvious symbolic and political dimension that is quite easy to exploit.

This other dimension can be seen in the very architecture itself. Grandiose, imperial, demagogic arena architecture brings forth certain emotions, as it’s supposed to. Here, the meeting of impeccable modernism with Roman severity results in an imposing and quietly histrionic building which, with its massive ramps and stark bulwarks, its powerfully simple lines, and its gray, undecorated surfaces, imposes upon the spectator feelings of both exhilaration and quiescence. Jack Murphy may have been the first stadium in America to introduce fish tacos and sushi lunches as regular ballpark fare, and local Democratic assemblyman Mike Gotch may well be lobbying furiously to have that gigantic Marlboro Man dismantled from his time-honored niche over centerfield, but this pure, rugged example of the immortal arena form would have suited either Hitler or Nero just fine. As Roseanne Barr found, all you need to manipulate a crowd is the right architectural setting.

As for all that monumental and possibly somewhat dated concrete, the stadium manager, Bill Wilson, put a brave face on it. “The building is in as good a shape as it’s been for the last five or six years,” he told the L.A. Times. “One concern is that as concrete ages, it gets brittle and pulls away from its steel reinforcement. But we’ve withstood the earthquakes just beautifully. We checked it out thoroughly after the most recent shakes, and it looked just fine. The concrete and plumbing are the same as when it opened 25 years ago, though the cast-iron sewage pipe is starting to go. So in the next couple of years we’ll turn our attention to that.”

Grim and unstable concrete or no, the vast, echoing oval, the tiered seats (almost 60,000 of them), the brutal majesty — all recall the stabs at immortality made by the Roman engineers. And in some distant future, San Diego Jack Murphy stadium might well be some ivy-covered Coliseum in the center of a ruined, half-excavated San Diego, surrounded by screaming little Italian cars and crawling with romantic, necking tourists trying hard to imagine a long-distant Chargers game and the gesticulations of a famous orator named Roseanne. On the other hand, they might pull it down and start growing zucchinis again. The question for both the stadium and for San Diego is really whether the city will measure up to the stadium that was designed for it 25 years ago. Or whether, like the amazing monuments of Mussolini in small towns in Italy, it will seem like a giant without a bed to lie in.

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