Moving the goalposts – stadium design

18 December 2015

At a time of growing suspicion surrounding public spending on costly megaprojects and a general shift away from statement architecture, how much scope remains for the construction of iconic stadiums? Rod James takes a look.

In 1986, archaeologists working on the Colloseum in Rome, history's greatest sporting arena, came across a collection of small holes, no more than a centimetre deep and a few millimetres wide. The way they were arranged suggested that they had once been covered by letters, probably made of silver. After a painstaking process of reconstruction, archaeologist Géza Alföldy of the University of Heidelberg posited this as the likely inscription: "The emperor Vespasian ordered this new amphitheatre to be erected from his general's share of the booty."

The booty in question was looted from the temple of Jerusalem after the Romans crushed the Great Jewish Revolt of 70 AD. While not too many stadiums since have been unashamedly constructed using the spoils of war, the idea of a grand, architecturally distinct sporting venue that celebrates the history of a city, a country, glories of a sporting side or the achievements of a government has endured.

The most ambitious modern projects have often coincided with the hosting of mega-events such as the Olympic Games or FIFA World Cup. In 2008, Herzog & de Meuron, a practice not known for stadium design, gained high praise for its work on the 91,000-seater Beijing National Stadium. The design was inspired by the interweaving linear patterns of Chinese ceramics, leading to the nickname 'The Bird's Nest'. In 2022, Qatar will aim to make an imprint on the global consciousness with the construction of nine new stadiums, including the 86,000-seater Lusail Stadium, a Foster + Partners project the outer enclosures of which, with their extravagant curves, are meant to evoke the sails of a dhow.

The most ambitious modern projects have often coincided with the hosting of mega-events such as the Olympic Games or FIFA World Cup.

While such projects are breathtaking to behold, growing numbers of people have been asking whether these tens of millions of dollars would be better off spent on something more socially useful. Especially as, once the athletes and fans have gone home, many hosts are left with expensive relics.

A $550-million stadium built for the 2014 World Cup in the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, is now being used as a car park for buses, while venues in Natal and Manaus are being sold to private buyers at an enormous cost to the public. London's Olympic Stadium was designed by the world's chief stadium practice, Populous, to be converted after the event into West Ham United FC's new home ground, but conversion costs soared from £154 million to £190 million due to the need to strengthen the cantilever roof. The total cost of the project in June 2015 was estimated to be £701 million, more than double the £280 million that was predicted at the outset.

Accumulated negativity peaked in July this year with Zaha Hadid's design for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Stadium being rejected by the Japanese Government due to public outcry over its size and cost - a projected $2 billion. The parametric design, reminiscent of a futuristic bicycle helmet, also faced criticism from Japanese architects such as Arata Isozaki, who said it was "like a turtle waiting for Japan to sink so that it can swim away".

"I have been listening to the voices of the people and the athletes for about a month now, thinking about the possibility of a review," said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. "We must go back to the drawing board; the cost has just ballooned too much."

Take the fork in the road

Some are viewing Japan's decision as a watershed moment, when the race for bigger and more striking stadiums went into reverse, but this doesn't seem to be the case. If the FIFA World Cup goes ahead in Qatar, which looks increasingly likely despite claims of widespread corruption, it will only increase the pace. In the US, projects such as the $1.4-billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, due for completion in 2017, continue American football's tradition of large, dome-like stadiums with retractable roofs and massive scoreboards. "Over the years, I've written at various times something to the effect that we've turned a corner on this," says architect and writer Witold Rybczynski, "but I've been wrong every time."

In the long term, however, it is hard to see how this trend can continue. There must come a point where bigger and better is just not worth the money, particularly in smaller cities for which the cost of hosting a sports team or event often exceeds the economic benefit. In the US, owners of sports teams have little say in the matter. President Obama's 2016 budget, presented to Congress in February 2015, stated that tax-exempt bonds can no longer be used to finance professional sports facilities. Such bonds have raised $17 billion for such purposes in the past three decades, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Dan Meis, from sports-focused practice Meis Architects, says that there has to be a change to the way stadiums are designed. "It's a little different in the US where you have leagues that can drive a lot more uses to a stadium [unlike those for mega-events], but even an NFL stadium is only used 15-20 times a year. When you take that to the level of an Olympic stadium, approaching $2 billion in the Japan example, it's really driven around an event that lasts a couple of weeks. I think that's going to force a change in how we think about these things."

