Out of the Ballpark: The Ongoing Transformation of Stadium Design

From retractable roofs to the use of converted shipping containers, some of today’s architects are thinking way outside the box when it comes to stadium design. Ross Davies takes a look at four of the most eye-catching projects to recently emerge from the drawing board

When the ancient Greeks first conceived the idea of enclosures where locals could go and watch competitive foot-racing, they created a branch of architecture that has endured ever since.

The stadium: home of sports fans and concert-goers for centuries. In fact, some of those early Greek designs are still evident in stadia today, including U-shaped tracks and high-rising seats. The Colosseum that came after, built by the Romans in 80 AD for punters to witness bloody gladiator battles, remains rightly revered as the father of modern stadia.

But stadium design is in the midst of an overhaul – and has been for some time. The brutal- but-functional sports arenas that became ubiquitous in the 1980s and 1990s have given way to more innovative and subtle forms of architecture.

In terms of our options for digesting live events, in many ways the public – to quote Harold Macmillan – has never had it so good. It is also our insatiable demand for global competitions – think this summer’s World Cup in Russia and recent Olympics – that have driven architects to be more creative in their designs. 

Nonetheless, when undertaking stadium projects, architects have their work cut out in striking the best balance in creating a visually-stunning design that is also able to facilitate and cater to the flow of tens of thousands of people passing through the turnstiles. There is also an onus on today’s practices to incorporate greater sustainability into their design.

Below, we profile four of the most exciting and unusual projects to emerge from the drawing board of late. They range from an American football stadium with a giant, petal-styled retractable roof to a proposal to suspend a 45,000-seater sports ground above the tracks of Sydney Central Station.

Ras Abu Aboud stadium. Credit: Fenwick Iribarren Architects

Ras Abu Aboud stadium, Doha, by Fenwick Iribarren Architects

The 2022 FIFA World Cup may have drawn its fair share of criticism, but it also has attracted interest from a number of renowned practices, including Zaha Hadid Architects, Foster + Partners and Madrid-based Fenwick Iribarren Architects.

The latter has been commissioned to construct the Ras Abu Aboud Stadium, located in the downtown West Bay area of Doha. The project is notable for its use of modified steel shipping containers in its construction. This means the 40,000 stadium – set for completion in 2020 – can effectively be repurposed or dismantled and moved to a new location after the conclusion of the tournament. 

Given the fate of several sports stadiums from major tournaments in recent years, which have fallen into quick disrepair in their wake – think the white elephants of the 2004 Athens Olympics – it’s smart thinking from Fenwick Iribarren. Using adapted shipping containers also cuts down on the number of building materials required, while limiting the stadium’s carbon footprint. 

“This stadium has nothing to do with any previous stadium design we have done before,” explains the practice’s co-founder Mark Fenwick. 

“It is a totally unique design idea developed from a new concept that looks to take the idea of modularity and transportability to its extreme. The design intention for the stadium was to achieve a design which would allow the stadium to be built using standard modular containers, and to be mounted, dismounted and transported to a new venue, leaving the site totally free for a future legacy use.

“I believe the Ras Abu Aboud Stadium is a ground-breaker in respect to sustainable design for stadiums in major venues in the world.”

Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit: HOK

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, by HOK

Proof that design at its best is often a blend of the traditional and forward-thinking, the retractable roof that serves as the centrepiece of HOK’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta was “inspired by the oculus in the ancient Roman Pantheon”, says the firm.

Since opening in August 2017, the stadium has provided a new home for the city’s NFL team, the Atlanta Falcons, which now has the luxury of shutting out or letting in the elements whenever it takes to the field.

The roof is comprised of eight triangular petals – akin to a giant camera shutter – made from ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) plastic, and which are able to move backward and forward on a set of tracks so as to narrow or widen the aperture. 

While the 71,000-seater arena is one of the latest stadiums to be added to the gridiron infrastructure – it has been chosen to host the 2019 Super Bowl – the stadium is mixed-use, including public spaces for urban farming. The pitch is also shared by MLS’s Atlanta United FC.

Rainwater is collected and reused, and the building is powered by solar panels found across its roof. These sustainability features have prompted the stadium owners to apply for 

LEED Platinum certification from the US Green Building Council – a first for a US sports stadium.

Football stadium above Sydney Central Station. Credit: Bates Smart

Football stadium above Sydney Central Station, proposed by Bates Smart

Pipe dream or architecture at its most enterprising? Whichever side you fall on, Bates Smart’ recent proposal to construct a new 45,000-seater sports stadium atop Sydney’s Central Station has certainly captured the public’s attention.

According to the firm, the project would provide a golden opportunity to build a major sports stadium in a city centre, connected by every major rail line. It would also allow the city’s current main stadium, Moore Park – situated roughly 3km from the city’s main business district – to be returned to parkland. 

A sports stadium that mixes urban regeneration with greenbelt preservation? It sounds too good to be true, but the firm maintains that the project is quite feasible, with the stadium itself to be constructed on a podium over the central hub. 

The influence behind the concept? You guessed it – the Roman Colosseum.  

“The Colosseum in Rome established the concept of the stadium as a public space embedded in the fabric of the city; a monumental piece of infrastructure for public spectacle,” reads the Bates Smart brief. 

However, response to the proposal from the New South Wales government is said to have been lukewarm thus far, meaning the project’s fate remains, ahem, up in the air.

Hunebelle Stadium. Credit: SCAU architecture

Hunebelle Stadium, Paris, by SCAU

In May this year, French studio SCAU won the competition to develop and expand the existing Hunebelle Stadium, located in the Parisian suburb of Clamart, in time for the 2024 Olympic Games.

It’s not the first stadium tender to be won by the firm, which is currently also designing the 20,000 Yamoussoukro Stadium in Côte d'Ivoire, which will host fixtures at the African Cup of Nations in 2021.

However, SCAU’s vision for Clamart is best defined by one word: green. Forming an extension of the stadium’s natural surroundings – it is surrounded by woodland – in its new guise, it will boast roofs and a façade made up of dense foliage, while mirrored glass surfaces will also be incorporated to reflect both the sky and nearby forest. 

The project, set to cost an estimated €41m, will also be mixed-use, with parts of the 24,000 square metre facility converted into a bowling alley, gym and athletics hall.

Sports Design