'There Are Producers Around the World Who Would Kill to Have 'Fisht' Stadium'

PHOTO by Sergei Bobylev / TASS
Damon Lavelle shares his impressions of Sochi, sports architecture in Russia during the crisis and the historical value of Luzhniki stadium after the reconstruction

Lavelle, the man who was involved in the making of such grandiose events as London 2012 Summer Olympic Games and FIFA World Cups in Portugal and South Africa, visited Moscow to take part in the Moscow Urban Forum. Among his projects – one of the largest covered stadiums O2 Arena, one of the biggest stadiums in Africa Soccer City and the magnificent Estádio da Luz – the home of Benfica FC. Lavelle also worked on two notable projects in Russia – “Kazan Arena” that hosted the 2013 University Games and “Fisht” stadium where the opening and closing ceremony of Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games took place.

You are the principal at the London office of Populous – a design practice that is always mentioned whenever sports architecture is discussed. Tell us about your experience of working in Russia.

Populous is a global-event architecture consultancy. Most of us are architects, but we also have designers, engineers and specialists from other related disciplines.

We have taken part in numerous bids where the city or the regional government or federal government competes against other cities to win the Olympic games. Prior to Sochi we have been involved in many winter Olympics.

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In case of Sochi, we brought our expertise to the bid and it turned out to be successful. Then we worked on detailed planning and venue design, venue delivery and event overlay architecture. So we were involved in Sochi right from the beginning: from the idea to final delivery.

The Kazan Arena for 2013 University Games was another big and important project for us. We were selected as a part of Russian-led Consortia to design, project manage and build the stadium that hosted the closing ceremony.

What is the difference between a regular stadium for sporting events and a stadium for ceremonies and shows?

Ceremonies are something very specific: it’s a classic and original big event, Olympics opening ceremony being the most obvious example. “Fisht” stadium and “Kazan Arena” were both designed for the opening and closing ceremonies, not for actual sporting activity.

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The Kazan Arena

But with “Kazan Arena” there was a difference: we needed the stadium to be multifunctional so that it could be used after the University Games. In Kazan, there was a strong need for a venue that would be suitable for both sporting events and big public events like concerts and ceremonies. And I think we succeeded: the venue will be hosting the main events of the FINA world swimming championships in 2015.

To design an arena like that, you need to keep several things in mind. One of them is accessibility: to the central part of the stadium, so that you can bring things in and bring things out quickly and, in the case of the opening and closing ceremonies in Kazan, for lots of people who are coming in and coming out. The other concern is linked to temporary constructions, especially to the capacity of the roof – the ability to hang things from it. Kazan has a very big snow load, so it’s very hard to design a big reflector. We had to consider many ideas to balance the proportions and to guarantee the multifunctionality.

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The Kazan Arena

In Sochi, halfway through the construction Mr. Ernst insisted on changing the concept for the stadium. The initial idea was an open stadium with the ability to screen from the Black Sea on the one side, but this would have given 99% control, and Konstantin Ernst wanted 100%. It was very difficult to bring about change at that point but we had to. What you saw in February 2014 in opening and closing ceremonies was the largest indoor space ceremony ever with the greatest capability of hosting a show. And I hope that the decision making process will favour the idea of keeping this rather than taking it away.

“Fisht” is closed at the moment as it is undergoing reconstruction. In your opinion, what changes need to be made in order for it to become suitable for other kinds of events?

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The Fisht Stadium

Sochi is a designated venue for the 2018 World Cup, as is Kazan, but in case of “Fisht” stadium decisions have to be made. As you could see in the opening and closing ceremonies, its roof served to provide a staging system for an immensely spectacular show. To take it down is going to cost a lot more money than to modify it, so that it can be easily used for the Confederation’s Cup in 2017 and for FIFA World Cup in 2018. Taking the roof out is complicated, expensive work and a huge material responsibility. There is no need for it. It’s absolutely possible to have a football stadium with a closed roof. We know how these places work as we’ve been in business for 40 years and we’ve worked a lot with FIFA.

What are you impressions of Sochi now that the Games are over?

You know, the great thing about Sochi which makes it unique is its location. You can ski in the morning and then go down and sunbathe in the afternoon. And where else except in “Rosa Khutor” can you enjoy the views of the Black Sea, or any sea for that matter, gleaming in front of you as you’re coming down the peak?

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The Fisht Stadium

Sochi has once again become a prime destination in Russia. With the current difficult economic situation a lot of people opt for holidays in Sochi. It’s just a matter of time when the resort will become completely successful. The idea of investing in Sochi was a good decision, a visionary one. I was there for the first Russian Formula 1 GP in October and clearly saw that the legacy of Sochi is guaranteed. There are producers around the world who would kill to have this space and to have the budget to put on a show which could run for two-three months.

A couple of stadiums in Moscow are also undergoing reconstruction at the moment. You’ve probably heard about the “Luzhniki” stadium built in the 1950s. There’s been a lot of debate concerning its “transformation” lately. Muscovites are worried that its historic value will be destroyed in the process. In your view, should stadiums be considered heritage sites and if yes, how to preserve historic value during large-scale reconstruction?

Luzhniki is not a fixed monument in historical time. It has grown and there were amendments made right up to the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example the domed roof. So it’s a new building. In the 1950s it was a very simple structure opened to the air. Now the time has come for the interior to be optimised as a national football stadium which could still host track and field.

We worked on the masterplan and it was for the whole park, not just the stadium. It had to be done in order to preserve Luzhniki as a brand. There were major technical difficulties in optimising it for football and track and field: there’s a huge sewer or drain that goes underneath the stadium. Getting rid of that would have allowed us to make something that was perfect for Olympic games and perfect for football.

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The “Luzhniki” stadium

But the price of this procedure is $500 million – just the removal of the drain. Luzhniki means “marsh lands” or “meadows” in Russian. So, it’s very wet, very difficult terrain. So, what’s being built now is a stadium which is very good for football. It doesn’t match all the criteria that FIFA requires but it will be optimised for football and track and field. Can it host an international event? Probably not. The memories of the 1980 Olympics will remain, but it can no longer host a full-scale international athletics event. Technically it’s possible, but who can justify the expenditure of half a billion dollars?