Soccer City Stadium: South Africa’s theatre of dreams

Danny Jordaan, President of the South African Football Association, gestured from his newly-built headquarters in SAFA House towards a dusty wasteland stretching north over the dismantled shell of the old FNB stadium to the distant towers of downtown Johannesburg and west across the mine dumps that, like vast ziggurats of yellow dust, hid from us the sprawling communities of Soweto. “This will be our Wembley”, he said.

Four years on (at a quarter of Wembley's cost and in less than half the time) fears that Jordaan's grandiose dream might have come to resemble the crass football-shaped dome of SAFA House are buried under the giant calabash of Africa's largest stadium.

The “calabash” is in fact a vast tubular outer skin made from laminated fibre reinforced concrete panels, whose selection of 8 earthy “African” colours and 2 textures have been jumbled up between openings and slots across the façade by a computer randomization. This rounded “cooking-pot” sits on a podium below which the entrances and circulation spaces are articulated as a glazed “ring” of fire. Within the pot sits the original bowl of the historic FNB Stadium whose existing structural concrete profile was extended to encircle the pitch whilst the lower embankment was rebuilt with in-situ off-shutter concrete to vastly improve the sight-lines of an extra 24,700 seats. Covering roughly three-quarters of the seats is a cantilevered roof whose under-slung fabric is coloured to match the sandy horizon of mine dumps. By day it resembles an indigenous artefact, by night it blazes with the inviting warmth of a camp-fire.

The architects, both from the international firm Populous and the locally based Boogertman + Partners are indifferent as to whether the building resembles a calabash (which is used for brewing and drinking beer) or a cooking pot. In an age of “statement” buildings this is significant; Jordaan required “a very simple object that was easily recognisable and instantly identifiable with South Africa and the African continent as a whole.” This may sound somewhat contrived but the result, with its rough textures, dusty colours and surprisingly human scale is a clear building and a robust metaphor, distinctly African and yet ambiguous enough to embrace an entire continent. At its simplest level, as Bob van Bebber from Boogertman explains: “we have an existing stadium bowl that sits inside a pot- the bowl holds the ‘contents’ that are really the actions of watching and playing football. This ‘sharing’ relates back to the idea of sharing a bowl of food or a pot of beer with
your friends.”

John Barrow from Populous gives a further explanation of the building's unusual skin: “there is the issue of dealing with the human scale; there has to be a break down of the detail so that you actually relate to the building as you approach it quite often it can be dominating and uninviting- hence the multicoloured panels are very important.” He acknowledges, however, that: “though this is a building that is very understated in many ways it is also a huge building that quietly expresses the self-confidence of a country that knows what its doing.” This self-confidence is partly rooted in what Barrow describes as “the spirit of the place.” “The fact that we reclaimed some of the original stands actually gives you that tingly feeling in your back because it is such an historic venue and to see it rejuvenated for such a grand occasion is very important for the nation.” For Bebber the relevance of the site is really in the historical events that took place there; “the winning of the African Nations Cup and then the first big speech by Nelson Mandela when he came out of prison and the burials of Oliver Tambo and Chris Hanie.”

The physical continuity of a building that has seen milestones in the nation's journey from Apartheid to democracy and on to the continent's first soccer World Cup adds another layer to the design. Inside the original shell the historical bones of the building are demarcated by a dark grey paint. In the façade are
echoes of “the tradition in most African cultures of ‘pattern-making’ or adorning a pot to tell the story of the person who made it or the people who will be using it. In our case we chose the simple narrative of ‘the road to the final’ which is manifested in the ten slots cut through the façade orientated to the other nine stadiums. We discovered that in some African cultures nine is an unlucky number so we added the 10th to indicate the previous final in Berlin.” The intention is to complete this “story” with cast concrete records of the tournament's games within the appropriate slots. In a wider sense the stadium stands on “a piece of fall-out land between central Johannesburg and Soweto” This opportunity to redress the aftermath of apartheid planning with “a redeveloped stadium and a redeveloped area as a catalyst to become the glue between Soweto and central Johannesburg became the key to the urban design framework for the precinct.” The wider political context is also addressed by this inclusive, encircling form. Especially in Johannesburg, a city whose continental melting-pot continues to be divided along racial and xenophobic lines it is crucial that this event, as well as attracting investment and displaying confidence, will bring people together. This approach is “vindicated in the way that people respond to this story and the way in which it resonates within the local culture to such an extent that they feel they have ownership of the stadium; we have actually been hearing people saying that they want to look after it- which is an interesting way for people to react to a national asset!”

