Friday, 29 April 2016


Purple permeates the city – Florence in Tuscany – in tribute to the football team that represents it – ACF Fiorentina, aka La Viola. It is said that the colour has no actual connotation but came about fortuitously after the archetypal red and white halved shirts of Fiorentina were washed, presumably at too high a temperature, and the colours ran. Most likely apocryphal, and cannot explain the switch from black to white shorts that followed. Besides, such diffusion would have emanated pink.
Conversely, the club's badge is informed by the city's heraldry. The roles are transposed, a fleur-de-lis does for both, typically in red mounted on a white background, certainly in the case of Fiorentina, and often for the metropolis too. An ordinary state of affairs, except Florence is a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site, has been since 1982, remarkable for a plethora of Renaissance art and architecture. Football is an irrelevance generally for those who visit here, and so few will make the connection, let alone be aware of it. But the effect is the same: purple seems to suit the environment, just as if some design agency had proposed it as an apposite hue (no doubt for an exorbitant fee).
The Stadio Comunale Artemio Franchi is placed well away from the older material that draws in the tourists, probably with intent – why locate something as utilitarian as a football stadium alongside buildings as venerable as the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, the Palazzo Vecchio? Yet the Artemio Franchi offers more than mere function and was perhaps as progressive in its time as the Il Duomo di Firenze was in its. Pier Luigi Nervi was tasked with raising it, a structural engineer and architect renowned for his pioneering appropriation of reinforced concrete, a progenitor of Italian Modernism. [Built some 25 years later, Nervi’s more impressive contribution to stadium architecture is actually the Stadio Flaminio in Rome, which the Italian Rugby Federation is supposedly in the process of bastardising whilst their rugby team play out their international fixtures at the capital’s aesthetically flawed Stadio Olimpico.]
The slightly out-of-town location of the Artemio Franchi works to its advantage. It is a very low-rise structure, save for its svelte tower, and would be utterly overwhelmed amongst the grandeur of central Florence. Instead, we have residential tenements to the west, the modest Stadio Luigi Ridolfi to the south (a municipal athletics facility), and unabridged views towards the mountains north and east: the Florentine hills of Fiesole and Settignano. Trees dot the perimeter and a road encircles it; the stadium’s concrete framework can be viewed from all around.
From above, the stadium’s footprint traces a rather awkward ‘D’ shape. This is because the Artemio Franchi used to accommodate a 220 metre sprint track – so long to cater for the completion of marathons. In preparation for the 1990 World Cup, the entire running track was removed to allow for a second, shallower tier, which necessitated the pitch be lowered by 2.4 metres. This in turn facilitated the extraction of the temporary stands set behind each goal, which stood in isolation and probably didn't hold that many spectators anyway, as well as freeing up the parterre to function once more as a parterre, rather than the secondary viewing platform it had ineffectually become. Other changes included the replacement of some pretty awful roof extensions with ones more sympathetic – although still far from ideal – and the installation of individual seats in place of the existing wooden benches. The seats of the new lower tier were initially green, which worked, the rest a tasteful shade of grey. Now almost all are grey save for those in the tribuna centrale (grandstand) and the lower tier facing it, which are purple – as is the club’s name spelled out in seats in the tier above; this also works. Since the 1990 renovations, the concrete has been refinished a second time and the stairways have been painted yellow.
Despite the increased capacity, new plastic chairs and the removal of much of the clutter that inflicted the stadium prior to 1990, it is many of Artemio Franchi’s pre-existing features that make it interesting: three helicoid staircases that provide external access to the upper gallery; the tower - streamlined, glass-fronted, almost art-nouveau; the bare concrete underside of the terracing and their gentle curves; the outward facade of the tribuna centrale; the roof. The tower might be considered extraneous, the stairs merely salutary, the facade functional, but the roof is to be greatly admired. It is cantilevered – or not, depending how you interpret the stresses placed on the bifurcating structure supporting it: 24 corbels, the tier below serving as their counterweight. It is a shame the two (genuinely cantilevered) roof extensions were not done away with completely, but the original structure doesn't provide much coverage.
It’s all very pleasing, yet Fiorentina has plans to construct a new home. Perhaps this is why, contrary to the attention lavished on Artemio Franchi’s interior in recent years, the exterior – the underside of the exposed terraces – is spalled, shabby, and neglected. The ground of arch-rivals Juventus has been cited as an inspiration and probable template, a stadium that was built to replace the much maligned Stadio delle Alpi, which was too large, had a running track, lacked intimacy and atmosphere; built anew in 1990, things didn't work out and Juventus ended up again sharing the Stadio Olimpico with Torino, before they knocked the Alpi down and put the Juventus Stadium in its place. Fiorentina does not share grounds, and theirs is listed and in harmony with its surroundings. Does it not seem absurd to move away from a unique and perfectly serviceable structure in Florence, only to then mimic a building contrived to address a predicament that had arisen in Turin? Could Il Duomo di Firenze have once been torn down and the Mole Antonelliana replicated in its place?

