In popular imagination, sporting spectacles such as the World Cup have become the modern equivalent of Roman circuses. Every four years, a select group of sporting gladiators assembles in pursuit of football’s highest honour. Attracting an audience of millions, it is an indisputably international affair. Nearly every country on the planet, from world superpowers to the most remote Pacific island, can boast a national soccer team, and to win the World Cup is to make history. But beyond the dramas on the pitch, perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the FIFA World Cup 2010 was that it would be staged in South Africa, the first time an African nation has played host to football’s elite along with their legions of supporters and media representatives.
For any country, staging the World Cup presents considerable logistical, financial and security challenges, so the choice of South Africa was a bold move, but also an enlightened one. Underpinning it is the conviction that the tournament will bestow a positive and lasting social and economic legacy, through skills empowerment, improved infrastructure and a new set of world-class sports facilities.
The new Cape Town Stadium aptly crystallises such heady aspirations. It is an elegant and efficient modern sporting colossus that succeeds not only as a distinguished piece of architecture, but also as a catalyst for wider aims and ambitions about how urban space is occupied and used. In both these and other respects it is a genuinely transformational project. It has also transformed the Cape Town skyline, creating a unique new landmark that has quickly become emblematic of the city.
For the stadium and its design team, this is an immense and hard-won accolade. It is made all the more significant by the inescapable fact that, in Cape Town, architecture tends to be perpetually outshone by nature. The city’s topography is its defining picture-postcard image, rather than its buildings. Like Rio de Janeiro or Hong Kong, Cape Town is one of a handful of world cities that are remarkably privileged by its setting. Cradled in a landscape of transcendent power and beauty, its skyline is not that of a New York or London, shaped over centuries by architects and their patrons. Instead, Cape Town is dominated and defined by nature- the contours of Table Mountain and its surrounding peaks, the sweep of Table Bay, the rolling Atlantic Ocean. And though the city can boast many notable buildings, its architecture seems constantly trumped by the awe-inspiring presence of the natural world.
But with the construction of its new stadium, Cape Town finally has a building equal to the immemorial drama of its setting. South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma, has described it as Cape Town’s ‘third landmark’, after Table Mountain and Robben Island. Seen from the air or from the nearby peaks, the great bowl of the stadium is instantly recognisable. Set against the backdrop of the surrounding suburbs, its heroic scale and crisp geometry immediately catch the eye. Yet in spite of its immense size, it also has a surprising refinement that transforms a huge structure into a sculptural object and enhances its relationship with its surroundings. Poised on the verdant swathe of Green Point Common, the new stadium is low-slung, decorous and slightly enigmatic. Its curved and fluted concave profile resembles a ship’s hull or delicate piece of Japanese pottery. Wrapped in a softly-ribbed silver membrane and roofed with milky green glass, it is both elegant and sober, deferring gracefully to the magnificence of its site framed between mountains and ocean
Lying close to the city centre and harbour, Green Point Common is one of the largest remaining public spaces in Cape Town. Historically it has always been a locus for sporting and recreational pursuits, its flat topography ideally suited to horse racing, cricket and rugby. It has also been used as cattle pasture and was the site of an internment camp during the Anglo-Boer War. Latterly, however, it had become fragmented, dislocated and scruffy, with little sense of civic cohesion. The new stadium and its associated precincts are conceived as powerful anchoring and enabling elements in the regeneration of the Common, as both a unified, permeable public park and an accessible setting for a range of sporting and recreational activities.
This concern to relate the stadium to the wider urban context, rather than simply seeing it as a static, self-regarding object in the landscape, is at the very heart of the project. From the first sketch proposals, design thinking focused consistently and intently on where to locate the stadium, how to make it accessible, and how the spaces around it will be used and developed, both during and after the FIFA World Cup™ 2010.
Imposingly scaled and infrequently used, sports stadia are an inherently anti-urban building type, with a core function of getting large numbers of people in and out as quickly as possible. That is not to say that a football stadium cannot have an urban presence or be part of a historic and cultural dynamic, such as La Bombonera in Buenos Aires, or the Nau Camp in Barcelona. Stadium and locale can assume a mythic quality through historic associations.
In this case, however, there is no well-established local club to galvanise folk sentiment, though that may obviously change if the stadium is tenanted after the FIFA World CupTM 2010.
So, given this cultural tabula rasa, the design team’s aim was to mitigate the scale of the building and transform its vast precincts into a responsive and flexible armature for activities. The stadium bowl occupies only one-fifth of the overall site area, so there is considerable scope to create a new kind of inhabitable and multivalent urban terrain that engages in a positive dialogue with its wider surroundings. This is achieved through astute choreographing of the spaces around the stadium, as well as routes to and from it. New public transport links connect the stadium and park with the city centre. Infrastructure elements, such as a new traffic circle on Western Boulevard which acts a gateway to the stadium, are intended to support a range of different uses.
