Finding the spot
The seemingly simple task of fixing the centre of the pitch of the proposed new Cape Town stadium was preceded by more than a year of turmoil. Once arguments had been settled and territorial battles had been won the exact docking position of the legacy stadium could be fixed in March 2007. On obtaining ground clearance the word legacy attained new importance. The stadium now had an epicentre and it would influence many things in its vicinity for generations to come. The essentially introverted bowl of the 68 000-seat stadium would set up very definite space and scale relationships in the City. The hard work of influencing the many external form and space relationships became the urban design team’s next challenge. We have to stress the word influence because we were never afforded much control and nor is it the purpose of urban design to control. It thrives at the margins. From here we influenced many relationships: stadium and park; stadium and forecourts; stadium and Fort Wynyard; forecourt and traffic circle; stadium and podium; podium and park; podium and golf course; forecourt and boulevard … each required careful thought and often some aggressive lobbying for it to relate properly to a greater vision.
The way the stadium is located in space, and the way in which its form has been moulded, are very specific to the context. What we as urban designers did to influence the outcome may become somewhat clearer through this text, but can never capture the true complexity of an extended, iterative process spanning four years. Some of it is captured in drawings but much of the effort went into the verbal coaxing of others.
During its inception the stadium project was hugely controversial and routinely made headline news. The dominant public sentiment broadcast through the local media was one of an impending disaster. The location of something this big and alien on a historically sensitive portion of public land and surrounded by high-value real estate was soon hyped into something cataclysmic. In the minds of many it would unfairly challenge the mountain as an established icon. The arrival of something that had a footprint size equivalent to nine inner city blocks was well outside the frame of reference of most commentators, and that includes established and outspoken designers.
Cape Town is a fine-grained city of piecemeal growth. Because the local residents of Green Point and Mouille Point and certain leaseholders on the Common felt immediately threatened and were more vocal in their opposition, their partial views were often perceived to be the inclusive view of all Capetonians. Alongside the organised public opposition, there were the obstructive battles between dominant political parties that were using the internationally and nationally ‘imposed’ venture as a political playing field: the proverbial political football. In any democracy strong opposition is part and parcel of building a stadium of this size in close proximity to established neighbourhoods. Simultaneously there were repeated Afro-pessimist rumours in the international press that the South African 2010 show would collapse and be redirected to good old Australia. It is easy to forget the many forces that combined to create great uncertainty at the time of critical early planning.
We nevertheless forged ahead, working to tight deadlines. At urban design school we were warned that engaging in our field is like swimming in treacle, so we were in a way prepared for that. If we took criticism personally we would not have survived. One day the blue-and-white banners of the Cape Times would read that the stadium was on, the next day it was off, then it lost political support, then it won back the support. For a while there was fixation on the ‘fact’ that the stadium was going to be ‘a carbuncle on the face of the city’. There were direct attacks on the designers in the press, claiming that the early graphics produced were misleading and insufficient. Those aiming to derail the project were not interested in hearing just how difficult and time consuming the design of such a large and complex stadium on a particularly controversial and sensitive site is. While the local partners were exploring alternatives and refining concepts with von Gerkan Marg and Partners of Berlin (GMP), angry lobby groups would prepare their own blunt graphics taken from worst-case angles for publication in the press and on the internet. People of different persuasions, with different vested interests and sitting in different socio-economic spaces were all looking at the evolving stadium design through their own subjective lenses. We were doing the same but carried an important mandate – to mitigate and integrate through influencing position, form and interface conditions.
You’ve gotta have faith…
Politics aside, we were getting some joy out of the design and design review process. We had travelled to Germany to sense the excitement around FIFA World Cup 2006 and had held feverish discussions around different concepts. It was however difficult to project that joy outside of the design team. Despite the uncertainty we could not be distracted by the prospect of the project possibly being halted. The early urban design phase was key to successfully influencing what would possibly be built, where on the Common it would be built and how it would fit into its surroundings.
To be fair to everyone who either politely warned us, browbeat us or shouted our heads off during those early days, the collective of concerns generated the necessary pressure to produce a stadium and supporting elements that we believe to be particularly well mannered. In hindsight we believe that Cape Town benefited greatly from the level of public concern. It is a fact that the world is littered with vulgar, under-designed stadia with an overbearing, indelible presence. In soccer-mad cities such as Buenos Aires cultural soothing occurs. Maradona’s home stadium at Club Atletico Boca Juniors is considered something of exquisite beauty. The garish blue-and-yellow stadium is lovingly called ‘La Bombonera’, The Chocolate Box.
Many rugby-mad Capetonians likewise think that the squat box of Newlands Stadium is a refined jewel. Cape Town’s stadium had to be a big, fat, polite stadium. As a team, we still had to figure out if that was possible. At that stage all we had was faith.
After the shouting has died down, the test of good urban design is when there is a level of quietness. How each element relates to the whole spatial composition in the city should seem obvious or self-evident. It is all about balance. What happens around the essentially compact and functional endoskeleton of concrete seating needed to be tailored to the specifics of the urban spaces and interfaces to enhance the fit and support the notion of relative quietness. While the mass of the structure is by no means invisible, it is low-slung and consciously neutral in the treatment of its façade. The introduction of a soft outer membrane was a specific urban design requirement in the context of the site. The bowl is designed and positioned to create a soft flowing form or backdrop condition rather than being angular or competing with other buildings. GMP translated these principles into detail with great finesse. The finely clipped roof edge and soft, flowing silhouette support the desired low slung effect with precision. The fat boy started looking lean and cool and developed a personality. The translucency of the skin generated an ever changing light quality and shadow pattern at different times of day and night.
