Stadiums: Learning to love the brutal building

APPARENTLY, the architectural style “brutalist” is making a comeback and people are reassessing a much-maligned school of design. Football fans, generally, are nostalgists, so the older the better as far as most are concerned. The favoured materials, for years and years, have invariably been corrugated metal and wood. Concrete, all function over form and strictly utilitarian, is a substance few people warm to.  

When I first went to the Camp Nou, over 20 years ago, I walked out onto the arena and was quite underwhelmed. “It’s a concrete bowl,” was my reaction. Brutalist in places, there didn’t seem to be anything remarkable about the Barca ground other than sheer size and the fact it was almost totally open to the elements. This underlined the belief that what really makes a stadium is the people in it, not the leaky barn-like stands that litter you with rust. 

The same observation could be said about some of the world’s greatest and most fabled stadiums – the Maracana was a vast brutalist bowl that was all about making the world’s biggest football ground and sending a signal to the world that Brazil, in 1950, was a modern, go-ahead country. Yet it was concrete and people actually sat on the steps, there were no seats as such. Luckily, Brazil has never been a wet night in Stoke-on-Trent. 

Having worked in the City of London and in the midst of the ultra-brutalist Barbican complex, I had a close-up of the buildings and grew to appreciate and like them. The post-WW2 world wanted to embrace modernity and shortly after 1945, the space-age (whoever uses that term any more?) was upon us. Concrete, which had been widely adopted in the 1930s, had a poor image, one with damp stains and plagued with erosion. Certainly, some of the art-deco inspired constructions from the pre-war era had not aged well.

However, the boldness  of some of the designs created some spectacular, if often derided, buildings around the world. In Britain, a lot of social housing developments were created, some not very attractive at all and a lack of care and attention to detail caused them huge problems. I also worked opposite one in the Russell Square area of London, the Brunswick Centre, which still looks very imposing after undergoing a major refurbishment and you can now buy a small apartment for a cool £ 700,000!!

The Maracana doesn’t look like it used to, but the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, which was seen as modernity encapsulated when it hosted the 1968 Olympics and 1970 World Cup, still has some brutalist glory about it. The San Siro, which I used to refer to as a giant multi-storey car park, also has unashamed brutalist features. In fact, only when I visited the stadium itself did I fully appreciate just how unique it is.

They’re not all about the distant past, these brutalist football arenas. The Estadio Monumental in Lima, opened in 2000, is one of the most notable of recently-constructed stadiums. It is not only Peru’s largest ground, but also South America’s biggest. One of the best examples is Sporting Braga’s Municipal Stadium, which won awards for its design and was literally built in a quarry. This is one of the most spectacular stadiums in Europe thanks to the wall of rock behind one goal.

The communist era of the Soviet Union and other eastern bloc nations gave us the socialist concrete bowls, most of which have passed into history. From Poland, the enormous Stadion Dziesięciolecia was the most imposing and startling and had an eerie history as it was built with the rubble from wartime Warsaw. Opened in 1955, the English name was the 10th Anniversary Stadium. It was eventually abandoned and became a flea market.

Such stadiums in eastern Europe must have been a challenge for the fans, though. They’re arguably more suited to warmer climes where the sun can bounce off the concrete. And, for some strange reason, very few had any cover – in countries where the winter can be harsh.

To be frank, though, spectator comfort has never been a priority, even in the most expensive of football grounds. Most roofs were pitched in such a way that the first dozen rows still got wet in the rain, which has as much to do with the angle of seating as it does the top of the ground. And the temperature – there’s one thing worse than standing in the cold and that’s sitting in the cold. Occasionally, you read of plans to have warm air pumped around a ground (Chelsea’s infamous East Stand, the one that almost caused their demise in the mid-1970s, was originally planned to have such a luxury), but it has never really been on the agenda.

No, the football experience still requires a test of endurance, especially on cold midweeks. I recall trying to write a report at a game once and my hands were so cold I simply couldn’t hold my pen. Now that’s what I call a brutal experience, especially when you have to file 500 words on the whistle in an ice-bound stadium!


This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine. Reproduced with permission.

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