Qatar seeks to avoid 'white elephant' stadiums

May 28 2011 - 5:01pm

DOHA, Qatar -- Qatar has already attracted plenty of buzz for the futuristic and colorful designs of its dozen proposed World Cup stadiums -- including one shaped like a traditional Arabic fishing boat and another like a pulsating sea urchin.

Now the architects have unveiled detailed plans that will allow organizers in the tiny Gulf nation to remove as many as 170,000 seats -- including one entire stadium -- from nine of the venues and send them to 22 locations in the developing world.

At a stadium conference in Doha this week, they said the initiative was aimed at ensuring the World Cup would leave a lasting legacy.

"If we build up to the capacity which FIFA requires, afterward we would have a lot of white elephants around this area," said Karin Bertaloth, whose German firm Albert Speer and Partner is designing six new stadiums and two that will be upgraded. "I don't think Qatar needs this capacity. We have the concept to build the first tier of the stadium permanently and the second would only be for 2022."

Many of the stadiums also include plans for hotels, parks and even spas, or the flexibility to be converted for track and field or other sports.

The presentation from some of the world's top architects came amid a week of turmoil for Qatari soccer.

Allegations of bribery in Mohamed bin Hammam's bid to unseat Sepp Blatter as FIFA president followed claims of vote buying in the country's successful campaign to host the 2022 tournament. Bin Hammam was a key player in that effort.

Nonetheless, the push to consider the future of World Cup stadiums is moving ahead and has taken on much greater emphasis in Qatar, where a population of 1.6 million means soccer teams can barely fill a 15,000-seat stadium let alone some of the 80,000-capacity behemoths required for a World Cup.

It also coincides with changing attitudes in stadium design, with developers under pressure to build facilities that are cheaper, more sustainable and have a long-term use beyond sports.

Qatar, which has some of the deepest pockets of any World Cup host, also provides architects a rare opportunity to try out cutting-edge designs. Given that the proposed stadiums are open to the air -- one has a retractable roof -- among the biggest challenges will be keeping fans and players cool in a desert nation where temperatures soar well beyond 104 degrees.

"Cities need to think about how a stadium can be used for alternative uses in the context of city, of the neighborhood, of the community it is in," said Mark Fenwick, a director and partner with Madrid-based Fenwick Iribarren Architects, which is designing the Education City stadium so that it will shrink to 25,000 seats from 45,000 after the World Cup.

Fenwick and others said Qatar's approach also was inspired by the mistakes of past World Cups and Olympics, with several architects complementing their presentations with photos of stadiums such as those from the 2004 Athens Games that have gone mostly unused or the Bird's Nest in Beijing, which is now little more than a tourist attraction.

South Africa, too, is struggling to make use of its 2010 World Cup stadiums. Those in the northern cities of Rustenburg, Nelspruit and Polokwane, and in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town were all built from scratch. They occasionally host games, but the cost of running the modern sites outweighs the income derived from small local crowds.

The company managing Cape Town's $600 million, 65,000-capacity stadium -- the site of a World Cup semifinal -- decided not to continue its contract after the tournament. The stadium has hosted just six club soccer matches this year. Durban's new Moses Mabhida Stadium is rarely used, but will form the centerpiece of an expected Olympic bid from the east coast city.

"We are concerned," said Eugene van Vuuren, a technical adviser for the 2010 World Cup who spoke at the three-day Stadium and Venue Design and Development conference. "We are sharing the stadiums and it is going well with all the existing stadiums. But the new ones in Cape Town, in Durban, until they get it right, where the rugby guys are joining the party, they will always have a tough time."

Qatar not only wants to ensure it avoids empty stadiums, but is hoping the venues can help transform and even build communities outside of the capital, Doha. Many of the 12 venues are being proposed for areas that are little more than patches of sand, and are expected to either be a destination for sports or education or the anchor for new residential developments.

"In Qatar, it's less about the financial aspect of it as it is about what the World Cup can do for the country," said Dan Meis, whose California-based firm Populous is building the 47,000-seat Sports City stadium. The tent-inspired design includes seats that can slide into various positions and a retractable field that allows for nonsports uses.

"The idea of creating buildings to be multipurpose and long use, it ends up developing a lot more and that becomes a legacy for Qatar," Meis said. "The World Cup comes here, changes the country and creates development and experiences the country didn't have before."

But Qatar also is using the World Cup to raise its profile on the international stage and that is where the stadium donations come in. It plans to donate two 15,000-seat stadiums, eight 10,000-seat stadiums and 12 5,000-seat stadiums as part of a larger soccer development program that it says will "contribute emphatically to development of football and local society."

Van Vuuren welcomed Qatar's offer to give away the seats, but warned that it needs to factor in the upkeep and management of these new stadiums.

"It's not just good to give facilities, but you have to maintain and upkeep it," he said. "When you are in poorer countries, they just can't do it."

Markus Pfisterer of the firm GMP also cautioned Qatar not to go too far in removing stadiums after the games, warning "that if you take it away and give it to somebody, you will have an empty parking lot at the end. This is in our opinion not good for Qatar."

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