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Stadium History

It could be no-one but Heracles (Hercules in the Roman world), the mythological hero of strength and of exertion, to set the length over which the athletes had to compete against each other in the only competition of the first Olympic Games. Legend has it that six-hundred feet of the hero, one after the other, determined in 776 BC the length of the track of the running event, a length just exceeding 192 m after which the competition itself and the facility welcoming it were named: "Stadion".

The origins

The first stadium therefore originated in the VIII Century BC around a rudimentary athletics track shaped as an elongated "U". Starting and finish line were at the two ends and there was one only 192 m long and 32 m wide track. A stone stand with two separate entrances for judges and for spectators, who could therefore watch the athletes' efforts and cheer them throughout the competition, was built along the track. The also elongated-U-shaped stand ran along the three sides of the track, two rectilinear and one bended, on the other side opening onto the surrounding landscape. Olympia stadium, which was extended as the Games became popular in the whole ancient Greece, could welcome up to 45,000 spectators.

As sport became more popular, stadia were built in many Greek towns alongside with hippodromes. These had similar characteristics and dimensions but they were used for horse and chariot racing. These sports facilities soon started to play key roles within the "polis". There are still vestiges in Delphi, Ephesus and most of all in Athens, where in 331 BC Panathenaic stadium was built. It was then rebuilt for the first modern Olympic Games of 1896 and was recently renovated for the Olympic Games of Athens 2004.

From an architectural viewpoint, with its partially open structure and its plan, shaped as an elongated "U", the stadium, which is built sometimes by excavating tiers along a slope and other times by building them at a certain height on a level ground, is the meeting point between the two great typological models of the Greek and Roman world, which are also public facilities but used for performances: theatre and amphitheatre.

The former, which developed in Greece starting from the VI century BC, was made up of the succession of three basic cores, cavea, orchestra and scene. The cavea tiers were arranged on a natural slope in a semicircular configuration towards the scene, the site of the performance, and beyond also towards the surrounding landscape, which therefore turned into an integral part of the scene and as a consequence of the theatre itself. Epidaurus theatre, giving onto Peloponnesus mountains, and the Hellenistic Taormina theatre, giving onto Etna, are famous examples.

The amphitheatre was built during the Roman age starting from the first century BC in contrast to the Greek model, from which it differed due to its most urban nature. Tiers were built on an elevated level often with superimposed rows. The elliptical layout fully encompassed the amphitheatre and spectators could focus only on the arena, the central area for the cruel gladiators' fights or for naumachia. Besides, unlike those in the theatre stands were often screened by a curtain screen made up of cloths actuated by ropes. Arles amphitheatre, Verona Arena and of course Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum, are the most important and best preserved examples.

Plan and section of Olympia stadion and current view of the archaeological site.

From Greece to Roma

In parallel with the transition from theatre to amphitheatre, the tradition of sports facilities moved from Greece to the Roman world with the birth of circus, the typological evolution of the prototypes of stadium and of hippodrome, between the II and the I century BC.

The circus concerned equestrian sports and drew the elongate "U" shape from the previous models but it differed from them as its fourth side was closed by buildings. Spectators' tiers were arranged on a natural slope and their lower part was made of stone. Upper tiers were built at a certain height and were usually made of wood. The sometimes monumental buildings on the fourth side included the horses' starting stalls marking the boundary of a further side of the track. The course was continuous and races on more laps could therefore take place. The two long sides of the track were separated by a low central balustrade decorated with statuary. Two pillars at its ends indicated the "metae", the turning posts for the horses.

Circuses were usually built around the walls and adjacent to the imperial palace, in order to ensure direct access for the emperor and his court. Due to their positions, these large open spaces were sometimes used for some more public activities as well, thus turning into an integral part of the city life.

Circus Maximums, built in the first century BC in Roma, is the best-known example of this typology. Its main characteristics were its large dimensions and its capacity. It was over 600 m long and 200 m wide and its tiers, built along the two long sides and one short side, could welcome about 200,000 spectators. The stands covered three levels, behind which there was an external façade with three superimposed rows. The lowest row was provided with large arcades used by the spectators reaching the facility and streaming out of it.

The arcades also featured workshops opening onto the outside. Thanks to its location, near the Tiber, it could be filled with the river waters and as a consequence Circus Maximus could be also used for naumachia shows.

One of the best preserved circuses is the Circus of Maxentius in Roma, and Constantinople Circus is also a famous example. It was built in the IV century AD together with the other large buildings of the new capital of the Roman Empire. However by the time it was built circuses were no more serving their original purpose, that is hosting equestrian events, but they were rather used for other public activities.

