Stadium Design: Design for Life

A stadium is the single-largest investment a rights-holder can make, so getting its design right is crucial not only to for the tenants, but also the fans. Elisha Chauhan spoke to leading architects to find out the current challenges and opportunities in designing multi-billion dollar sports stadia.


The Experts

Chris Lee
Senior Principal, Populous

Lee is senior principal of Populous’ London office and has worked on English Premier League team Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, the Arena das Dunas in Brazil and Major League Soccer team Houston Dynamo’s new stadium.

J Parrish
Principal Architect, AECOM

Parrish’s portfolio of sports stadia includes the Bird’s Nest – the Beijing National Stadium – Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena and the $1.3-billion Singapore Sports Hub.

Dipesh Patel
Director, Pattern Architects

Patel has led Pattern projects that include the Al Rayyan Stadium, a venue for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, and the recently completed Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. He was previously a director of global architect Arup Associates.


The design of sports stadia has significantly changed in the last decade, with the simple set-up of four stands and basic amenities now transformed into billion-dollar artistic structures that incorporate fine dining, executive areas and innovative technology to meet the ever-increasing expectations of the modern sports fan.

A major factor in the development of stadium design has been a move back to building new venues in the heart of cities, rather than in the outskirts, which was typically the case in the 1960s and 1970s. As a consequence, sports stadia have been catalysts for regeneration projects, which today can include investment by the rights-holder in social housing, schools and medical facilities.

The integration of stadia into the community has also triggered a change in the demographic of the average matchday-goer, with more women and families attending events, which Populous senior principal Chris Lee noted when the global architectural firm worked on English Premier League team Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, completed in 2006.

“As the fan demographic changed from football hooligans in the 1980s, with around 80-90 per cent male and under 30 years old, to a greater gender split, the stadium design changed too,” he told SportBusiness International.

“For example, when I worked on the Emirates, the toilets had high-spec finishes, which now you would think is completely standard, but before then stadia didn’t even have tiles on toilet walls. The design helped completely change the demographic and atmosphere within two seasons.”

A recent example of this integration into the community can be seen at the $1.3-billion Singapore Sports Hub, which world-renowned AECOM principal architect J Parrish worked on. The 35-hectre complex includes a national stadium, indoor stadium, aquatics centre, water sports centre, retail mall, community facilities, visitor centre and sports promenade.

Singapore Sports Hub

Parrish believes public bodies and major sports teams will follow the Singapore example over the next couple of decades.

“When I designed earlier projects like the Bird’s Nest national stadium in Beijing, it was very traditional in the sense that there was a lot of space around the venue and it was very ceremonial by having a level of grandeur that is very imposing,” he says. “However, there is now a move to do the complete opposite by clustering sports venues and other facilities together, as seen with the Singapore Sports Hub.

“This is all part of a strategy to create a district that isn’t only alive when there’s a sports event on – we now want to create and integrate stadia with communities.”

Contemporary Design

The United States is leading the way in developing all-day destinations for sports fans, one of which is being built by Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves. The Braves development, at a cost of $672 million, will cover 60 acres of Cobb County land, 15 acres of which will be used to build a 41,000-seater stadium. The rest will be used to create an entertainment complex, including shops and restaurants.

Catalan football giant Barcelona will also begin an overhaul of its iconic Nou Camp in 2017, which will integrate a new €90-million sports hall, a 7,000-seater mini-stadium, and a €30-million recreational area dubbed ‘Espai Barca’ that will include a hotel, health club, office space and retail and restaurant areas.

With stadia becoming major destinations – and to also reap a return on the investment – offerings such as restaurants and bars are increasingly being incorporated into stadia design. But with competition from local amenities outside of the facility and with a demand for high-end hospitality, rights-holders have found a need to improve on basic stand concessions.

“Over the last decade this contemporary design has increased to the point that our clients now see their competitors not as the local rival sports team, but as fine dining restaurants,” says Lee. “They are competing for the fans’ secondary spend – if they don’t have the facilities that are found on the high street, then that’s where the fans will stay pre and post games.

“When I then worked on the Emirates we brought in Michelin-star chefs Gordon Ramsay and Michel Roux Jr. to run restaurants there. Ten years ago that idea would’ve been inconceivable.

“I love designing stadia because people are so passionate about them and they genuinely care about the buildings, so as architects, our main responsibility is to create great experiences that almost stretch back to fans’ home. We’re not interesting in designing iconic monoliths that are cold and don’t have any soul or legacy – that’s just architectural vanity.”

Barcelona FC's Nou Camp project due to be completed in 2021

Dipesh Patel, co-founder and director of Pattern Architects, adds that the fan experience is so important that it is a main consideration at every stage of the design process.

“When designing a stadium my main focus is the fan experience, but at the same time, creating an amazing-looking stadium is part of that experience – the two are mutually exclusive,” he told SportBusiness International.

“Also, nobody used to go on a stadium tour, but now that’s a great source of revenue – stadia have live up to the public’s expectations.

“If you look at new stadia two decades ago, they had a structure similar to that of a warehouse, with corrugated metal and columns blocking fans’ views. Rights-holders and fans didn’t expect high standards back then.

“Historically, stadia were built stand-by-stand which could be expanded over time, but now a circular bowl is common because it is the most efficient way of getting people close to the action.”

