It’s boomtime for sporting architecture. More money is being spent on sporting venues than at any time: £600 million on a new home for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, £750 million on a new stadium at White Hart Lane for Tottenham Hotspur — and all this only a few years after the UK hosted the Olympics (£486 million for the London Stadium) and built a new home for the national game at Wembley (£800 million). Across the world, billions are being spent on stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the summer Olympics in Toyko and the NFL in America.Many of these stadiums are mindblowing in their design and facilities, and offer a level of luxury undreamt of in the not-so-distant days of terraces, pies and home-grown owners. The new 61,000-capacity Tottenham stadium, finished next year, features “a tunnel club”, so that well-heeled punters can watch the players preparing to emerge on to the pitch, a “skywalk” to allow fans to clamber over the roof, and even a microbrewery on site.Outside, a food court aims to harness the culinary skills of a diverse local population before visiting football enthusiasts arrive at their heated seats with built-in USB ports. Or how about joining the “H Club’’, which offers Michelin-calibre dining and the opportunity to store your own vintage wine or cognac for the day a club legend drops by? Not convinced it’s worth £30,000 a year for two? Try the virtual reality tour and you might be.
The Tottenham stadium, designed by Populous (the architects behind the redevelopment of the Warner Stand at Lord’s cricket ground), is one of the most technically advanced in the world, but the architect, Chris Lee, is already dreaming of weirder and even more wonderful things. He has tried integrating a hotel with a stadium (for MK Dons in Milton Keynes) with the rooms opening on to the pitch — for those times you really want to see the game but can’t pull yourself out of bed — installed a nightclub at the top end of the Paris Saint-Germain ground and a swimming pool at the home of the Jacksonville Jaguars in Florida, including a poolside bar.And he’s just getting warmed up. He foresees a day when stadiums function as self-sustaining mini-cities, with their own wind turbines, vegetable patches for restaurants and server farms for digital entertainment. The venue would not just be limited to sporting entertainment of a single variety, either: drone racing, already popular in the Middle East, and video gaming on a large scale, popular in South Korea, are expected to feature heavily, while the area outside could be quickly reconfigured for water sports or facilities for the local community.
His Tottenham stadium already makes use of retractable pitches — so that an NFL match can be hosted on AstroTurf in the middle of a Premier League season contested on real grass, say — and for Lee, versatility is key. “If you’re spending all this money on a stadium, you want it to be in constant use,” he says. “It’s about getting the best possible return from your asset. There are some venues, such as Wimbledon, that are only ever going to be associated with one sport and are comfortable in their identity, but for the rest, there’s no reason why they can’t be hosting a range of sports and other entertainment too.”
He reveals that the London Stadium, which he designed for the 2012 Olympics, not only holds athletics meetings and West Ham United’s home fixtures, but will soon try cricket for size. One concept he is working on is for a foldaway, transportable venue for one-off events. He has his limits, though. “The weirdest thing I think I ever saw was a guy using the top tier of the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro [a world-famous football stadium] as a garage to work on his VW Beetle. God knows how he got it up there.”That flexibility is built into one of the latest projects by the architect HOK, a $1.6 billion home for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons in Georgia, which opens next month. The Mercedes-Benz Stadium has an innovative retractable roof that closes like the shutter on a camera lens and a huge 360-degree HD screen just below it. As well as American football, it is expected to host big-name boxing bouts and blockbusting pop performances. There are even plans to share the 71,000-seat space with Atlanta United, a soccer team, now that football is fast growing in importance in the land of baseball, basketball and gridiron.
While the unprecedented global boom in stadium construction is partly derived from the need to boost match-day revenue — even Liverpool felt the need to up Anfield’s capacity and completed a huge new stand in September, taking the capacity to 54,000 — for John Rhodes, of HOK, the revolution in their design is being driven by something much closer to home. “We’re definitely engaged in a competition with the home entertainment system,” he says. “So we need to offer something that you can’t get at home on your HD set. For us, it’s all about enhancing the experience of being there.”A keen rugby player, Rhodes was lucky enough to witness Jonny Wilkinson’s World Cup winning dropped goal in 2003 in person and relates how time seemed to stand still before the cheers and applause broke the spell. “That’s the sort of thing you don’t get by watching at home.”
Taking rugby as an example, he outlines how more information might enhance the spectator’s experience: footage from body cams showing every crunching tackle, explanations of penalty decisions on smartphones and seat-back screens and data projected straight on to the pitch. He argues that this might help to motivate teams as well. “If you can see the gainline [beyond which you’re gaining territory] lit up on the pitch just in front of you, wouldn’t that give you an extra spur to get over it?”At Atlanta the seating is flexible, allowing the stadium to be rapidly reconfigured for different events, and one of the ideas he’s toying with, perhaps counterintuitively, is removing whole sections to allow spectators to get closer to the action. “If most of the drama is happening in the 22 [the area near to the tryline], why not create a space for people to stand right next to it?”A keen student of psychology, he cites Dunbar’s Number as an influence — the theory that humans can maintain only 150 stable relationships at one time. One idea is to break the stands into sections accommodating 150 people, almost like a series of tiles, to facilitate social interactions. And also to make it far easier for the drones to deliver food and beverages to the right place — something he confidently predicts will be commonplace within the next ten years.
Given the amount of investment and the fierce competition between sports and teams, it’s perhaps no surprise that architects are being given free rein to pursue their wildest imaginings: translucent walkways over the action 100ft below, hyperloop platforms for when the revolutionary new transport technology emerges, even holographic facsimiles of the action for supporters in different countries to bond over — after all, Manchester United claim to have 659 million fans, and they can’t all fit into Old Trafford.However, on one thing they agree: technology can enhance the experience of watching an event in person, but it will never entirely replace it. For the best part of three millennia, since Olympic athletes battled at Delphi for the first time, people have gathered to watch astounding feats of athleticism, as much for the feeling of being part of a community as any other.“The fundamentals haven’t really changed since the days of Vespasian,” Lee says. “The social bit hasn’t changed — the idea of being part of a crowd and enjoying a shared experience. The flatscreen isn’t going to replace that. There’s something magical about being part of 10,000 or 100,000 witnessing an amazing feat. It’s irreplaceable.“We crave this idea of being connected to other humans and in a world where we seem to be searching for divisions, being part of a crowd is really special. You don’t get that anywhere else in daily life. And that’s what makes these buildings special too, quite apart from all the technology.”