Plan of the Circus of Massentius and current view of Circus Maximus

Fifteen centuries of suspension

During the IV century AD, the importance of sports practice was considerably reassessed all over the ancient world, which unavoidably affected the development of sports facilities.

After Christian cult was legitimized by Constantine Edict, the Council of Arles held in 314 imposed a ban on the circus charioteers, actually banning the pagan practice of chariot racing and thus speeding up the conversion of circuses into non-sports public facilities. Similarly in 394, when Greece had been under the Roman rule for a long time, an edict promulgated by the emperor Theodosius who accepted the request made by Milan bishop Ambrose led to the abolition of the Olympic Games, which were regarded as a pagan rite contrary to religious rites.

Therefore shifted to new building typologies such as churches and cathedrals, castles, fortifications, towers and municipal palaces which became peculiar elements of Medieval towns and of their development. Sports activities were seldom and limited. The ancient Greek and Roman sports buildings were progressively abandoned. Many of them were converted into markets or houses, others were fully pulled down to reuse building materials.

Sports practice was given a new boost during the Renaissance when running events and equestrian events were reintroduced. However they did not take place in specific facilities, but usually in areas serving other purposes, in large open spaces or in the squares, which were often provided with wooden tiers and small temporary roofs for the most important spectators.

Piazza del Campo in Siena and its Palio horse race are the most important case that is still popular nowadays, while in Firenze in Piazza Santa Croce the forerunners of modern football used to play in teams made up of 27 members each without any rule, but the one to throw the ball into the goal of the opposite team.

Modern revival of "florentine football" in Florence Piazza Santa Croce

Sports were properly defined a few centuries later, in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, which also saw the setting up of the first clubs and sports federations. The enthusiasm for the new sports, football and rugby in particular, quickly grew in Great Britain, where in the cities in which population had dramatically grown due to the urbanization process resulting from the Industrial Revolution people soon felt the need to build new facilities that could welcome a high number of fans.

In the same years the revival of the Olympic Games, proposed in 1894 by the French baron Pierre de Coubertin, sanctioned the final importance of sport in the modern age and symbolically marked the start of a new age of stadia.

The modern age

Modern Olympic Games were inspired by Greece and by the model of stadion, this time Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, which was brought to light by the excavations dating back to the Eighteenth century and which was rebuilt keeping its elongated "U" shape prior to the first Games held in 1896.

The models of the Greek and Roman sports facilities rediscovered in the Neoclassical age turned into the reference prototypes for the first modern stadia, triggering off an evolutionary process that starting from Great Britain at the end of the Nineteenth century and still under way, spread in all continents in parallel with technological innovations and often linked with Olympic Games and Football World Cups.

So far the technological evolution is almost one century and a half long. On the basis of the peculiar aspects that have marked the different stages, partly drawing on the theoretical analysis made by Rod Sheard (read note 1), five "generations" of stadia can be identified. These are generations marking the steps of a faster and faster development with many stadia, fully renovated or rebuilt over time, that have gone through more stages of this evolutionary process.

Athens Panathenaic Stadium during the first Olympic Games of modern age, 1896

1. The first stadium

First-generation stadia were like huge hotchpotches whose purpose was basically to host a large amount of spectators in an age when there was no television and sports events could be watched just live.

Particularly in the first years, they were facilities with no architectural value, uncomfortable and the provision of facilities was basic. Tiers were made of concrete or just with the arrangement of embankments standing and often crammed into the stands, with the exception of some small seating stand, sometimes also provided with a small roof for the most important spectators. Their extension was usually disorderly and non-homogeneous, in order to satisfy the increasing demand for seating areas by the spectators.

This model was introduced in Great Britain as football facility with the typical rectilinear stands running parallel to the sides of the pitch and was soon adapted to the model of the Olympic stadium with continuous tiers running along the perimeter of the athletics track. The White City stadium, now pulled down, was the first example during the Games of London 1908.

Alongside with the passion for football, these models were exported from Great Britain to the rest of Europe and to South America. They often featured the Marathon Tower, which made them easily identifiable in the city environment. This first generation of stadia took different forms until the end of the Fifties, when they had to be confronted with a sudden reduction in the number of spectators. (read note 2)

Liverpool supporters crowding at the tiers of Anfield Road Stadium

2. The equipped stadium

As a result of the TV coverage of the most important sports events, at the end of the Fifties more and more spectators started to prefer the images coming from their home TV sets to stadia, which were often uncomfortable, not so welcoming and with not so good visibility conditions. To solve this problem the new stadia started to be equipped with more facilities for spectators in order to improve their comfort. The new stadia built in the three following decades or many of the already existing ones that were renovated provided themselves with viewing sectors with seats, with roofed stands and with a higher number of toilet facilities, also including food and beverage outlets in the stand area. The stadia were also equipped so as to welcome television broadcasting systems as best as possible and to develop their potentials. The interior of many facilities was renovated, thus stressing their nature of "introverted" stadia, which were comfortable inside yet anonymous outside, which was a common element of that age. They were also provided with artificial lighting installations thus ensuring night broadcast. (read note 3)

What was still a problem in the stadia was inside safety.