In the end Danny Jordaan's dream has become reality in some surprising ways, as Bebber explains: “Because of its location in Johannesburg we created a new players tunnel and decided to turn it into a horizontal mine shaft. There is exposed concrete, there are soils visible, all the structure and the services are left uncovered as they would be in a mineshaft.” “What is a dream made of? For many South Africans it's working down a mine shaft and then playing international football- and that is what some of our players have experienced!”

the sunflower stadium - nelson mandela bay

It is sad that the beautiful sweep of Algoa Bay and the nostalgic High Victorian seaside terraces of Donkin Street, Port Elizabeth, have been largely lost among poorly-planned Apartheid-era townships and freeways and an unsightly industrial sprawl. Set to change this is the construction of a 46,000 capacity stadium for the 2010 FIFA World Cup by the following consortium - gmp International GmbH - architects and engineers, Berlin, Germany in consortium with: ADA Architectural Design Associates, Dhiro Kalian; Dominic Bonnesse Architects; NOH Architects, Gapp Architects.Essentially rectangular in plan the stadium uses the bevelled corners around the pitch to shape an oval roof whose petal shaped girders seem to unfurl upwards and out over the seating from a two storey colonnaded glazed gallery that runs fully around to provide circulation, services and hospitality. The unique design of the roof has been compared to a coral shell and a sunflower. It results from the alternating arrangement of girders clad with aluminium and areas of PTFE membrane stretched between them. The elevated ridge of the external top chord expresses and adds drama to the structure whilst the intermediate PTFE membrane zones are separated into two fields by a valley cable, producing an alternating pattern of rib shapes and hollows that mirror the interchange of materials. The girders form triple-parabolas whose aluminium cladding is perforated in the lower sections where they reach down to provide elements of the exterior skin to the circulation gallery. This helps provide the necessary sun screening whilst still allowing varying degrees of transparency which afford VIPs and circulation areas a spectacular view of the surrounding park, the lake and the ocean. The result is a very distinctive structure that benefits from its unusual low-rise lakeside setting to add a very modern element to a rather tired cityscape.

Unlike Soccer City in Johannesburg or Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, the design does not take inspiration from the local vernacular or use locally-sourced materials. Indeed, the only truly local reference is the building’s name which is somewhat laboriously incorporated into the circulation area: “With a graphic use of sayings by Nelson Mandela, the gallery (it is over 700m long) is interpreted as a ‘long walk’ in the sense of sporting ambition and Fair Play among equals.” According to the architects the building is iconic both by day when ‘the white roof rests on the fair-faced concrete of the primary structure like a lightweight garland of petals’ and at night when ‘with its large backlit membrane areas, it looks like a huge storm lamp’. In terms of the sustainability which the ecosymbolic design inherently suggests ‘the geometry of the roof is tailored to local conditions, and protects the crowd not only from the sun but particularly from the frequent strong winds’. The PTFE membrane zones also allow natural daylight and ventilation. In addition the site was partly chosen for its proximity to the city’s port in order to facilitate the transportation of materials from abroad.

It is perhaps appropriate that in such a heavily industrial setting the new Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium should evoke floral forms that seem to suggest not only a brighter, more sustainable future but also the city’s hope that it’s somewhat surprising decision to build a new stadium will bear fruit. The choice of a central but sparse and undeveloped site between the sea and the North End Lake confirms the building’s regenerative intent. And this is reflected in the architecture; according to gmp Architects who led the design consortium: “The stadium springs like a flower from the ground, offering a unique image with its reflection in the water.”

cheaper thrills - mbombela stadium

The model of Mbombela Stadium in the foyer at R&L Architects in downtown Cape Town would look out of place almost anywhere else. True, the 1:333 scale is eccentric, the vivid patterning of the seats candidly mirrors zebra skin and the structural pylons resemble- to use their collective noun- a tower of giraffes. But it is the bright weave of myriad tiny glass beads from which the model is made that positively locates it in South Africa.

