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!”