The Brutiful Game

When it was recently announced that AC and Inter Milan wanted to demolish their stadium, the San Siro, and build a new one on the same site, not only was there widespread dismay from football fans but the architectural community was far from happy about it too. Whilst the San Siro has provided decades of footballing history, the stadium itself has become one of the most distinctive and original football grounds in the world. The Italian heritage authorities have declared that the stadium has ‘no cultural interest’, a preposterous claim, and the mayor of Milan also claims he cannot stand in the way of the demolition. Whilst progress is inevitable and the stadium may be showing signs of its age, a refurbishment would be a much more sustainable solution , whilst retaining one of Italy’s most important 20th century buildings. Sadly, the political and financial clout that AC and Inter Milan yield and the somewhat murky reputation of Italian politics may seal the fate for the stadium and its demolition seems inevitable.

The San Siro Stadium

The stadium itself dates back to the mid 1920’s but its distinctive current look can be traced back to the 1980’s. Whilst much of what you see is purely functional the architects and engineers managed to build a stadium that is architecturally bold and daring and could almost have been a sculpture from the Memphis Group, who, despite their name, were a loose collective of Milan based architects and designers, led by Ettore Sottsass. The Memphis Group operated in the 1980s and designed furniture, ceramics, glass and textiles and were very much in the Post Modern style, characterised by brash colours and abstract and asymmetric shapes. The San Siro is almost accidentally Post Modern because, as I alluded to, much of what you see is functional and engineering led, something at odds with much Post Modern architecture, but some of the detailing of the San Siro clearly places it in the 1980s. The huge red steelwork that holds up the roof structure (the enormous girders were lifted into place in single pieces by equally enormous cranes) are doing a structurally vital job but the architects added a couple of flourishes, such as extending them out beyond their supporting columns which makes the roof resemble an ancient Japanese Torii gateway.

The roof structure is the ‘third ring’ - with the bowl of the original stadium being the first and a new, beautifully elegant concrete cantilevered terrace being the second. Four huge concrete columns hold up the third ring at each corner and seven smaller, spiral stair towers also provide support and allow entrance and exit for the fans.

The San Siro Stadium Close Up

The San Siro holds a hugely important place in the history of football stadiums, but it isn’t alone in its innovation, engineers and architects have always pushed the limits of design and technology when designing stadia.

For the sake of this blog, I’m going to argue that football stadium design has had two parallel timelines - and one that mirrors the wider world of construction. I would argue that, depending on the designer, terraces have historically been constructed using steel frames or alternatively were constructed using concrete. Some stadiums, such is the nature of ever expanding and evolving football ground, have a combination of both and some stands also combine both, with concrete terraces and steelwork for the roof, such as at the San Siro. But to simplify things we are just going to concentrate on the predominantly concrete stadiums for now - because we all LOVE concrete don’t we?

Early football grounds relied on simple, large mounds of earth to provide a raised terrace. These soon became known as Spion Kop - which took its name from a famous battle in the Boer War which was fought on the hilltop of Spion Kop just outside Ladysmith in South Africa. The term was shortened to Kop and many British football grounds had these Kops and when the earth mounds were formalised into proper stands the name continued. As football became more popular and lucrative the rudimentary mounds were not suitable (although many survived well into the 20th century) and purpose-built stands were needed. The leading designer of the stands was Archibald Leach. I could write a whole blog about him - his output was extraordinary and built stands for virtually every major football club in the UK. Space doesn’t allow us to look at his work in detail but there is a good article here about him. Leach favoured a steel frame for his stands but the beginning of the concrete stadium journey can probably start at one of football’s most famous stadiums - Wembley.