Monday, 18 April 2016


It has been suggested that by the time Wembley Stadium had been rebuilt its design was obsolete, aesthetically at least. The conceit is that it was the last of a generation of stadia constructed in the mid-1990s through to the early 2000s that might be said to include grounds such as the Amsterdam Arena (opened in 1996), Stade de France (1998), Cardiff's Millennium Stadium (1999), Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz (2003), and many of the British grounds rebuilt over the same period; for example, the Stadium of Light in Sunderland (1997), Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium (1995), and the redevelopments of Old Trafford and St. James' Park. The supplanting of the original Wembley Stadium (and whether or not its iconic twin towers could be incorporated into any new design) was conceived in the late 1990s, scheduled to begin in the year 2000 – ground was eventually broken in September 2002 – and completed in 2007, by which time it was one of the most expensive projects of its kind.
The economics, politics and general shambles of the whole affair aside, the new Wembley Stadium, with its new iconic arch, appeared to go down rather well. I suspect that those who applauded it didn't bother too much appraising its exterior but were pleased with the scale and uniformity of its interior, which wouldn't look out of place hosting American Football (which it does from time to time). In comparison to its predecessor, the thing is luxuriant.
And what of its exterior? It is inoffensive enough, and from the air the roof imparts a certain fragmentary appeal. The arch, which can be illuminated, seems less of a gimmick now than when it was first proposed as some sort of conciliatory exchange for those famous twin towers. Overlooking the decision to install bright red seats, it is a decent enough stadium, albeit, in an architectural sense, a very predictable one. It presents as a rotunda of glass, steel and plastic, just like any other inner-city edifice.
It was perhaps Munich’s Allianz Arena that underlined the fact that stadium presentation had moved beyond more familiar modes of urban planning. From within, the Allianz Arena doesn’t appear to break any moulds, although the seats are a pleasing shade of grey, which in itself is refreshing. From outside the stadium’s ambition is immediately apparent. Shrouded completely in Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene – a fluorine-based plastic – when illuminated the effect has been compared to that of a paper lantern, or lampshade. You get the feeling the whole structure could at any moment float upward like some benign zeppelin. Moreover, the roof can be scrolled backward in segments to let in light and aerate the interior as required. Wembley’s roof can move about a bit too, but more laterally and with a greater sense of burden.
Wembley’s lack of imagination is not confined to its sense of inertia or its garish seating. The matter is not one merely of materials, or that it could so easily be mistaken for something else; the removal of the twin towers, and the arch in its place, is forgiven. What disappoints is that the design for Wembley Stadium was so obviously derivative from the start. It looked around at what other cities were building and elected to do blandly the same, just on a slightly larger scale.

The Emirates, home to Arsenal FC, doesn’t suffer from the same deficiencies. By embracing its financial limitations, and making a virtue of them, an idea relating to its specific purpose is embraced. Ostensibly, this ground is as conservative as Wembley: oval, the seats are red again, oscillating top tier, plenty of glass and steel. But these constituents have been arranged differently, with more thought. The almost perfectly elliptical perimeter of the building is broken up into alternating sections of glass, then concrete, glass, then concrete. The fashion for cladding has been resisted, nothing is hidden, utility defines it. There are pleasing touches, such as vertical slits cut out in the concrete sections that reveal the stairwells behind them; the glass fronted portions of the building are canted and protrude slightly, overlapping over the joins with the concrete; the underside of the roof is smooth, reflective, and supported by steel trusses painted in white. Overall, the structure is not as cumbersome, more airy, and doesn't impose so evidently upon the surrounding (and less industrial) environment. It conveys that what goes on here is something out in the open. I stare at Wembley Stadium and imagine a thousand office workers sat behind their desks.

And then some clown comes up with this thing called the ‘Arsenalisation Project’, and shabby murals now cover the formerly exposed concrete of the stadium’s façade.

