Stadium gigs

22 January 2020

Sports venues are being created with unprecedented ambition as their design becomes a specialist architectural discipline in its own right. From facilitating urban regeneration to drawing upon local culture and history, client and end-user demands are myriad and often emotionally charged. Will Moffitt speaks to Aecom Sports’ Jon Niemuth, Maria Knutsson-Hall of Populous and Jan Ammundsen, head of design at 3XN, about the issues shaping this fast-changing field.

Sleep Train Arena started and finished with a circus.

Located on the northern outskirts of Sacramento, California, the stadium was constructed in 1988 by architect Rann Haight for $40 million. A squat concrete rectangle named after a local mattress firm, Sleep Train was home to the local basketball team, the Sacramento Kings, before it let the clowns back in for a parting show in December 2016.

Further downtown lies the Kings’ new home, the shimmering Golden 1 Center, a smooth octagonal blend of concrete, steel and glass, with a north-facing curtain wall funnelling the cities delta breeze through a solar-powered interior.

The Kings’ transition, from the outskirts to the city centre, from concrete block to blockbuster venue, was managed in part by John Niemuth, director of Aecom Sports. Sleep Train, Niemuth says, is a relic of a bygone era: a time when stadiums were isolated forms, designed to house as many spectators as possible until the shriek of the final whistle, at which point they left to continue the party elsewhere.

“Sleep Train is one of those classic 90s arenas. It’s inwardly focused, it’s brutalist. It’s a dark concrete box fit for purpose, but it doesn't interact with the community, it doesn't engage its surroundings,” Niemuth says. “When you are inside that building you could be on Mars.”

Buoyed by what Niemuth describes as a “cultural evolution in the broadest possible sense”, stadium design has moved to a different planet entirely, with today’s designers seeking to create visually exciting venues that transcend sporting function and interact with their surroundings.

“Stadium design is now an art in its own right,” Niemuth says. “It has gone from being a technical profession to a design profession. If you go back 25 years, [these venues] were technical solutions, but they weren't particularly beautiful… in a lot of cases they were really bad buildings.”

Growing up in the 1980s, Niemuth always wanted to do big, ambitious projects, but sports design was never on his radar.

“It wasn't really a thing when I went to college,” he says. “It existed, but it wasn't something that people talked about. Now it is a profession and people go to school to specifically practice sports design.”

As Niemuth knows only too well, a great deal has changed since then. A series of high-profile sporting events, notably the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, have birthed venues with more expressive and elegant forms, arguably most notably realised by Herzog & de Muron’s Beijing National Stadium, The Bird’s Nest, which served as a visual manifestation of China’s arrival as a global superpower.

Despite Aecom losing out to that particular commission, Niemuth sees Herzog & de Meuron’s design, with interlocking rows of twisted steel, as an example of how symbolic and effecting stadium architecture can be. “It transcended its physical existence and became embedded in our culture,” he says. “Even people who don’t know about architecture know that is The Bird's Nest.”

A different ball game

Qatar’s 2022 World Cup will give designers another chance to make an impression, with the construction of Zaha Hadid’s Al Wakrah Stadium, and the 80,000-seater Lusail Stadium designed by Foster + Partners well under way.

Meanwhile, with swelling investment and global appeal, the Premier League remains an attractive, albeit challenging opportunity for stadium architects, with owners demanding venues that can generate a lively, bombastic atmosphere for core fans as well as facilitating luxurious hospitality experiences.

Rising from the rubble of White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is billed as a giant leap forward, not only for the club, but the surrounding area. It is a venue being sold as many things – more modern than Wembley, sleeker than the Etihad, and, crucially, larger and more atmospheric than that of their North London rivals Arsenal.

Like lots of modern venues, it is defined by a yin and yang-like tussle between corporatism and old-fashioned fandom, a conflict that stadium curator Populous sought to balance by creating a ‘new arena with traditional values’.

