Are sports stadiums our modern-day cathedrals?
Much like ancient times, becoming multipurpose social hubs
Architectural feats of design must capture spirit of a city
It’s a vision of biblical proportions – tens of thousands of people weeping, whooping, and chanting in unison.
If sport were a religion, then the stadium would surely be its place of worship.
Inside these temples to physical feats, language evokes the divine – fearful fans “pray for a miracle,” while losing prompts serious “soul-searching.”
So much so that architects these days must create more than a stage for human endurance.
It’s as if they have been asked to perform the architectural equivalent of feeding the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish – constructing an arena to elevate the senses, capture the spirit of a community, and become an icon for a city long after the last fan has passed through the turnstiles.
“It’s like creating a contemporary cathedral in some ways,” said Spela Videcnik, architect behind the sci-fi “spotty” Borisov Arena, home to the Belarus national football team.
“Often the stadium is meant to become the pride of a city, a landmark object, and as such, a monument representing the latest achievements in architecture.”
Since ancient Greeks built the first Olympic stadium in fine white marble, the arena has been as much about inspiring awe, as staging competition.
Today’s architects must go even further.
Return to Roman times?
In an age where sporting events are captured on television in brilliant detail, designers must lure us from the comfort of living rooms with multipurpose entertainment centers.
No longer relegated to the outskirts of town, these modern-day social hubs are creeping inside our metropolises once more – and they have more in common with historic cathedrals than you might think.
“Look at the ancient Greek and Roman stadiums – they’re very much in the middle of the city,” said Hubert Nienhoff, veteran German architect behind the redeveloped Berlin Olympic Stadium, and Amazon Arena at this year’s World Cup in Brazil.
“But in the last 50 years, the stadium became something that was not really integrated, they were built outside the cities. They were for people who went there perhaps once a week for an event.”
While arenas like the Colosseum in the heart of Rome occupy real estate today’s architects could only dream of, we may soon see a return to centralized social spaces of old, says Nienhoff.
“Now we’re bringing in multiple uses for stadiums again, like shops and conference halls,” he said.
“In the future they will not be outside the city but, something like the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, they will be a vital part of city life.”
A key part of this vision, however, will depend on improved transport infrastructure.
“There was a trend back in the 1980s of treating stadiums a bit like shopping centers. So you’d try and put them on the edges of cities,” said architect Clive Lewis, designer behind the Singapore National Stadium and Sports Hub, and winner at this year’s World Architecture Festival award.
“But more and more it’s important to make a stadium that’s part of the city. They need to be integrated into the transport infrastructure, so they’re a naturally connected part of the city – the event should start as soon as you leave your house.”
He goes one step further with a vision of one roof to house all of humanity.
“For me, stadiums have taken over the function of a cathedral. It’s a building that brings together people of all ages, all cultures, all religions.
“And the only other thing that comes close to that is an airport.”
At the heart of an arena, both physically and spiritually, is its playing area.
And with the outcome of multimillion dollar matches riding on everything from grass quality, to the position of the sun, designers must get it pitch perfect.
Does that mean architects need to be sports fans themselves?
“Do we need to be religious to build a church? We don’t think so,” comes the reply from Berger Architects, the company behind the brilliantly illuminated Luanda Multisports Pavilion in Angola.
“Architects must be able to project themselves, and think as if they were the final users of the space they’re designing.”
And long after the grand final trophies have been handed out, an arena must serve its people for decades to come.
“Whether we’re designing for the Olympics or the World Cup, we’re always actually thinking ahead to what we’re going to do with the venue after that event,” said Lewis, whose Singapore Sports Hub hopes to hold 200 events every year.
“And I think there’s a history in recent years of relatively few examples that have done that very well.”
Perhaps the most striking example of this failure is Athens.
The Greek capital may be the home of the modern Olympics, but over a century later, its 2004 stadia has become a modern ruin of its own, with venues overgrown with weeds, walls covered in graffiti, and seating rotted away.
It’s an eye-watering death for an event which cost the country around $11 billion to host.
Step inside today’s stadiums, and you’ll find an entertainment juggernaut where fans are encouraged to dig deep into their pockets long before the first kick-off.
“Over the last 50 years corporate interests have changed stadiums more than anything else. Years ago, stadiums were just bare concrete and no seats, just bleachers,” said Lewis.
“Today, it’s a lot more about the corporate experience – the internal lounge, corporate boxes, restaurants. Which means that people are coming to the venue an hour or two before the event and not leaving for an hour or two afterwards.”
The goal for stadium owners is to create an icon for the city – one worthy of their name stamped across it in bright lights.
“The mayor asked us for something that would ‘put Durban on the map,’” says Nienhoff of the Moses Mabhiba Stadium, in Durban, built for the 2010 South African World Cup.
“If you looked at Durban from the waterside, there was nothing you could remember specifically from the skyline.”
That was before Neinhoff’s stark white arena was built on the coastline, its swooping 350 meter arched entrance and ruffled roof a sight to behold.
But before Nienhoff even puts pen to paper, one of the first places he looks for inspiration is nature.
With its reptilian façade, the Amazon Arena, built in Manaus for the World up in Brazil this year, borrows much from the surrounding jungle.
“If you look into the structures of nature like a leaf, or the skin of a snake, there’s always a logical system behind it,” explained Nienhoff.
“Manaus is in the middle of a rainforest, so that’s where we turned for inspiration. We’re really trying to design something that’s only meant for this one place.”
Like nature itself, these modern day temples of pleasure will also need to regenerate themselves, in order to survive.