The design of hospitality spaces has seen a move away from private boxes towards lounge areas, also driven by a more social in-stadia experience.

“Ten or 15 years ago, wealthy people wanted to be secluded in a private box with a formal setting, but the new generation wants to be surrounded by people in hospitality areas,” Patel says. “In sports stadia, the days of old gentlemen’s clubs are over, the era of trendy bars has begun.”

Finding a Balance

The growing amount of facilities within a stadium, and with today’s focus on sustainability and the environment, architects are challenged to think of ways in which to design efficient spaces.

“We have a responsibility as architects to make stadia as sustainable as possible. The main stadium at the Singapore Sports Hub has less than 9,000-tonnes of steel, which is remarkable considering it’s the world’s biggest dome and has a retractable roof,” says Parrish.

“Stadia are getting bigger per person in terms of area – it used to be around 1.7-square-metres per person and now we’re into nearly 3.5-square-metres per person,” adds Patel. “All these things add to the cost, and unfortunately there are very few areas of innovation that helps to reduce costs.”

One feature that has recently been brought to the industry’s attention is temperature control in stadia, particularly given the technology outlined in Qatar’s ultimately successful bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Populous’ vision for Mexican football club CF Monterrey’s new stadium, which is scheduled to be completed by June 2015, uses off-peak electricity to make huge ice stores overnight that then cools the venue on event days instead of air-conditioning.

Estadio de Futbol Monterrey – Populous

“The sensible trend in stadia design is looking at legacy and making these stadia more sustainable and environmentally-friendly,” says Lee. “When you look at Qatar, they’re committed to producing a carbon-free 2022 FIFA World Cup. Solar and wind-generated power have also had a big impact.”

“There’s been a change – which started with us designing the Singapore Sports Hub – in looking more at the environment and spectator comfort,” adds Parrish. “That then led to what we call boundary-layer cooling where you just cool the spectator area, which had been done before but never in an open-air building. The lesson from that has now been applied to projects in the Middle East.”

As discussed, a large part of sustainability is legacy, which is difficult to justify in many sports stadia as their use is limited to around 30 days a year when factoring in home league and cup fixtures and one-off or exhibition events. Lee says architects are very conscious of this fact, and so feel pressured to design stadia that blend into their environment, even when they aren’t being used.

“You can look back to Olympic stadia from the 1950s – they are considered ‘iconic’ buildings but have terrible legacies or none at all. That’s the bit that I find most disturbing in this industry – especially considering the venues can cost billions of dollars. 

“If there’s a biggest challenge, it’s designing stadia for major, one-off sports events. The London Olympic Stadium, for example, was made for a three-week long event and the stadium itself was only partially used during that time, so you have to approach design from the entirely opposite angle – what’s the final outcome, what’s the building design that’s going to be retained for the next 30 years, and how do you overlay it for the Games? They have to be retrofitted for the Olympics.”

The ‘Iconic’ Brief

When given a brief to design a stadium, the first thing that rights-holders request is to creaate an ‘iconic’ stadium, according to our architects. But what does that actually mean to them?

The one thing all three architects agree on is that capacity is in no way related to their ability to create an ‘iconic’ stadium.

Patel believes that designing a single standout feature that makes a stadium instantly recognisable is the key to it becoming iconic. 

“Stadia need to look unique,” he says. “Wembley Stadium, for example, is recognisable through its arch, and before that, its towers. You need to make sure that a stadium doesn’t look like it could be anywhere in the world. We try to create stadia that are relevant by reflecting the local culture and environment.”

However, Parrish says that this is a very difficult task to fulfil given that over time standout features become slightly more subtle as other venues inevitably include something similar.

“When I think about iconic stadia, they are not necessarily architecturally brilliant,” adds Lee. “The venue I’m most fond of is the Maracanã Stadium in Rio, which from a technical perspective isn’t a great building, but there’s something about its atmosphere that is actually quite incredible.”

The trouble with trying to differentiate the design of stadium from the thousands of stadia all over the world is a move towards style over substance that, given the huge investment required, can impede on sustainability and in some cases, according to Parrish, can lock architects it into a design that can make renovations further down the line tricky.

Maracanã Stadium – Getty Images Sport

Public Power

Lee explains that the perfect stadium design is created through a mediation and balance of opposing requirements from stakeholders, which are normally the government, the rights-holder and the public.

However, this appeasement policy is what Parrish believes makes stadium design so rewarding: “When designing a stadium, you have to take everything and every stakeholder into account – that’s the challenge and what makes this industry so intriguing. It’s like a hugely complex jigsaw.

“We have to remember that a stadium is the client’s and the community’s area, so a proper approach to stadium design balances and integrates the needs of all stakeholders.”

“The most expensive buildings tend to make the most money, like skyscrapers in a business district. But with stadia, it’s a balancing act between capital expenditure and return on investment,” adds Patel.

“With the new Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Canada – which we’re currently working on – there’s been a question of why we’re spending taxpayers’ money, which happens with a lot of similar projects. There’s been a small but vocal opposition, but we just had to work with the city and had to address public concerns.

“Even if a billionaire invested money in a new stadium, they are public buildings at the end of day as it is the fans who own the club. So if you get opposition to a design, you have to be responsible.”


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