Easing the stadium into the park gave rise to many new juxtapositions, relationships and jumps in scale, each of which required careful resolution. It has been a complex, iterative process, but it has laid the foundations for a truly constructive and diverse urban legacy. The new building is set in a raised podium, which has the effect of reducing its perceived height. The podium takes its cues from the orthogonality of Cape Town’s grid, rather than the stadium’s oval footprint. The design team describes the podium as a ‘docking station’, finessing the pedestrian trajectory between city and stadium. It also functions as an elevated promenade deck overlooking Green Point Common and framing new vistas of the landscape.
Three forecourts of different sizes along with grandly proportioned staircases receive the streams of visitors. Together, these elements form legible and inviting gateways up to the podium. The main forecourt is conceived as a robust and expansive space capable of sustaining many different sorts of activities and gatherings, such as open-air markets. After the FIFA World CupTM 2010, there is also the potential to develop an arcade of retail units along the podium edge and main axial route, a move intended to further animate and humanise the stadium precincts.
In architectural terms, a spirit of neutrality and refinement prevails. Form is simplified and distilled, and materials likewise. The towering scale of the stadium is tempered by the podium and the gently curved profile does not compete with or confront neighbouring buildings. But perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this neutrality is the homogeneous façade of finely-woven membrane panels that wrap seamlessly around the bowl of seating like a delicate chiffon veil. During the day the diaphanous veil catches and reflects the changing weather conditions, creating a sense of depth and animation as the translucent surface responds to the subtle effect of light. Some commentators have dubbed it ‘the diva of Cape Town’, for its ability to reflect the constantly changing moods of the city. But at night when the stadium is illuminated, the veil seems to magically dissolve away and the structure of the building is revealed in a euphoric eruption of light.
Much of the stadium’s appeal is that it does not rely on hucksterish use of colour or structural pyrotechnics for effect. Yet its structure is both highly inventive and deftly resolved. A series of inclined concrete pylons anchor a ‘look-no-hands’ cantilevered roof that floats above the great bowl of seating. The basic structural principle is akin to a bicycle wheel. The roof structure consists of a suspended cable net with elevated steel trusses. The perimeter compression ring is supported by the inclined concrete pylons, which in their impressive scale and weight have a distinctly pharaonic quality. Some 72 cables linking the outer and inner rings of the circle were slowly tightened in order to raise the roof from pitch level to its final height of between 40 and 50 metres.
The shimmering, external surface of the undulating roof is clad with 9 000 panels of laminated glass. Its underside is sheathed in a lightweight membrane and the tapering, wedge-shaped void between glass and membrane is used to house technical elements such as lighting and the public address system. The 16 mm thick glass panels protect spectators from strong winds and rain, but also let in light, while the membrane undercroft provides sound absorbency. The general effect is of a marvellously light and airy canopy rippling seductively over the concrete colosseum below.
Designed to host both football and rugby, the stadium is divided into three tiers with seats for around 68 000 spectators. After the FIFA World CupTM 2010, this capacity will reduce to 55 000. The giant cauldron of seating is precisely angled to focus attention on the action, fomenting an atmosphere of excitement, but also of intimacy. The decision not to include a running track around the edge of the pitch establishes a physically and experientially closer relationship between players and crowd, heightening the sense of theatre.
At each level, perimeter concourses funnel and guide spectators around the stadium. Measured out by the muscular rhythm of the concrete pylons, these imposing spaces dignify and dramatise public circulation, especially at upper levels. High above the ground, the elevated concourses offer breathtaking views of Cape Town, the ocean and the mountains, all filtered through the veil of the external cladding. In this way, the new stadium convincingly articulates, celebrates and cements its connection with the city.
Sport is now regarded as a powerful impetus for urban and economic development, but the legacies of global sporting fiestas can be mixed. In recent times, the most successful example was the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, still widely regarded as a paradigm for how architectural and urban development in the wake of a major sporting event can genuinely catalyse cities. By contrast, however, the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea produced a surfeit of expensive new stadia, some of which are now hardly used, as neither country has a strong football culture.
In South Africa, ambitions are more realistic and the expectation is that the new and remodelled stadia will have productive lives well beyond the FIFA World CupTM 2010. For the Cape Town Stadium, the hope is that it will replace Newlands as the premier venue for rugby and thus consolidate its place in the city’s affections. The immense challenge of constructing such a prominent structure with a footprint equivalent to nine city blocks on a ‘pristine’ green field site invariably attracted a measure of public comment, not all of it favourable. But now that the stadium is finished and operational, the true nature and scale of the achievement is finally being acknowledged. For something so large and so new to look part of Cape Town’s skyline so quickly and so effortlessly is perhaps the ultimate tribute to the design team who steered the project to its successful conclusion. The diva has definitely landed.
Catherine Slessor is a London-based architectural writer, critic and editor. She is currently editor of The Architectural Review, one of the world’s leading international architecture magazines.
This essay was extracted from the book Cape Town Stadium: Between the Lines, published by Griffel Media@ 2010.