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.

Science and art: Today’s football homes

ONE of the notable features of the 2018 World Cup has been the stadiums, many of which were completed just a few months before the competition got underway. Most are new constructions, with the most expensive being St. Petersburg, coming in at around USD 1.5 bn.

Any nation that wins the right to stage a major sporting event has to undergo an overhaul of its facilities, not just to accommodate the thousands of people visiting that country but also to ensure the event has the right look-and-feel about it. It’s also about prestige, promotion and muscle-flexing.

Stadiums have also become more important to the growth of club football, with the popularity of the game and the creation of a “bulge bracket” of clubs making increased capacity a necessity. Hence, clubs like Arsenal, Tottenham and, until recently Chelsea, have embarked on projects to move, rebuild or relocate their homes. Matchday income is so essential that being restricted to 40,000 people is a big disadvantage in the age of the “uber club”.

Nevertheless, today the creation of a new stadium is no longer the “build it high, build it big” philosophy that characterised many past projects. Stadium developers and architects are starting to appreciate the value of the aesthetic as well as the influence of human behaviour, environmental issues and the commercial value of creating something that makes people feel good. “Fans who have a great experience spend more money in and around a stadium,” said Matthew Birchall of BuroHappold at a recent Football Forum hosted by Brand Finance in London.

Football in Britain, in the post-Hillsborough world, has undergone a dramatic refurbishment of its spectator facilities, although in the main, these still trail behind many countries, such as the United States, where fan spend dwarfs the amount of cash spent by British fans. Moreover, the big complaint about new grounds, such as Arsenal’s Emirates, is the lack of atmosphere. This is partly due to the all-seater regime that now exists, although moves to bring back so-called “safe standing” have genuine momentum. “It’s proven that people who stand-up make more noise, because sitting down puts more pressure on the diaphragm,” said Birchall.

New designs are now factoring in safe-standing areas, indeed many grounds in Germany (Borussia Dortmund is an excellent example) already reap the benefits of standing areas.

The current World Cup has produced some very good, eye-catching arenas, but the European Championship of 2016 also demonstrated that architects and football were coming together in a more creative way. The Bordeaux stadium,  Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, is arguably one of the most beautiful sporting venues in the world. This is football stadium as notable building, not just a place to play football. It is striking and visually pleasing on the eye. It was designed by renowned Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, who also built Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena and were earmarked to take care of Chelsea’s new home until the project was put on ice.

Given the influence of football on social history, it was perhaps surprising that, for many years, only one ground appeared in Pevsner’s Buildings of England, Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium. This is a reflection of a lack of understanding of the community value of a football club as well as the dismissal of football as a pastime that belonged to the masses just as much as places of worship. This has undoubtedly changed in recent years, the demographic is no longer white, working-class males, and some of the new venues being built to replace old inner-city, hemmed-in stadiums, will surely be recognised as valuable social edifices.

But do the new stadiums facilitate home advantage? In the past, places like Anfield, Goodison Park and Old Trafford were seen as fortresses where away teams would turn up for “a cup of tea and a good hiding”. Manchester United are unlikely to move from Old Trafford given the club has increased its capacity to 75,000 but Liverpool and Everton have probably outgrown their ancestral homes. Is it possible to design and build a stadium that creates invincibility? With the British football experience no longer as ferocious as it once was, and crowds becoming more sanitised, the concept of an intimidating home crowd is less achievable. Home advantage was based on familiarity with facilities (away dressing rooms were invariably less plush and away ends for spectators more spartan), familiarity with the playing surface (mud at the Baseball Ground and Upton Park etc), partisan supporters and tactical prowess. According to Birchall, home advantage amounts to around 9.5 points per season, but with many stadiums looking very similar and playing surfaces so highly engineered, perhaps that advantage is gradually being eroded.

New stadiums sometimes have bedding-in problems, such as West Ham’s move, which has increased attendances but on the field of play, has been sub-optimal. Furthermore, the fans are very unhappy about the transition from an urban stadium where the pitch was remarkably close to the action.

Clearly, the old between-the-wars model of football ground in the heart of the backstreets had to change to allow creation of scale in the modern game, but in West Ham’s case, something is definitely missing. They will have to find a remedy, though, for the club is there for the next 100 years!

As Birchall said, however, stadium development has taken on a more scientific angle, largely due to greater awareness of the benefit of atmosphere – “stadiums are desolate places without people in them” – which underlines why they were built in the first place, to provide spectator comfort while people enjoyed the beautiful game. Today, we no longer want to stand on crumbling terraces, will not tolerate lavatories overflowing with urine and refuse to consume food that would struggle to pass health and safety regulations. We are at a better place than we were in the 1980s and 1990s. The football ground should be more than an underused building that is inconveniently pushed to the less desirable part of town, it is the public face of the world’s favourite pastime and as such, should be something that people are proud to be associated with.