Raise the volume

For project designer Maria Knutsson- Hall, Tottenham was a five-year mission that began with an aim to give fans a voice; a move not only designed to win over the North London faithful, but one that fits into a growing philosophy in arena design for atmosphere creation. After all, with most live sporting events available in super HD, “modern stadiums need to elevate the match day experience”, Knutsson-Hall says.

To amplify home support, Populous worked with leading sound technicians, and looked to Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park for inspiration, a stadium famed for its 25,000-capacity south terrace that produces a cacophonic wall of noise.

“Dortmund are famous for their ‘yellow wall’, for the steepness of that tier and the way it is uninterrupted without any breaks – it was something that we wanted to bring to this modern stadium,” Knutsson-Hall says. “We looked at that idea of not breaking the general spectator tier with hospitality or VIP that has been done in recent decades.”

The end result is a multipurpose stadium modelled on a traditional bowl shape, tightly packed with four stands clustered around this 17,500-capacity tier rising upwards into the rafters.

A new ground characterised by two overarching themes: a desire to ensure the stadium is an attractive proposition beyond the 90-minute mark, coupled with a move to cater for a variety of concerts and other sports. Both, Knutsson-Hall says, exemplify a broader shift in modern stadium architecture.

“Spectators used to go to the pub beforehand, and after the game they would just go home,” Knutsson-Hall says. “We tried to create spaces in the stadium that you want to come to before and after the event.”

Diversify and fill all niches

Jan Ammundsen, head of design at 3XN, believes that the era of stadiums showing a singular sport is fading; instead, the next generation of venues will have to be more accommodating.

“These days, flexibility is crucial in arenas,” Ammundsen says. “It is about making sure that you have lots of different activities going on. For me that is a way to be more sustainable.” These virtues are evident in Ammundsen’s latest project, the earthy, organic SAP Garden arena built on the site of Frei Otto and Günther Behnisch’s 1972 Olympiapark in Munich. This fluid, oval structure with a sloping grass roof has stayed true to Otto and Behnisch’s vision for creating a structure that subtly blends into the landscape.

Opening in 2021, it will house local ice hockey team Munich Red Bulls and basketball outfit FC Bayern Munich; a sports facility that is both functional and playful, a forward-looking multipurpose arena faithful to the layers of history that surround it.

“I now have a lot of clients that see the value of these arenas being more than just square metres or the amount of people that you put inside them,” Ammundsen says. “I guess these buildings are now allowed to have their own identity.”

For Knutsson-Hall, this identity, wrapped up in the unique histories of a location, is something that needs be carefully considered. Thinking about how these vast projects can better interact with their environment, and become more sustainable, is a theme that first drew her to them. By building stadiums in more densely populated areas, they can serve as catalysts for regeneration.

“Creating more sustainable buildings will completely transform how we work in the next 10 years,” Knutsson-Hall says. “Technology is also changing how we can communicate with the fans and how they experience these buildings. I think we are going to see more things complementing the game, because the next generation is so digitally involved.”

With new technologies, such as holographic representation and 360° video walls in development, Niemuth warns that, particularly in the NFL, a technology arms race could be imminent. “An arms race is only fun if you can buy the arms,” he says.

What is more important is that architects and stadium designers continue to focus on the essentials – building functional, atmospheric and visually appealing sports arenas that can safely handle large volumes of people.

“It is not a profession that has reached its pinnacle yet. I still think we are struggling to figure it out,” Niemuth says. “But, now that cities and buildings have a better dialogue, it’s a more exciting time.” 

Golden 1 Center, Sacremento: A $558.2 million investment, this palatial stadium is the new home of the Sacramento Kings.
Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London: The 62,062-capacity ground sets a new standard for stadium design.
Tottenham Hotspur Stadium: This project was a five-year mission for project designer Maria Knutsson-Hall.
SAP Garden, Munich: This multipurpose arena will house local ice hockey and basketball matches.
SAP Garden: Opening in 2021, the building is a fresh realisation of Otto and Behnisch's original vision.

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