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Home » Speakers' Corner

Can sports stadia be considered great architecture?

Submitted by on March 16, 2011 – 11:42 pm11 Comments
Gloomy shot!

Gloomy shot!

Guest post by James Butterworth

This week the Leeds Society of Architects had a tour around the latest development at Headingly Stadium, The Carnegie Pavilion, designed by renowned Architect Will Alsop during his time at Alsop Sparch Architects. As an architect, fan of sport and a proud Yorkshire man I was looking forward to this behind the scenes tour.

The building itself is actually dual purpose, it is owned by Leeds Metropolitan University who use it during the academic year for lectures, classrooms & offices while during the summer months it is used by Yorkshire Cricket Club for match day facilities including team changing, media rooms & hospitality.

But can this £21m building been seen as great architecture? From the street it looks like nothing else in Headingley, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. The cricket ground has been an important part of the area for over 100 years and so should it not be able to stand out? The building is wrapped in large green triangular cladding panels creating an irregular form. Disappointingly it does not relate to the function inside but equally does not create a striking sculptural form. I don’t wholly dislike this as it is nice to see something different, but it leaves me wanting more. There are some panels omitted and used for windows which from the outside look interesting but from the inside are highly impractical, and look strange in the corner of classrooms.

From the pitch side it fails to impress more, but this is understandable to a point due to the practical requirements and regulations required in stadium design. It looks disjointed in its approach, the triangular green cladding wraps around the sides and roof but does not sit comfortably with the raked glazing of the media areas / classroom. There is a large central lecture theatre cum media room that projects outwards giving great views of the pitch, although not the boundary which is a major issue for commentators! It does add some interest to the elevation but adds another language to an already confused building.

The internals of the building are pleasant enough but nothing groundbreaking; white walls, plain carpets and neutral furniture with some areas of exposed structure. The only room worth commenting on is the chairman’s lounge that was decorated outside of the main design contract for a reportedly very large sum. This room is difficult to describe as there is so much going on with clashing lightshades, gold fabric panels next to timber panels on the walls, white sofas, illuminated images of cricketers and back lit bar area. To see it is to believe it!

So can stadia produce great architecture? Well yes it can, the “Birds Nest” Olympic stadium at Beijing and the media centre stand at Lords Cricket ground are fine examples. The Carnegie Pavilion is not a bad building but at over £20m from a big name architect I’d expect a bit better. However anyone going to watch the cricket will enjoy the view and updated facilities, it also means Headingley is able to hold international matches in the future which is good for Leeds.

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  • “Can sports stadia be considered great architecture?” is a question already answered by almost 3000 years of architectural design. Almost every structure’s architectural value is informed by the practical consideration of its use; the restrictions imposed on the designers of sports stadia are no more insurmountable as those imposed on the designers of residential buildings. Why would sports stadia not be eligible to be considered examples of great architecture?

    By all means debate whether a specific stadium can be considered great architecture, but don’t question the architectural value of stadia in general when people have been designing these buildings for centuries. The Colosseum was completed in 80AD.

    • Adam thank you for your comment.

      Having designed both sports stadia & residential buildings (amongst other builing types) I would argue that the regulations for the viewing areas of sports stadia are more restrictive than most, primarily for the safety of large numbers of people in a relatively small area, and also for commercial reasons. However this does not mean that the rear of the statium should lack thought. Headingley does try but in my opinion falls short.

      I agree of course there are many examples of sports stadia being great architecture, as I mentioned. Maybe what I should have said is why are so many of them not? But this could also be debated for any building type!

  • Mike T Williams says:

    What sports stadia and residential buildings have you designed exactly? This is a design from a globally respected architect…who coincidently has won many awards. What makes you qualified to dismiss so outrightly?

  • Is James’s background really important? Architecture isn’t for architects, it’s for all of us. I have no qualifications in the industry but feel qualified to share my views on the Carnegie Pavilion as someone who uses the building.

