Herzog & de Meuron Basel Ltd.
4056 Basel, Switzerland
Football was a part of my life long before I was an architect. Growing up in Basel, our apartment was literally attached to the FC Basel stadium, the Landhof, which is still there, although it’s no longer used as a football ground. I spent much of my youth there, and I even played football there. So as a Basel supporter, I was fully infected by the virus that is being a football fan. It’s a special condition, being a supporter; it’s a kind of sickness that you can’t get rid of your entire life. I still have it today. And I think it’s important to state this at the outset, because what makes football an amazing sport is the emotion – the moments of success and failure. And architecture, too – while on the one hand it is a highly rational business it is also, on the other, a highly emotional one. Great architecture has a lot to do with psychological moments. It touches our emotions and all our senses. This is especially true for stadiums: they are theatres for the emotions.
The first stadium that Herzog & de Meuron designed was for Basel – St Jakob-Park Stadium – twenty years ago. It was the first modern stadium in Switzerland, and it remains the largest. Naturally we invested a lot of passion and energy into that building, and it’s where we tested a number of the spatial issues that would find their way into our later stadiums, such as the Allianz Arena in Munich. These come down to a few rules. Above all, we wanted to bring the fans and the pitch as close together as possible. I often compare it to a Shakespearean theatre, which triggers such an intense interaction between the actors and the audience. As an architect I was aware of how important it is in your home stadium to heighten the encounter between the performer and the viewer. Some of this we did by introducing colour – the red and blue of Basel. The red has the nobility of velvet, like you might find in an opera house or a theatre, and it has a particular intensity against the specific green of the pitch, so that it reinforces the perception of the pitch, where the action is. And the other crucial aspect is how you shape the roof to enclose the space. The roof helps concentrate the atmosphere. It turns the stadium into the cauldron where the meal is cooked.
When we designed the stadium in the late 1990s there were alternative projects on the table which I hated, not so much as an architect but as a supporter. I wanted badly to do the stadium just so that these other projects wouldn’t be realised. There were plans to do a very light structure with a transparent roof. I would have hated that because all the heat evaporates, the whole energy escapes. But that was the spirit of stadiums at the time. It needed a supporter to design the stadium. There are not so many architects who are fans, who are passionate about that site and would see it as more than a mere design challenge. Pierre and I knew how to approach it because we knew, from our experience as supporters, that it needed to be an emotional space.
St Jakob remains one of my favourite stadiums, not least because, since it was built, Basel has won fourteen championships and really started to dominate Swiss football. But it’s not just the team’s success that makes me love the stadium; it’s the way it has changed the demographic of the fans, allowing more families and children to attend. As a social space it is much more inclusive than it was when I was growing up. This is one of the most significant ways in which stadiums have changed in my lifetime. They were formerly sites of male pleasure, where you would drink beer and eat sausages, where there was standing room only and gravel on the ground. Whereas now they reflect a more open society that includes women and children, and, indeed, activities other than football. And I think this reflects how urban life in general has evolved over the last fifty years.
When thinking about designing a stadium, so much depends on the context – whether it nestles in a tight urban fabric, or whether it shines like a lantern on open ground. In a sense, you’re not just designing a building but you’re designing the approach to the building. Early on, stadiums were like chapels built into the neighbourhood. They might be attached to row houses or apartment blocks, totally integrated into daily life. Having said that football is an emotional and psychological experience, it is also bound to the ground, to a certain territory. And this was very much the case with our design for Chelsea’s stadium at Stamford Bridge (which is currently on hold, but we hope will be realised one day). The design grows out of that particular territory of a Victorian brick terraced neighbourhood. We conceived thestadium as a cathedral-like building, with tall, almost Gothic brick buttresses. As a form it strives to be both archaic and contemporary at the same time.
If you transplanted Stamford Bridge to the suburbs of Munich, where the Allianz Arena is, it would look absurd. Whereas because the Allianz Arena sits in a very open, peri-urban condition, between the airport and the city, it wanted to be a light, airy object – a lantern in the landscape. You approach it completely differently, walking from the car park or from the train station. We choreographed the approach, creating a landscape of meandering paths that allow people to choose different routes to the stadium. The flow of people is like a religious procession; it has a ceremonial quality.
If you are building a stadium within a city centre, as at Stamford Bridge, then the approach is coloured by and funnelled through all of the surrounding life. And as a civic space, the stadium ideally wants to be inhabited by that street life, so that it’s not just a place for football but a place for daily life. It’s somehow ridiculous for a stadium to be a place where a match happens once or twice a week and is empty the rest of the time. You want to drill holes in the stadium’s crust and fill them with life – cafés, kindergartens, whatever people need. Architecture is the art of bringing things together so that they work both economically and socially, so that football and the other needs of the community do not need to be mutually exclusive.
One of the stadiums that has impressed me the most is Anfield, where Liverpool play. When we won the commission to design Tate Modern in the late 1990s, one of the first things I did was to go and see a match at Anfield, because I wanted to experience this quintessentially English form of public space. And so even when I was designing a museum I was thinking about football. At Anfield it’s not the architecture itself that is impressive – there is nothing particularly beautiful about it – it’s the atmosphere. As an architect you might say I should be looking at the design but in fact I’m looking at the fans, because even in boring stadiums great fans make a wonderful spectacle. The fans have a very powerful choreographic and spatial impact. You could almost say that the fans are the space of the stadium. And if there are no fans then the stadium just looks sad. It can look like the Colosseum, which one can enjoy empty as a piece of archaeology, but it’s the people who make the music. And that is also true of architecture in general, and especially of plazas and public spaces.
So when designing a stadium, thinking of the choreography comes first: how people move towards the stadium, and then how they move into it and through it. I think about the relationship between the spectator and the player. And about sensory qualities – how are the acoustics; can smell become a factor and where? How should the space be conceived? There is no rule for that as such, but everything we have done in our designs so far was to focus and intensify the experience. Because that is the ingredient that makes the game so attractive and different from virtual games. The fans may or may not be aware of how the stadium is constructed to be a kind of a theatre, that it is a composition of elements designed to enhance the pleasure of the game, but the evidence is all around them.