Pride of Place

The Financial Mail
December 2009

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“Global sporting events have always been synonymous with large-scale urban improvements. Host nations and cities "dress to impress", making themselves as appealing as possible.

The 2010 celebration is no different, with all host cities investing large amounts of money in the infrastructural upgrades that will support the anticipated hordes of football-famished fans.

The iconic status of a stadium thus inspires a form of global competition not too different from the race for the tallest building, as cities and nations try to build the mightiest, most impressive and consummately innovative ones.

The stadium as a symbol of advanced civilisation takes us back to ancient Rome and its awe-inspiring Colosseum (built in 80 AD), which proudly embodied the might of the empire. Here the extensive, and resultantly wealthy, empire would stage huge spectacles of incredible complexity.

Citizens would fill the stadium's 50 000 seats to witness gladiatorial clashes, executions, re-enactments of naval battles and extensive dramas.

The Colosseum became the point at which ordinary citizens could take part in the fruits of imperial conquest, a public monument to a powerful empire.

Though the Romans were able to construct the world's biggest stadium at the time, it was the ancient Greeks who built the first.

The original stadium at Olympia was merely a long, straight running track with space for spectators to sit along its edges.
This first Olympic stadium (built in 776 BC) played a part in inspiring the modern games. It prompted competitive stadium building as many cities across the world wrestled to host the greatest Olympic games.

One of the most notorious stadiums of the modern games was built for the 1936 event in Berlin, a starkly classical and authoritarian stadium with a repetition of massive, vertical piers around an entirely circular floor plan.

Built as a show of power, ability and advancement, the Olympische Stadium was presented as a Nazi achievement. An architecture of imposing mass, classical symbolism and an axis that alludes to a grand empire, all sought to incite Nazi nationalist fervour.

While stadiums have been icons of monumental empires, places of ritual celebration or political tools, they have almost always sought to exemplify the leading trends in architectural design of their times.

Munich's Olympic Stadium (1972) by Frei Otto and Günther Behnisch comes to mind - its extensive web of tensile fabric is stretched organically across the Olympic Park, forming the roof of the stadium as it splays outwards.

Santiago Calatrava's Athens Olympic Stadium seemed the most advanced of global stadiums, but was quickly overtaken by Munich's Alliance Arena, built by Swiss architectural studio Hertzog & De Meuron for the 2006 Fifa World Cup, with its colour-changing external skin.

The Alliance Arena's fame was short lived. However, Hertzog and De Meuron's was not - their next stadium, Beijing's "bird's nest", designed for the 2008 Olympics, was even more of an iconic success.

This stadium, colloquially named for its densely woven concrete matrix, has come to represent the pinnacle of achievement in stadium design. Its structural skin, quietly undulating form and dense simplicity make it globally recognisable.

The 2010 Fifa World Cup has given our SA cities a rare opportunity to use architecture as a catalyst for urban change.

The big three that stand out are Johannesburg's Soccer City refurbishment, Cape Town's Green Point Stadium and Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium.

When analysing Johannesburg's existing urban fabric, one of themed enclaves, tall perimeter walling, gladiatorial shopping malls and a usually vibrant economy, one would expect SA's largest stadium to be a Colosseum knock-off.

Far from it. In fact, the new Soccer City is possibly among post- apartheid SA's greatest architectural achievements.

The low, circular, seamlessly undulating form was designed by innovative SA firm Boogertman Urban Edge & Partners and its US-based partner, Populous.

Soccer City gets it right because it unassumingly disappears into the landscape, a trait completely foreign to its stadium peers.

Tiles of brown, yellow, beige and terracotta in a gradated mosaic form the skin of the building. The colours of the tiles mimic and abstract the neighbouring mine dump, and the stadium also begins to mirror the orange light that defines Johannesburg so idiosyncratically.

This rare sensitivity is far more poignant than the tacky marketing metaphors used to promote it, such as the African pot, the calabash, the kgotla (tribal meeting place), the map of Africa or the protea.

Here we have a truly Johannesburg stadium that would look out of place anywhere else: a building monumental in its honesty, unifying location (on the edge of Johannesburg and Soweto), huge 89 000 seating capacity and poetic, landscaped form.

Green Point in Cape Town, while initially shrouded in controversy, has solidified into a silent, translucent crystal, cradled by the drama of the surrounding Signal Hill landscape.

This passive, feminine stadium gently rises and falls as the lines of the tensile roof and spectator stands slowly wrap around the ovular form.

The stadium cleverly borrows an age-old architectural tool in creating quality, site-responsive spaces.

It invites the surrounding landscape in, allowing for impressive views out of the stadium while uniting the distinctive landscape with an almost equally distinctive structure.

An extensive urban park will skirt the edges of the stadium.

Green Point, while not as inimitable as Soccer City, graciously unites the mountain and the sea with an elegance often denied in current stadium design trends, which mainly seek structural complexity, façadal activity and over powering forms.

Of the three, Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium is perhaps the most charismatic. Its 100 m-high arch spans the entire length of the 70 000-seat building, creating an expressive verticality that is absent in the other, more subdued architectural forms.

The arch forms the main support for the tensile roof structure - while Green Point was also designed as a bold, white stadium with a tensile roof, it could never have been as vertically dominant as Moses Mabhida.

Green Point Stadium has to remain subservient to the landscape, while the Moses Mabhida Stadium needs to be monumental, creating the vertical drama that Cape Town already has so much of.

The Moses Mabhida Stadium has been built to become a Durban icon - the small tourist transporter built into its arch to ferry visitors to the top already speaks of its aspirations to world status.

Next year SA will march forth into the spotlight, with a collection of blazing new stadiums. For the first time in history, the country will present a significant architectural message to the world.

Each stadium brings something original to the global stadium discourse, be it absolute contextualisation, submissive femininity or strident confidence.

All successfully represent the architectural over achievement of a country that so many constantly question.”