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June 4, 2005

Crowd pleasers


Financial Times describes the evolution of stadiums, introducing the phrase "Stadiums may be the new cathedrals."

Traditional stadiums started disappearing in the US first. By the 1950s, most American families owned cars. They moved to the suburbs, and the stadiums followed them because there wasn’t enough parking in their old neighbourhoods. As fans grew richer, they also demanded more food, toilets and comfort. Stadiums had to be big, with car parks, and next to a motorway.

Jacques Herzog, the Swiss architect, sits in a leather armchair looking out over the Munich football stadium he has just built. Thin and shaven-headed, Herzog exudes nervous energy as he scours the grey stands.

In 2001 Herzog and Jacques de Meuron, his business partner and friend since kindergarten in Basle, won the Pritzker prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel. They got it mainly for their Tate Modern gallery in London, but Munich’s Allianz Arena will displace the Tate as their best-known building next year when it hosts the opening match of football’s World Cup. Hundreds of millions of people will see it. The Allianz Arena - named by the insurance group - opens with friendly matches next week. Herzog won’t be there: he is booked for the opening of an exhibition of his firm’s work at the Tate.
Today he is seeing his finished stadium for the first time. He has just marched through it in yellow helmet, raincoat and sneakers. What does he think? He sighs: “Like always, unfortunately, you discover those little things that you would have liked to have done otherwise, and that jump at your eye. But it works very well, I think.” What should he have done differently? “Let’s say, I wish I had added a bit more colour. But the people, and the illumination, that’s also an integral part of the whole thing.” When the stadium’s full, he says, you’ll hardly notice the grey stands.
Few famous architects had sullied their hands with stadiums before Herzog and de Meuron did so in Basle (for the club they support, FC Basle) and Munich. They are still building Beijing’s Olympic Stadium for the 2008 Games. All this signals a new era: stadiums are becoming keynote urban buildings, as cathedrals were in the Middle Ages and opera houses more recently. When Norman Foster’s new Wembley opens in 2006, it will be his first stadium in more than 40 years in architecture.
Months ago, in the converted villa in which he works in Basle, Herzog mused about stadiums: “This is a new issue, like museums were at some point. It was for a long time the domain of more technically oriented people. It was totally neglected. It was done with very little money. A lot of stadiums were built with pride by the community, but if you look very closely lots of things were not thought through.”

