The architecture of football stadiums

With football the topic on everyone's lips this summer, we look at the architecture behind some of world's most famous platforms for the sport





Wembley Stadium © Martin Pettitt

Over the years, football has evolved from a working man’s pastime to a multi-billion pound industry and the architecture of its stadiums has evolved with it.

This is clear when we look at the past of the UK’s most iconic stadium, Wembley.'“The cathedral of footbal' according to footballing legend Pele, World Stadium Team (Populous and Foster + Partners) had quite a job on their hands when they took on the job of re-building the stadium after the original’s demolition in 2003.

Gone (to much public outcry) were Wembley’s iconic twin towers, and in came a 135 metre high arch that curves over (and supports) the stadium’s roof. With a cross-sectional diameter even greater than that of the average Eurostar train, and visible across London when illuminated at night, this soaring piece of architecture has now won a place in the hearts of sports fans up and down the country.   

Striking a balance between the comfort of fans and that most delicate of footballing operations, maintaining the perfect pitch, Wembley also has a partially retractable roof. When open, sunlight can reach the whole pitch, but in poor weather, the roof can be closed within one hour.


Reebok Stadium

Reebok Stadium © Peter Bonnett

To try and capture an intimate atmosphere  – not easy in a  stadium that can hold up to 90,000 fans  - seats are placed as close to the front of the pitch as possible. At the same time, careful attention has been paid to acoustics to maximise the impact of crowd’s roar. And to combat the misery of the half-time toilet queue, there are 2,618 toilets on site, more than at any other venue in the world. Cutting edge design in stadiums isn’t limited to the Wembleys of this world. Go up the M6, and Bolton Wanderer’s Reebok Stadium, designed by Populous, is a great example of what a smaller club stadium can achieve. With a still impressive capacity of 28,723,  the stadium has a simple oval bowl shape,  with  four overlapping curved roofs. Above, four tapering tubular towers support the pitch’s floodlighting and the main trusses, appearing to almost be straining to watch the match themselves. And it’s not just football fans likely to see this spectacular sight;  its South stand has been extended and developed into a 125 bed 4-star hotel – the Bolton Whites – where guests can enjoy the game from the comfort of their hotel rooms. 


Braga Stadium

Braga Stadium © ForgeMind archimedia

Outside of the UK, Portugal’s Braga stadium, home to SC Braga, is a stadium that truly embraces its surroundings . Like the former home of London-based Charlton Athletic, the stadium is carved into a hill. Popping out from the face of the Monte Castro Quarry which overlooks the city of Braga, the design is simple yet arresting. Each stand is covered by a canopy-style roof, and steel strings crossing the length of the pitch help to give the stadium a sense of wholeness and form a tangible link between one stand to the other. Perhaps the most striking feature of this stadium is its openness. In contrast to most stadiums’ structure, which almost aggressively shield the action within from curious onlookers, here those who can’t afford a ticket can watch the match from the nearby hills. Stunning yet simple, the stadium won the 2011 Pritzker Prize for its designer Eduardo Souto de Moura.  


PGE Arena

PGE Arena © Mateusz Skuza

Another architecturally impressive stadium is Poland’s PGE Arena, designed by European architecture firm Rhode Kellermann Wawrowsky. Sitting like a large, shiny pebble in the city of Gdansk, the very modern stadium forges links with its environment’s past: Its façade is constructed from polycarbonate plates that give it the appearance of amber, a mineral that has long been extracted from the nearby Baltic Sea.


Soccer City

Soccer City © Shine 2010

Soccer City in Johannesburg also uses architecture to represent its area. Designed by Boogertman Urban Edge + Partners and global sports architecture firm Populous, it hosted the final of the 2010 World Cup and aimed to make a proud statement about South Africa to the world. Designed to look like a calabash, an African pot, it celebrates the melting pot of cultures in South Africa. The ‘pot’ is made up of fibre reinforced concrete panels in a selection of eight colours that are meant to highlight the different shades and textures of the calabash. It is also punctured by a variety of glazed panels which make the stadium look spectacular when illuminated at night.

Beijing National Stadium

Beijing National Stadium © Edwin Lee

Another stadium that is beautifully lit at night  is the Beijing National Stadium. Its insect nest-like appearance provoking an almost physical reaction in the viewer, it was designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The stadium is actually made up of two separate structures – the more traditional concrete bowl, and the undulating mass of steel that surrounds it and has hosted friendlies for British teams such as Arsenal, Manchester City and Birmingham as well as the Supercoppa Italiana final.


Stadium Mineirao

It is often felt that modern stadia don’t just look good; they’re increasingly trying to be good too. Ahead of this year’s World Cup, the 1960s Mineirão Stadium in Brazil has become the first of several in the country to be equipped with a solar-powered roof. This will feed energy back into the local grid rather than being used directly by the stadium.

Maracana Stadium

Maracana Stadium

This is also the case with the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro, by Fernandes Arquietos Associados. As part of its retrofit ahead of this year’s World Cup, its roof was fitted with 1,500 photovoltaic solar modules to produce solar energy. In fact, the stadium, which was built in 1950, has had its roof changed completely. The roof, which originally only covered the top tier of the stands has been extended to cover all seats – making the stadium look a little like a giant Polo Mint from above.  And spectators won’t just be protected from the weather. The stadium has also been altered so that it is now a lot safer. Following advice from FIFA, the stadium's capacity was reduced from the current 87,000 to 73,500 and the upgrade means that the stadium can now be evacuated in just eight minutes.

Its renovation has also turned it into a multi-purpose, modern arena, complete with bars, restaurants and shops, and the plan is that it won’t just be a star of the show during the World Cup, but will also feature in the 2016 Olympics. Another great stadium to watch out for in this year’s World Cup is the Arena Das Dunas in Rio do Norte in Brazil. Another design by Populous, it is made up of steel ‘petals’ and has an asymmetric shape that is meant to resemble the sand dunes that surround the city. It can seat 42,000 spectators, and the first row of stands is just 15 metres away from the action.


These are just some of the fantastic stadiums that can be found across the world, can you think of any others we’ve missed? Share your favourites with us on Facebook.