Mike Bell, a partner at the firm, gave an explanation of the making of this homespun model that could serve as an analogy for the architectural project it describes. The model-maker was found working on a Cape Town street corner. He was given the plans, sections and 3D images, a quick lesson with a scale rule and then left to work it out. The result is not only an accurate representation of the building in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga Province, but a beautiful work of art that captures its essential character.

Superficially the African symbolism in the building is very explicit and that was always the intention. The zebra-patterned seats follow a rectilinear plan that is beveled slightly at the corners to maintain an intimate sense of enclosure. In keeping with a very tight budget and a FIFA brief that requires a smaller, 40,000 seat capacity, the levels are very simple and the sight-lines clear throughout.

Between the seating bowl and the roof a continuous six meter gap allows natural ventilation and frames a view of the surrounding bush and mountains. Supporting the roof 18 four legged pylons are minutely modified to resemble a ring of abstracted giraffes standing smartly around a canopy of acacias. This may sound rather contrived but the design process reveals a correspondence between the architect's desire to “maximise the 'African-ness'” and the structural lessons of the form that inspires it. “It's one of those great things where the form and the function really are not parting from one another and are in fact assisting each other. Quite quickly the form started to happen…and started screaming out “I'm a giraffe!” It came together so nicely from there; we had to do very little to make it look like that. Even to the point where it was the engineer who wanted it to have four legs. It is a very stable structure and I guess so is a giraffe.” It should be added that being so close to the Kruger Park means it is one of the few buildings that can get away with using a structural form that conjures so uncannily one of the park's most elegant animals.

Also in the foyer is a wall painted in bright chevron patterns reminiscent of those seen adorning huts of the Ndebele tribe in the neighbouring Limpopo Province. The effect is carried through to the stadium's internal spaces, from designs on the car-park walls to bold colour-coding to the circulation routes and changing rooms. This reference to the region is as honest and unsentimental as the response to the savannah site; “[the Ndebele patterns] are not very old- I think from about the 50s when the domestics would go home for Christmas and their madames would give them pots of bright paint.”

However, the site has seen its fair share of controversy, particularly concerning a wetland that was bulldozed as the site for the schools which were themselves flattened to make way for the stadium. The failure of the municipality to begin rebuilding those schools in the former wetland and claims of internal corruption have not helped answer the critics who insist that the impoverished province has better claims on the R1.3 billion budget. Nonetheless from a design perspective the budget has been a real success, coming in at a fraction of Cape Town's projected R4.3 billion. The smaller size is an advantage as is the consistently warm climate. But the insistence on using durable (the design team demanded “bulletproof”) local materials, South African expertise and a range of environmental innovations demonstrates the money-saving utility of architectural design and innovation. The use of local materials was a “green” constraint that the design team placed on itself: “When we were designing the roof we asked the question: ‘what is the biggest pipe we make in South Africa?’ We found it was a 320mm pipe and we decide- that is as big as we are going go!” In the longer term the use of solar panels, water and heat harvesting and a simple, hardwearing construction will reduce maintenance and running costs.

This added value is matched for the architects by that of the building itself, not least since they experienced at first hand the 1995 South African rugby world cup victory which has recently been dramatised in the film Invictus. Mike Bell remembers that being in the stadium allowed him to witness “an incredibly powerful event.” The return on investment in South Africa is clear; “in fact there was a political movement of staunch conservative Afrikaners called the AWB [the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging]. And I just had this feeling that at the moment when Mandela appeared in the stadium the movement dissolved because the reason for its existence just stopped for the bulk of those guys. Apparently when one of them saw Mandela he said in a thick Afrikaner accent “I think I'm crying!”

This potency places responsibility on the designers; “[the experience] taught me the power of the stadium- it actually goes beyond the mundane and takes you into another level. That's why the memory is important because you can connect the memory with a physical element- which is where the giraffes came in. There was a desire to have some memorable feature, so when you leave there is a recognisable image in your mind.” This theory seems to hint at another local influence since it corresponds to the form of totemism by which indigenous tribes seek to connect a physical entity with the memory of their origins by splitting up into clans that are personified by animals.

The result is as an honest and successful an expression of African architecture as may be found anywhere on the continent. The proof is in the fact that, as Mike Bell says, “You cannot easily put this stadium into any other country.”