    James – obviously the regulations are more restrictive, but given the technology that can be brought to bear on these projects I don’t believe that the engineering challenges are any more insurmountable. Insurmountable was the word, not restrictive.

    Why aren’t they more good stadia? Surely it’s down to economics; I imagine the most restrictive aspect of stadia design and engineering is cost. Can you imagine a Premier League chairman choosing a ambitious design over a simple, uninspiring one, aware of the myriad design problems and subsequent scheduling and cost implications that will result?

    I think whoever commissioned the pavilion should be given credit for assuming the risk associated with such a project, even though I’m not entirely sure that I like the design either, particularly the cladding viewed from the rear as you mention.

    Braga’s Municipal Stadium in Portugal is my favourite stadium design; completely unique and very beautiful.

  • Ben McKenna says:

    Good call on the Braga stadium, Adam. Probably the best of a pretty poor bunch of modern stadia.

    Several great stadiums spring to mind for me, first among them would be Munich’s old Olympic Stadium, built into a hill and one third covered with a sort of stained glass spiderweb roof. Gorgeous.

    Also, Highbury was rather beautiful in its day with marble halls and panelled corridors. Both East and West Stands were listed and most of their Art Deco details have been carried over to its new incarnation as apartments. For entirely different reasons there is also La Bonbonera in Buenos Aires, a shambolic mess of a stadium that is strangely beautiful.

    The less said about the modern efforts, largely cookie cutter designs by firms like HOK, the better.

  • Mike T Williams says:

    I believe his background is important. He mentions that he has designed stadia in the past, so would be keen to see how he has translated regulations, budgets, timescales etc into creating a “striking sculptural form”.

    PS: By “qualifications” I was not stipulating this as an academic form.

    • Mike

      I’m sorry you seem to have taken offense from my review.

      As Adam mentioned buildings are for everyone you don’t have to be a successful architect to form an opinion.

      I don’t think Culture Vulture is the best place to go through my architectural CV but if you would like to contact me separately I would be happy to talk to you further on the matter.

  • The Braga is great and I’m a big fan of Munich’s old Olympic Stadium. A few others I like are:

    The Aveiro municipal stadium in Portugal. Great bold use of colour

    The World Games Stadium in Taiwan. The largest solar-powered stadium in the world

    The Birds nest Stadium in Beijing. Unique structural design

    Unfortunately most designs are hindered by financial restrictions more than anything else but also sometimes by the planners. Have you seen Ireland’s new rugby stadium? 50,000 capacity and only 14 rows of seats at one end!

  • I’m from Well Met Conferencing and the conferencing team here book out the conferencing space at Carnegie Pavilion. It is fantastic to read how passionate everyone here is about the Pavilion. I think it’s a great addition to the Headingley skyline and a superb space for all kinds of events but then I would say that.

    If anyone wants to find out for themselves and get a show round of the conferencing and event facilities the Carnegie Pavilion has to offer please contact the Well Met Conferencing Team on 0113 812 8555 or visit our website for more information.

  • Liam says:

    Adam- well done, architecture IS for everyone. That is the whole point surely? We can debate architecture and buildings from a professional standpoint until the cows come home but 99.9% of the people seeing and judging buildings/stadia are not professionals, and they will judge what they see. I think James is right to comment on the strangeness of what might be striking architectural panels when the structure is used as a classroom also…teachers and students will not give two hoots about the professional qualifications and architectural thought behind these features- they will merely grumble. And Mike, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that worth only comes with qualifications or that having said qualifications makes you worthy. (That said, if it bothers you so much, I’m 100% sure from his post that this guy is qualified, and despite your rudeness has offered to prove it. )
    Just to throw out another angle; I’m not a sports fan myself but am always delighted to see such a large structure pleasing from the outside for those who dont care whats going on inside)

  • Nola says:

    Wow, incredible weblog format! How long have you ever been running a blog for?

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