The importance of layering
The dominant stadium bowl aside, there is a great deal of layering outside of it that mitigates the stadium’s impact. The raised podium supports the bowl and reduces its perceived height. Its geometry follows that of the extended city grid rather than being oval like the stadium bowl itself. On many occasions we have referred to the podium as a ‘docking station’ that belongs as much to the city as to the stadium bowl. Three forecourts of different sizes and generously scaled staircases receive visitors and provide inviting gateways onto the podium, which doubles as a promenade for overlooking the Common.
A combination of existing and new landscaping elements softens and frames the pedestrian approaches. Bicycle and pedestrian routes are woven through these elements and spaces. The main forecourt is conceived of as a generous and robust space that is in balance with the scale of the stadium and the grand staircase that leads onto the podium. Its neutral and even surface is conceived at an urban scale and can be used for a variety of events by day or night. The purpose is not for it to be active at all times but to receive masses of people in a grand foyer or to be independently activated through organised and spontaneous events. Since the spaces have now been defined in a minimalist fashion we believe that the edges are allowed to be consolidated and activated over time. Capetonians were too precious about the concept of ‘park’ and the budgets too thinly spread for the necessary mix to be implemented for 2010.
Of the 18.5 hectares of the stadium precinct, the stadium bowl occupies only 2096 of the total surface area. The balance of 8096 straddles the divide between stadium bowl and the established urban floor. The various designed elements are layered, and boundaries are blurred. The cultural landscape of lanes of established eucalyptus trees play an important part in the layering, with their height approaching that of the stadium bowl and acting as an effective foil. The enfolding spaces integrate a previously disparate context by interlinking the IRT system, the new Urban Park, Granger Bay Boulevard, Fort Wynyard, the future Somerset Hospital precinct, the V&A Waterfront precinct and the regenerating Somerset Road strip.
Getting to grips with scale
‘How big is it going to be?’ and ‘How high is it going to be?’ were frequently asked questions during the early days. None of the local design team had designed a stadium of this size before and GMP who had designed dozens of larger stadia, told us that they could only provide rough indications while reminding us that generic templates have little relevance when seeking responsible, context specific solutions. Including or excluding an athletics track would have a major influence on the height and footprint size. The depth to which excavation was possible had not been confirmed. This would also significantly affect height. A rectangular stadium is typically higher than an oval stadium. Which is more important: smaller footprint or lower form? Physical geometries were also subject to non-spatial determinants such as evolving business plans and fuzzy planning by-laws. While we were doing the responsible thing to get to grips with volume and scale through research and debate, the lobbyists had already concluded that the stadium was going to be excessively big and tall. These were both frustrating and exciting times. We were encouraged by the saying ‘it takes longer to grow a tree than a cabbage’.
Understanding and communicating relative scale
What we knew from experience is that urban designers have the knowledge to influence the relative scale and manipulate the perceived impact of built form by using a series of spatial tricks. We used these tricks whenever an opportunity presented itself. This very often made us unpopular within the team because it required reworking of things that made practical sense when seen in isolation, but not spatial sense when seen in the greater context. To motivate for a ‘handrail’ on top of the podium’s balustrade wall that has a dimension of 400×200 was no easy task. We knew that a 60-diameter pipe would look ridiculous on the girth of the fat boy. The fact that the bowl has a skin prevents the observer from reading familiar elements such as stairs and windows that would give an indication of true scale. It is hard to tell that the structure has a height equal to that of an eighteen-storey building.
When people say that ‘the stadium is smaller than they thought it would be’, it suggests that some of the tricks have worked. We know that dragging this specific stadium bowl out of its nested context on the old golf course site and ripping off the layers will cast it in a different light.
Sucking and blowing
GMP routinely present ‘their’ stadia that are dotted around the world as postcard images. These stadia are without exception spectacular, refined, clean geometric objects seen from the sky or afar. As urban designers we were tasked to influence experiences and features at a complex and close-up ground level where the historic and new elements of the city overlap and where people actively engage with man-made forms and spaces. Down here the perceptions will grow in importance as the memory of the World Cup fades away.
2010 is a mere blip on the time line. The use of space will evolve and mutate as many others become involved in a legacy project that is yet to start. A stadium that is built for a major sporting event should not be seen as an end state but rather as the beginning of a new process. First the stadium has to suck very hard and then only can it start blowing, much more gently. The event will pass but the newly established urban infrastructure will remain. Housing and other uses will no doubt serve to enrich the mix. The operator is already looking at ways of retrofitting the podium with uses that will make it the transparent, active edge on Fritz Sonnenburg Road that we had imagined. Somerset Road is fast changing character because of the increased land values and soon the redeveloped Somerset Hospital Precinct will greatly improve the threshold conditions and level of spatial enclosure. As private sector urban designers for the stadium precinct we had a relatively short term involvement. We do not control future opportunities but could anticipate and support some of it in the way we reconfigured space. We created tangible armatures for others to latch onto in the City of a Thousand Designers.
This text is a shortened and amended version of an essay by Henri Comrie and Khalied Jacobs that appeared in the book Cape Town Stadium: Between the Lines published by Griffel Media@ 2010.