Thursday, 14 April 2016


If 25-odd years ago you’d asked what my favourite book was, with complete sincerity I would have told you this: The Football Grounds of Europe by Simon Inglis. My reading then was more usually a means to an end – school work, which bored me – but this book was something else: it satisfied both my appetite for sport (football in the main) and a passing interest in architecture. A substantial hard-backed tome, it covers in great detail the stadia selected, built or modified for the 1990 World Cup, held in Italy, and many more besides (but not British football grounds – Mr Ingles had written a separate book on that subject a few years before). No mere glossary, the history, architectural detail, and cultural and social relevance – where it applies – are all explored, and there is substantial photographic coverage too. It really is a wonderful thing, and its author invoked great jealously in me. As research I do believe Mr Inglis toured Europe extensively, making notes, taking pictures, asking questions. He would go on to write a column for World Soccer magazine, and now stewards a website called Played in Britain that concerns itself with chronicling, and where possible preserving, sporting sites of historical and cultural significance and interest – these aren't the sort of jobs you’ll find advertised anywhere much.
            My interest in stadium architecture persists and I make a point of journeying to them when I travel abroad: am often thwarted by geographical limitations, time constraints, and the lack of interest on the part of whoever has accompanied me. I should try harder, but many a ground can be found on the periphery of its host, involving convoluted and time consuming journeys to reach them, although I have travelled farther for less. Other, more normative and diminutive stadia have been chanced upon: the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Siena, and Prague’s FK Viktoria Stadion for instance. Where I have made the effort I’ve only sometimes gained entrance, normally at football grounds deemed worthy of being granted entrance: Barcelona’s Nou Camp, Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu, Valencia’s Estadio Mestalla. (Does this say more about the nature of Spanish football or my personal touristic habits?). With others, I’ve had to make do with inspecting their exterior, with varying degrees of satisfaction: Bulgaria’s Vasil Levski National Stadium is barely discernible as being such; the San Siro in Milan could be little else; Istanbul’s Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium appears like an industrial building of the sort found near motorways and airports. The fact of the matter is that a lot of football grounds aren't very pretty, were never intended to be. That is not to say they don’t have character or charm, but sometimes it can be hard to tell from the outside. Like I said, I've not often gained entrance to find out either way.

The Estadio La Rosaleda, home of Málaga CF. I recollect the football ground from Inglis’ great work, but it is much altered since that was published. You might come at it from a southerly direction, along either side of the Rio Guadalmedina. If it is summer this river will be dry, dusty, dormant. The area around the stadium itself is residential in nature, but the watercourse allows a clear view of the mountains to the north. La Rosaleda occupies its own space, contrary to the dense and moderately high-rise surroundings; because of its riparian setting, you may regard it from a variety of angles.
            The structure itself is fairly typical of many a Spanish stadium (although this may not hold true for those constructed over the past decade). It possesses a Modernist aesthetic: the rectilinear concrete struts attached to the two main stands support the roofs in the same way many mid-twentieth century buildings employ a series of reinforced concrete columns to bear their loads. Such a retrospective approach towards architecture – if you choose to see it that way – has precedence elsewhere. I am considering in particular Valencia's Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, a concrete extravaganza, albeit one mantled in white paint. Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences is considered something of an architectural indulgence. Conceived of and built in the 1990s it should not be tied too neatly to the strain of thinking that elected to work so prominently with reinforced concrete in Malaga: José Segui Pérez, if it was indeed him who was responsible, did not opt to have La Rosaleda painted white – or painted at all.
It must be emphasised that these concrete abutments are primarily functional – they support the roofs and partition the executive boxes that run along underneath. We know this because prior to them being built between 2000 and 2005 the upper tiers adjacent to the touch-lines were set lower than those fronting the goal-lines. Initially they weren't. Instead, the curves of the second tier rose upward away from the main stands only to stop abruptly at the point where they might be expected to join the lower, shallower rake of the upper tiers overlooking the goal-lines. Were the curves culminating in anticipation that these banked terraces would be steepened later, thus completing the bowl effect that eventually became it? The ground was developed in tranches so we cannot be sure of what long-term vision the architects had in mind. In any case, they were. The upper tiers of the main stands could not be raised to the same height because of the road behind one of them and the river to the rear of the other. This is where these more solid concrete columns come in. The roofs could have been set at the lower height of these opposing tiers but would have then been subordinate in aspect to the rest of the stadium – you should be able to imagine why this was undesirable. To allow, then, for the height of the new roofs to correspond with the uncovered upper tiers behind each goal, the struts were angled outward to overcome the spatial restraints on the ground. Furthermore, this permitted the inclusion of the executive boxes in the newly created space between.
You sense these days that architects are a little bit funny about exposed concrete, embarrassed even. Perhaps they think it looks cheap – cheaper than the rough paint or cladding commonly used to cover over it. The point can be taken on board within a climate harsh upon the patina of this material, but Spain generally doesn't have to worry about such precipitous scarring. The 38 concrete columns – 19 either side – at Estadio La Rosaleda have been left proudly exposed. The opportunity has been taken to build a concourse around the stadium using similar techniques, although the concrete supports in this instance have no reason to be anything other than perpendicular and are much more slender, conveying a sort of lattice-like quality to the surrounding colonnade.
I looked for a way in along Camino la Palmilla, couldn't find one. I tried again along the towpath that traces the river but turned back on account of a vagrant with a large dog that saw me approaching. Málaga CF doesn't offer tours. I might have been more disappointed were it not for my conviction that the parallel lines of Estadio La Rosaleda’s exterior are probably the most impressive thing about it. I had also found a pretty good view from Malaga’s Castillo de Gibralfaro a few days earlier.