MEIS Architects' raison d'être is to create stadiums that are striking and meet the size requirements of owners, but for a reasonable cost, often by taking advantage of existing features. Its proposal for the Al Rayyan Stadium in Qatar would see the new structure built on top of the lower bowl of an existing venue. Its design for the Los Angeles NFL Stadium, which would lower costs by being built in a bowl-shaped depression produced by surrounding hilly terrain, is estimated to be $300-400 million lower than any recent proposal for an American football stadium. As well as keeping budgets under control, the firm is trying to bring an atmosphere to its stadiums that many feel is missing from recent mega-scale projects.

Meis's team is currently working on Stadio della Roma in Italy, a 52,500-seater stadium that can be expanded to 60,000 when necessary. Many of its design cues come straight from the Colosseum in an effort to recreate the heat of gladiatorial combat in a modern context. Like the gladiators, the players come up from underneath the pitch and the front row of seats is elevated so the home fans tower menacingly over the visiting team. The south stand contains a 14,000-seat block dedicated to AS Roma's hardcore supporters creating a wall of hostile noise.

"I was working for a well known architectural office in Chicago," Meis recalls. "I watched Comiskey Park [home of the White Sox baseball team] being replaced by one of the early generations of new ballparks, and it was kind of horrible. It was big and new, but lost all of the intimacy of Comiskey Park.

The Olympic Stadium in Munich, designed by Frei Otto, was not only visually unique but materially significant to the architectural canon,

"When people ask me what is my favourite stadium, I say places like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. You can't have the same experience in the big, open, giant bowl stadiums that you can have in a really tight, intimate, historic stadium. That's something that really did influence me; how can we bring these two things [size and intimacy] together?"
Is size the limit?

While impressive efforts are being made to fulfil the size requirements of owners with creativity and character, it certainly imposes limitations. As stadiums have become more like complex engineering projects in scale, the number of practices willing to try their hand has decreased, and some argue that artistic range has diminished. Populous pioneered the idea of bringing back the old-style baseball stadium, and has designed or upgraded 18 of the 30 Major League venues in the US over the past three decades. Yet, in the eyes of some critics, what started as an interesting idea became tired through overuse.

"It's not quite right to credit or blame Populous for the trend. As the firm's architects insist, they work in the service of their clients and, for the past 20 years, their clients mostly wanted retro ballparks," wrote The New Yorker's Reeves Wiedeman in 2012, "but they certainly enabled it."

Witold Rybczinski also believes that today's stadiums compare unfavourably with some older counterparts. The Olympic Stadium in Munich, designed by Frei Otto, was not only visually unique but materially significant to the architectural canon, demonstrating that acrylic glass and steel canopies could be used on a large scale. While many modern stadiums are breathtaking, atmospheric places to witness sport, they are unlikely to feature in an architectural best-of list in 50 years' time.

"It's worth mentioning the contrast with the early stadiums, structures by architects such as [Felix] Candella [who designed Palacio de los Disports in Mexico City]," says Rybczinski. "The buildings were very important in architecture. They explored new aspects of reinforced concrete, lightweight construction and shells. I think there is a contrast between that and today's stadiums, which, with rare exceptions, don't have much influence on architectural thinking. They are big, often clumsy structures. They have these elaborate roofs that open and close, but none of that seems very relevant to the world of architecture compared with the Frei Otto roofs in Munich."

While the short-term trend is for more of the same, there is optimism that the bigger-is-better philosophy will become less fashionable, particularly for stadiums that don't see regular use. This could have a positive effect, unleashing the creativity of designers and putting stadium architecture back at the forefront of technical innovation.

Following the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the $550-million Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha in Brasilia has been repurposed as a parking space for buses.
With its work on the Stadio della Roma, MEIS is seeking to strike a balance between size and intimacy, taking its lead from the Colloseum to create an intimidating atmosphere.
The Japanese Government’s rejection of Zaha Hadid’s $2-billion plans for the Tokyo Olympic Stadium has been painted as a watershed moment for stadium design.

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