Wembley Stadium / Empire Stadium

Wembley stadium was originally built for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924-25. Even though it cost the equivalent of £46 million to build it was due to be demolished after the exhibition had finished but was taken into private hands. The architects were John Simpson and Maxwell Ayrton and although its twin towers became a symbol for British football it was its concrete construction that is of interest to us. The engineer was Owen Williams, who was a pioneer of concrete construction and went on to work on some of Britain’s best Modernist buildings. Although not officially an architect he designed some truly innovative and beautiful buildings - most notably the Daily Express building in Manchester and the Boots pharmaceutical factory in Nottingham. He also designed most of the bridges and infrastructure for the M1 motorway. Williams knew that concrete was a much more resilient and adaptable material than steel and, in the right hands, could be formed to make practical but elegant structures. Concrete was the perfect material for stadiums as they need to be functional and hard wearing and, before the move to out-of-town stadiums, were often built in constrained and difficult sites.

After the Second World War, when steel was in short supply, concrete became a much more popular material not only for stadium designers but in the construction industry generally. Its ease of use and availability worldwide also meant its popularity became global and as football became more popular the world over, the scale and scope of stadiums across the world became even more ambitious.

The Mineirão Brazil

Brazil have dominated football off and on for the last 70 years and such is its popularity, it’s no surprise to find some impressive stadia in Brazil.

The Pampulha neighbourhood of the city of Belo Horizonte is now consumed into the city borders but when, in the late 1940s, its mayor (and future Brazilian president) Juscelino Kubitschek and the city’s university proposed to build a new stadium there, it was remote and underdeveloped. The plan was, to say the least, bold and ambitious. After Brazil had staged the 1950 World Cup and Belo Horizonte had been a host city it was clear that the current stadium, with a capacity of ‘only’ 30 000 was insufficient, a 100,000-capacity stadium was planned. The architects were Eduardo Mendes Guimarães Júnior and Gaspar Garreto and the building features an oval-shaped structure made up of 88 projecting concrete ribs. It was a huge undertaking, but Brazil had no shortage of architectural and engineering talent at the time. The design team travelled to Tokyo to see preparations for the 1960 Olympics and the stadium is tour de force in concrete engineering. The stadium, officially known as Governor Magalhães Pinto Stadium but usually referred to a The Mineirão, sits within a much wider landscaped park with other fantastic buildings, some by the Oscar Niemeyer who, in this writer’s humble opinion, was one the 20th century's greatest architects. The landscaping of the park was carried out by another Modernist maestro Roberto Burle Marx and he and Neimeyer would collaborate again during the designs for Brasilia - the new purpose-built capital city of Brazil built deep within the country’s rainforest.

The Mineirão opened in 1965 and had an astonishing capacity of 130,000 spectators. It was renovated in the 2000’s in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the capacity was much reduced but the stadium and the surrounding parkland is now designated a National Monument and carries protected status.

The Mineirão dominates the landscape with its form and mass but not all the best architecture related to football is on such a grand scale however and one of the best examples is in the small Scottish Borders town of Galashiels. Galashiels has a population of 12,500 people and its football club Gala Fairydean Rovers play in the Lowland League, which is the 5th tier of the Scottish League. Despite its humble location its ground is home to a remarkable stand, built in 1965 and designed by the architect Peter Wormersley and engineered by the world-famous engineering firm Ove Arup. The stand has an Historic Scotland category A listed status, the highest there is, and the listing describes it thus “Board-marked concrete and engineering brick. Highly distinctive construction comprising 4 V-sectioned vertical fins supporting wedge-shaped stand and cantilevered canopy. Turnstiles to either end with inverted pyramidal canopies.” It is a beautifully sculptural and elegant construction, its location and modest role only adding to its appeal. Wormersley was one of the best British Modernist architects but is perhaps not so well known as some of his contemporaries because he rarely built south of the border. He designed the remarkable house at Farnley Hey in Huddersfield and a modest house in Didsbury, Manchester but most of his work was in Scotland.

Whilst Mineirão and Gala Fairydean Rovers could not be further apart both geographically and in terms of scale, they have a commonality in the use of sculptured concrete. Concrete is in many ways the perfect material for building stadiums and time and time again architects and engineers have used it to produce functional but beautiful structures. Its use, in its exposed, purest form has sadly fallen out of fashion and stadiums now tend to be clad in a variety of different materials with structural concrete still playing a vital, but hidden role.

Words by Eddy Rhead at The Modernist Mag

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