Over the past century, after many mistakes (and while Americans have approximated the ultimate baseball ground) Europeans have learned what makes the ideal football stadium. The Allianz Arena is Herzog’s attempt to build it. Some things he has got right. Some he hasn’t, because cities have changed. In sum, his attempt illuminates the nearly 3,000-year history of stadiums.
The first one, Olympia, opened in Greece in 776BC and lasted 1,145 years. The Colosseum in Rome survived about half as long, until the sixth century AD. After that people got along fine without stadiums for nearly 1,500 years, notes Simon Inglis, the great chronicler of the breed. (Few topics are so dominated by one writer, evidence of how far stadiums have been neglected.)
After the Victorians invented modern team sports, stadiums reappeared, still looking rather like the Colosseum. These English grounds were built on the cheap: barns to house the devoted. Most of the legendary ones - Old Trafford, Anfield, Highbury, Ibrox, Twickenham, Craven Cottage - were partly or wholly the work of an obscure Glaswegian architect called Archibald Leitch. When Leitch died in 1939 he seems to have had just one obituary, a brief notice by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, which didn’t mention stadiums. In a sign of what Americans call the “ballpark renaissance”, Inglis has just published a biography, Engineering Archie: Archibald Leitch - Football Ground Designer.
Leitch didn’t bother making his stadiums look good. His clients didn’t care. To quote Inglis’s maxim for stadiums: “Form follows whatever the club chairman’s builder pal from the Rotary Club could come up with at a cut-price.” Herzog, who has possibly never heard of Leitch, says: “The stadiums I love - Anfield or Old Trafford - are ugly stadiums on the outside.”
Yet Leitch created what would become Herzog’s inspiration: the traditional English stadium. The type was usually surrounded by terraced streets. To save space, its stands towered steeply from the edge of the field. There was no athletics track, because athletics didn’t pay. The stadium’s roof was cheap and simple. The great baseball grounds of the early 20th century, such as Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field, looked similar.
Comparisons between religion and soccer are overused, but European stadiums undeniably took over certain functions from the emptying cathedrals. It was increasingly in stadiums that 20th-century citizens gathered in community, sang, cried and felt part of something larger than themselves. An English stadium, says Herzog, was “the living room of a religious community”. The stadium also became the home of civic pride: the biggest and best-known building in many cities.
Traditional stadiums started disappearing in the US first. By the 1950s, most American families owned cars. They moved to the suburbs, and the stadiums followed them because there wasn’t enough parking in their old neighbourhoods. As fans grew richer, they also demanded more food, toilets and comfort. Stadiums had to be big, with car parks, and next to a motorway.
In 1988, just when everyone was sure the “urban ballparks” were dying out, a minor-league baseball team opened one in the decaying city of Buffalo. Pilot Field stood not in the suburbs but downtown. It even made reference to the old urban buildings around it, with its white brick and big arched windows. The seats were very near the foul-lines. Fans liked this “retro ballpark”, and they came in droves. Pilot Field, incidentally, was built by an architecture firm called HOK. Though little known outside sports, HOK is responsible for most extant baseball stadiums, for Sydney’s Olympic Stadium, Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, Arsenal’s future stadium and Wimbledon’s new centre court.
Pilot Field (now called Dunn Tire Park) inspired minor-league baseball teams everywhere to build retro ballparks. In 1992 the major-league Baltimore Orioles opened Camden Yards, and that settled the matter. Camden Yards, built by HOK, is downtown, in red brick, and has an asymmetrical field with real grass just like the old ballparks. At the front is a statue of local boy Babe Ruth. Fans love it, and retro ballparks have since conquered the major leagues.
In Europe, the ballpark renaissance has taken a different turn. Few European city centres have the deserted stadium-sized spaces found in downtown US. In Munich and across the continent, the new stadiums are outside town. Here too, however, architects have learned from the past. The new stadiums don’t have athletics tracks, which ruined the atmosphere by keeping fans far from the action. Football and athletics simply don’t mix.
What football fans crave in a stadium is communal emotion. Leitch’s stadiums offer it. He built perfect places for football, chiefly because he put fans near the pitch. His grounds inspired the Allianz Arena. “It’s somehow an attempt to go back to the roots of soccer,” says Herzog, “to take some of these archaic ingredients. The Shakespearean theatre, probably it was even a model for the soccer stadium in England - this closeness between the actors and crowd. If you can achieve this proximity, the people become the architecture.” The Swiss quips that the Allianz is “too good for Germany”. “I would rather have made the stadiums for Manchester United or Liverpool,” he says.
Sitting in the Allianz’s top tier, he points almost straight down towards the pitch. The stands here climb as steeply as the law allows, keeping all 66,000 fans close to the action. There’s no track: there would be little point, as football now attracts more spectators than any athletics event. The roof is simple and dark, and shuts out all but a small patch of sky, leaving fans with nothing to look at except the field. This is the traditional emotional football stadium - “the witch’s cauldron”, as the Germans call the type - taken to its extreme.
It’s a perfect place to watch football. However, it is traditional only while you are watching. The Arena’s catacombs are stuffed with restaurants and business lounges unthinkable in Leitch’s day. These novelties irritate some fans, including apparently Herzog himself. Striding through the business club, he gestures at the ceiling: “It’s gold, or goldish, referring to the Mastercard or whatever.” He accepts this corporate lacquer as inevitable. “Older versions of soccer stadiums were working-class cathedrals. Here there is no more working class: it’s a totally different public. It’s a kind of contemporary opera house. You could ask me, do I like the name Allianz Arena? No, I don’t. But this is a fact. We cannot be moral in this respect.”

The Arena’s worst breach of tradition, however, is on the outside. The stadium is in the middle of nowhere, near an industrial terrain. Herzog has hit upon a clever device to connect it to the world: during games, the stadium lights up on the outside. It will glow red when Bayern Munich play, blue for 1860 Munich, and white for Germany. But whereas in the Basle of Herzog’s childhood, cheers for a goal would resound through the surrounding neighbourhood, now even the drivers passing the Arena on the motorway won’t hear them.
The other thing lacking from the Allianz Arena are the details that, as Herzog has observed, make a stadium feel like home to the fans: a clock, a statue, the sign in Liverpool’s tunnel saying “This is Anfield”. The Allianz Arena lacks local touches, Herzog admits, partly because the stadium was built for three different home teams, and partly because the teams scarcely bothered talking to him. He explains: “Even though architecture is so visible now, soccer is still much more in the living room of the whole world, so soccer teams don’t need architecture to highlight their identity.”

As we sit in a business lounge, a familiar figure materialises on the turf below: Michael Ballack, Germany’s greatest current footballer. The script has him leading Germany to the World Cup next year. Today he is filming an advertisement. Herzog starts: “Ballack is here! It’s amazing how young they look.” Ballack, by contrast, would probably never have recognised the old gent upstairs. Stadiums may be the new cathedrals, but their architects are not yet the new footballers.

Posted by amy at June 4, 2005 10:12 AM