Melbourne claims to be the sports capital of the world, and, I have to say—with apologies to New York and Chicago—it′s got some evidence to back the claim. There′s tennis (the Australian Open), and golf (the Australian Masters), rugby, soccer, and cricket, the Australian Football League, Formula One racing. Oh—and they hosted the 1954 Olympics. An incredible quarter million spectators (in a city of only four million) can be seated simultaneously at sporting events here in the many venues that make up the Melbourne Sports Precinct.
And yet they needed still another stadium. The Storm, Melbourne′s championship rugby team, had been kicking butt (or whatever rugby players do) in a repurposed track-and-field stadium leftover from Olympics. Meaning that between the fans and the game was . . . well, a giant track. That would not do for Melbourne followers, who were famous for their intense engagement in the game. So Cox Architects, a local firm, along with international engineering group Arup, have come up with a new stadium, a stadium worthy of the fans.
For a city whose theme could be described as "total sports," Cox and Arup designed a project whose theme is "total architecture." You would think all buildings have this theme, but generally they don′t. A typical stadium has a main structural armature with lots of accessories (ramps, lights, concessions) clipped on. In other words, an idea plus lots of afterthoughts. This stadium is a single design—in this case, a "bioframe," a steel system comprised of 20 connected geodesic domes—that does everything. And when I say everything, I mean: faÇade roof, windows, cooling system, gutter system . . . Everything. The entire project therefore requires dramatically less steel than one with separate systems.
That kind of efficiency pervades the aesthetic of the building, even down to the plumbing. Stadia generally get used one, maybe two days a week. So most of the time, the plumbing system sits there and waits—and then comes the mad spike in use during halftime, when thousands of fans pee, flush, and wash their hands. Melbourne is suffering a drought right now; not a drop of water can be wasted. So how do the architects handle the stadium′s water needs? They collect any rain that falls in a massive gutter system that—rather than being hidden or tacked awkwardly on the faÇade—delicately spiderwebs the entire building. The black lines you see when you look at the building, which appear to be simply the space between the triangular panels that make up the domes, are actually the gutters, hiding in plain sight.
Those triangular panels, by the way, are not uniform; they are carefully differentiated based on their position in the stadium, the stadium′s position in the city, and the city′s position with regard to the sun. The panels above over seats that would bit hit directly by the hot Melbourne sun are made of aluminum, to keep the fans cool. Those out of the sun′s blast are glass to let in the light. But it′s even more finely calibrated than that: the glass panels have a frit pattern, decorative dots, which is denser on panels in the path of the harshest sun, but less dense, let′s say, at eye level at the beer concession where the city views are spectacular. This system protects the stadium so well from the sun that, though the building has no air conditioning, it stays an average of 10 degrees cooler than the outside. And yet it never sacrifices (in fact, it celebrates) the spectator′s relationship with her city.
This top-to-bottom thoughtfulness—this total architecture—respects above all the fan′s experience. And that extends, of course, to the seats. Now front row seats, rather than being a track′s distance from the action, are a mere five feet away. As if that isn′t close enough to the Storm, the curve of the domes acoustically concentrate the crowd noise so that their shouts and cheers resonate on the field. The domes connect the spectators to each other as well, since the spaces underneath create little communities, neighborhoods of season ticket holders. And, in deference to the Aussie fan′s tendency to tear up the seats in moments of great emotion, the whole stadium has specially designed, almost indestructible chairs, which are—just in case—easily replaceable.
Detail by detail—down to the paint color—the thoughtful, fan-friendliness of this stadium is unparalleled. In the new Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, "total architecture" meets "total sports." Definitely a win for the home team.