Magazine article The Spectator

Crowds and Power: The Dark Side of the Stadium

Magazine article The Spectator

Crowds and Power: The Dark Side of the Stadium

Article excerpt

When it comes to mass spectatorship, we're still living in the world the Romans made. Tom Wilkinson on the history of stadiums

Sport has never held much appeal for me, so I rarely venture into stadiums. But I do appreciate their peculiar power: I was present at the 2012 Paralympics when George Osborne ill-advisedly turned up to award a medal while engaged in a campaign against disability benefits, and was roundly booed by the entire stadium. It was a transporting lesson in the joy of crowds and the proudest I have ever felt to be British.

The stadium, ostensibly a facilitator of mass spectatorship, is actually a machine for producing such feelings. The Greeks were explicit about the ritualistic, community-forming function of their games, but it was the Romans who secularised the stadium and gave it its current form. The Greeks could look beyond the terraces to the sacred landscape of Olympia, whereas in the Colosseum all the spectator saw was a wall of fellow spectators, replacing the natural backdrop with a social one.

Make of that change what you will, but when it comes to stadiums, we're still living in the world the Romans made. That goes for what we do in them, too, whether it's football tournaments such the Euros currently under way in France, or the Olympic games shortly to begin in Rio -- or executions, as in the Santiago stadium where Pinochet killed hundreds of his opponents.

The Olympics may be Greek in derivation but their architecture and ethos are not. These belong to our era of nation states, masses and spectacle. There were no modern gymnastic arenas before Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympics, and although the stadium for the inaugural Athenian games in 1896 was modelled on the Greek hippodrome, this turned out to be utterly inappropriate. Runners had to decelerate to take the tight bends and the field in the middle of the track had the dimensions of a large hall rug.

For a long time, attempts to fit all the events into one arena continued, resulting in vast spaces -- the one for the games at the 1911 Turin International World's Fair covered 85 hectares -- where the distant athletes were like microbes in a Petri dish. However, these buildings now looked more like the Colosseum than any Grecian ruin. The Nazis settled on a more sensible solution in 1936, when they erected a compact stadium in a park full of other facilities. Although we have largely abandoned tiered arches, we continue with the Nazis' sports-park typology, erecting ever more expensive stadiums at their centres, from Kenzo Tange's fantastic concrete forms for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, to Herzog and de Meuron's Bird's Nest in Beijing.

There have been efforts to reign in this extravagance. Otto Frei's diaphanous canopy for Munich is barely there at all (it shelters only a third of the spectators), and our own stadium for the 2012 Olympics, designed by specialist architects Populous, was supposed to be the most lightweight ever constructed. This wasn't cheap, and the freshly circumcised building's occupancy by West Ham has been highly controversial. But at least it will get regular use.

One of the most expensive elements of the Stratford stadium has been the roof, which is now the largest cantilevered covering in the world. Putting a lid on a stadium is an engineering challenge of the first order, and one that has seen numerous solutions, from the elegant concrete cantilevers of Italian engineering genius Pier Luigi Nervi to the completely covered Houston Astrodome. The latter kept everyone dry but the light coming through the dome dazzled the players, and when the plastic panes were painted to make them semi-opaque the grass on the pitch died. …

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