The Olympiastadion bowl set in Munich Olympic Park

3. The commercial stadium

The Eighties ended with a series of catastrophic events in the UK stadia: fire of wooden stands, the escalation of the violent phenomenon of hooligans and the disaster at Sheffield Hillsborough Stadium, caused in April 1989 by an overcrowded stand. These events killed hundreds of people and induced us to consider spectators' safety. The result was summarized in the pages of Taylor Report, a survey carried out on behalf of the Government, which in 1990 introduced the new safety measures to be adopted in the UK stadia. The main recommendation was that all stadia had to become all-seater facilities. Taylor Report became greatly popular not just in the UK and started a deep upgrading process concerning many European stadia.

As a consequence, these facilities which were made more accessible, safe and comfortable drew more diversified and heterogeneous spectators. Therefore the stadia were not upgraded just to be in accordance with the new standards, but the process gave us the opportunity to introduce business activities in stadia, which were soon also sponsored. Merchandising, museums, guided tours, boxes and restaurants become popular in stadia together with recreational and leisure areas, which ensued from a new way to manage the facility, regarded as a public area used not for the mere sports event and open seven days a week. (read note 4)

Alfred McAlpine Stadium, one of the first “commercial stadia”

4. The flexible stadium

The solution was successful. "Commercial" stadia had excellent yield and to exploit the potentials offered by these large audience containers at best, non-static, technologically sophisticated facilities capable of meeting many-sided requirements were chosen. Mobile roofs, stands and playing fields are the basic elements of this generation of new multipurpose and flexible facilities capable of being quickly converted to offer the optimum configuration and the maximum comfort whatever the event to take place, whether sports or non-sporting, may be. The stadium is now open to marketing and to communication: boxes, conference rooms and hospitality areas are now part of the language of new facilities, which in their turn have been converted into lounges for sponsors and companies and designed so as to enhance television broadcasting and to positively reach the high lighting and acoustic standards required by digital television.

In this way, stadia draw many users all the year round and turn into new urban centralities, sometimes capable of acting as catalysts for the processes aimed at their neighbourhoods' redevelopment. (read note 5)

Arnhem Gelredome Stadium while it is being converted from football stadium into concert arena moving the pitch
Stade de France curiously fitted out as motor racing track

5. The urban icon

In the last few years stadia have played this urban role more and more, mainly as a joint reaction to a double effect linked with the now great popularity of sports events, not just the most important ones, through the TV and the Internet. On one hand, in order to prevent a spectators' reduction similar to the one that took place at the end of the Fifties, stadia have to help spectators live unique and unrepeatable experiences, offering a wide range of facilities and optimum safety also outside the facility and in the surrounding areas. On the other hand stadia are in the forefront more and more not just during sports events. You just have to click to view photos of a stadium exterior and interior, from all angles. Also by clicking you can take a tour of them with the three-dimensional virtual Google Earth programme. They are now the centres of attraction, are classified by UEFA in main instruments in the challenge among the cities bidding to host the major international sports events. Latest-generation stadia are designed by people who are well aware of this and therefore they feature high-quality architectural and technological systems. Their role as urban icons, new points of reference in the city environment and as displays of identity that are easily recognizable all over the world is nowadays acknowledged. (read note 6)

Evening view of "Bird's Nest", new icon of the city of Beijing

Towards the future

This new approach puts stadia at the centre of the evolutionary process of contemporary cities, as key elements in development and new centres of attraction. At the same time this calls for strict planning in terms of economic and environmental sustainability, without jeopardizing their sports nature and architectural qualities.

Whatever the next "generation" may be, each stadium is always an exciting architectural challenge and each design marks a new step in the evolutionary process of stadia.

It is a course that was started almost three thousand years ago with the six-hundreds steps of Heracles.


Note 1: Rod Sheard, The Stadium: Architecture for the New Global Culture, Periplus Editions, 2005

Note 2: Among the "first stadia" worth mentioning and now upgraded there are Dublin Lansdowne Road (1872), London Stamford Bridge (1877), Liverpool Anfield Road (1884) and the prototypes designed by the Scottish architect Archibald Leitch: Glasgow Ibrox (1899) and Hampden Park (1903), Manchester Old Trafford (1910), which was the first stadium provided with continuous stands linked to each other by means of semicircular stairs that fully encompassed it, and London Highbury (1913), which in 1936 was the first stadium to be provided with a stand on two levels placed one on top of the other. In Europe the most important facilities were in those years London Twickenham (1907) and the first Wembley (1923) stadium with its characteristic Victorian towers in the front, Milano San Siro (1926), Vienna Prater (1931) and Madrid Santiago Bernabeu (1947). The importance of Berlin Olympiastadion (1936) goes beyond sport but the purpose of the facility is to symbolize the political set-up through its robust structure and the strict geometry of its elliptical system. In Italy, Firenze Stadio Comunale (1931) designed by P.L. Nervi is a striking exception in terms of architectural quality.
Large stadia, most of which with elliptical plans, spread in South America: the most important of them are Rio Maracana (1950), capable of welcoming 200 000 spectators crammed into the stadium for the final match of the Football World Cup held in 1950, Montevideo Centenario (1930), Santiago del Chile Nacional (1938), which will then go down in history to be used as jail under the open sky during the days of the Golpe of 1973, Buenos Aires Monumental (1938) and Bombonera (1940), the latter one provided with rectilinear stands.
American football and baseball caught on in the United States. The former is played in large elliptical bowls with continuous tiers, such as Pasadena Rose Bowl (1922), the latter in stadia that are partly open on one side and provided with peculiarly shaped stands following the shape of the playing field. New York Yankee Stadium (1923) is the most famous example.

Note 3: Among the most important "equipped stadia" there are Roma Olympic Stadium (1953), which in 1960 hosted the first Olympic Games broadcasted by TV networks throughout Europe, Barcelona Camp Nou (1957) and Napoli San Paolo (1959), Paris Parco dei Principi (1972) and Munich Olympiastadion, architectural jewel set in the gradients of the Olympic Park designed by G. Behnisch and F. Otto, in intentional contrast to the geometrical rigour of the first German Olympic stadium.
In the other continents Mexico City Azteca Stadium (1966), Johannesburg Ellis Park (1982) and Pyongyang May Day Stadium (1989), which is still nowadays the biggest stadium in the world with its capacity of 150 000 seats, are particularly important.
The second generation of stadia ended with the facilities of Italia '90, which were completed just when Europe was about to start a new phase of upgrading of football stadia. These include Genova Luigi Ferraris (1989), rebuilt on the site of the old facility, Torino Delle Alpi (1990) and Bari San Nicola (1990), the "spacecraft" designed by R. Piano.

Note 4: Alfred McAlpine Stadium in Huddersfield (1994) and Bolton Reebok Stadium (1997) are the main "commercial stadia" built in the UK just after the introduction of Taylor Report, but almost all European facilities, starting from those in the UK, were largely upgraded during the Nineties.

Note 5: The main "flexible" stadia provided with mobile roofs are Amsterdam ArenA (1996), Cardiff Millennium (1999), Oita Big Eye (2001) and Toyota City (2001), while in Arnhem Gelredome (1998) and in Gelsenkirchen AufSchalke Arena (2001) it is possible to move the roof and even the pitch, which can be moved outside the facility thus benefiting from natural air and lighting. In Sapporo Dome the pitch is moved and part of tiers are rotated in order to change the facility configuration and to convert it from football stadium into baseball ground, with different playing fields. Mobile stands are also provided in Saint-Denis Stade de France (1998), which can be easily converted from athletics track into football ground even taking spectators just behind the pitch. The stadium can be also used for the most varied sports, such as skiing and beach volleyball and even for motor races, as well as for non-sporting events, such as fairs and concerts. Sydney Australia Stadium (1999) was designed already knowing that it would be converted after the Olympic Games of 2000 by pulling down the upper part of the two outdoor stands, reducing the number of seats and providing the whole stadium with a roof structure. Similarly, City of Manchester Stadium (2002) was designed for the Commonwealth Games already knowing that just one year after its opening it would be converted from an athletics stadium with two rings into a three-level football stadium, by lowering the height of the playing field.

Note 6: The most striking examples of new "urban icons" are Istanbul Atatürk Stadium (2001), whose roof is the bridge linking Asia and Europe enhancing the peculiarity of the city, which is the only one in the world located between two continents, Lisbon Da Luz (2003), Porto Do Dragao (2003) and the small Braga Municipal Stadium (2003), without "curved sectors" and set in a mountain landscape, Athens Olympic Stadium (renovated in 2004), Munich Allianz Arena (2005), with the characteristic light effects of the luminous façade that fully encompasses it, London Emirates Stadium (2006) and the new Wembley (2007) with its big steel arch that makes it identifiable all over the world, as well as "Bird's Nest", Beijing Olympic Stadium (2008), a technological and architectural jewel.

© by Angelo Spampinato

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