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Mbombela Stadium
Mbombela (Nelspruit), Mpumalanga

RandL ARCHITECTS: Architect
Mike BELL: Design Architect

2011SAIA MP Award for Architecture
2012SAIA Award of Merit


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25°27'39.34" S 30°55'47.75" E

Mbombela Stadium Critique

MIKE BELL, DESIGN ARCHITECT of the Mbombela Stadium, afforded me a visit to the completed project on the eve of the first game to be played there between Chile and Honduras on the afternoon of Youth Day. The place was abuzz and security an issue but I did gain access to most of the accommodation and areas.

It must be stated that I am no sport fan and have rarely attended any matches, and never a soccer match so all the programmatic requirements were novel to me.

What did strike me is that the building type, just as with all such dedicated buildings, is tightly locked into the requirements of programme - yet there should still be aspects of long life, low energy, loose fit if there is to be life after the beautiful game.

It also led me to reflect that while there is much carping about costs, ritualised warfare - when money goes up in smoke you've precious little left to show for it except a heap of corpses - is more sustainable than the real thing. We've been there and are now spared that.

The stadium had been in planning before the 2010 Soccer World Cup was given to South Africa so when tenders were called for the local firm represented, by Jacques TERBLANCHE of ORBICON who had been part of the initial planning, was asked by R&L Architects to join their team in the bid.

Immediately evident on encountering the project is that most of the local sensibilities prevail. Unlike those stadia in the 'Big Five' cities, this one has a high local content, in the choice of materials and technologies, a first determinant of 'sustainability'. Even the design team is of the most local. Mike BELL was once a Highveld based architect and with his added five years of experience in the United States he finds resonance with the place and the demands of the design.

Early design decisions have as result a string of consequences. By opting for a rectangular rather than oval plan-form the team were able to achieve a high degree of modularisation, thereby saving time and costs. Concrete elements could be pre-cast adjacent the stadium and manoeuvred directly into place.

The roof structure needs to be carefully studied by those students fond of their highly strung architecture. The steel pylons stand four-square on the concrete supports and all forces are brought back to that structure and taken to ground. A catwalk towards the edge of the cantilever serves the obvious purpose of making lights and services accessible but the mass of a 100mm concrete floor adds enough counterbalance to stop lift if the forces are inverted by wind-loading.

A problem with all buildings with exposed articulation is one of birds. The Brazil Builds Modern of the University of Pretoria is now wrapped in shade-cloth to keep them out. The Mbombela Stadium has a draped corrugated metal ceiling that protects the smaller structural members from nesting and roosting. The larger members, designed for the maximum size that could be locally rolled by Iscor, are too large for avian comfort. A deliberate design decision was to have the roof clear of the substructure of the raked seating so that spectators, when their eye was not on the ball, might have eye contact with the surrounds, and not just glimpse the sky through an oculus. The happy consequence is that visually the ceiling acts as a lens and guides the eye to the exposed sky and horizon. The additional effect is that although the stadium has one of the greatest percentage roofed seating of all those delivered for the World Cup, the sense is one of lightness, enhanced by the reverse curve of the ceiling and low pitch of the roof.

The Lowveld, with its lush subtropical vegetation and strong colours of bauhinia, coral trees, African flames and exotic bougainvillea and poinsettia, offers opportunity, other to those stadia at the coast, for a rich palette of colour. Because the stadium has been designed as a direct expression of all its elements, it also has plenty of exposed surfaces and these have been joyfully exploited. Harmonised strong colours have been used throughout, and under the strong sunlight reflect colour into the surrounding spaces. When I watched the game on television - an obligation keenly felt, having just been there - these intermingled with the colours of the fans and formed a visual vibrancy suited to the age of the video image.

A serendipity arose from the moire patterns formed on the monitor by the computer graphics of a myriad of seats. Mike was showing his nephew the drawings for the stadium on screen who thought the zebra stripes had been designed. They stuck, although just how many seats to a stripe was the challenge.

The firm R&L also designed the symbols for amenities as well as the logo of the stadium. The Hungarian graphic and typography designer Levente Halmos was responsible for the typeface used throughout, a style that lends itself well to the required large format and complements all the other graphic devices, colours and forms of the stadium.

I was taken to the front of house ops centre and saw the huge volume of drawings there, just under 900 AOs. I asked Mike if he thought that they had all been looked at, to which he replied 'Not enough'. What impressed me was the clarity of the computer drawings and legibility of the information. The person responsible for determining a standard for these in the office of R&L was Ferdi CASTELL and this has since become the in-house style for contract and working drawings.

The project reflects an obvious synergy in the design team in achieving a cohesive resolution, where there are - as yet - no obvious 'add-ons'. Mike admits to enjoying the challenges of engineering and has good rapport with the civil engineers. The optimising of the design with a view to maximising gain while minimising resources has led to an efficiency in resolution - the raking of the tiers, span, sizing of elements, circulation patterns, up to the selection of colour and where it is placed - all have a seamlessness about it.

The stadium has had ongoing bad press both locally and nationally. This has rarely been related to the design although at one point the re-laying of the pitch three times, each time with a different grass, caused public outcry, and the fall of a gantry in high winds with the subsequent damage to the north-west corner of the steelworks of the roof, then under construction, led to public alarm. The circumstances of the tendering and acquisition of land has been fraught with politicking and legal wrangling. Strikes by the workforce increased the final cost of the stadium. There are even rumours of murders circumstantially connected with the project.

But the stadium is complete and in use. It looks like it belongs to its place and reflects the technologies and materials we associate with a regional response - concrete, brick, glass and steel. Although large and looming adjacent the huddle of the Matafin settlement whose land it occupies, it is robust enough to deliver years of service and give identity to its community.

The giraffes? Well, the Kruger Park is just down the road. As explained, the pylons only needed a snout which came at little extra cost and the stadium has popular and recognisable imagery - whimsical, perhaps, but it does make for a snazzy logo.

[FISHER, RC, 2010. Mbombela Stadium. Architecture South Africa. Jul/Aug, pp 42-3]

Award for Architecture Citation

A world class sports facility creating a recognisable proud image to the Nelspruit/ Mbombela skyline.

All the structural elements have clearly stated functions.

External vertical circulation ramps make for easy movement between levels.
The "bowl" of the stadium is so planned that the spectators feel near the action.
Space economy and clever planning has led to it being the Soccer Cup stadium with the greatest percentage roof cover.

Finishes are chosen in order to take a "hammering".
Using longer than standard doors in spaces under the "bowl" helps scale the building.
A "bright" colour scheme helps liven what could have been "dark spaces" under the "bowl".

A year after the 2010 World Soccer Cup event and the Mbombela Stadium has taken on a life of its own, already having had close on half-a-million spectators pass through it. It has proven a robust and functional facility, as one of the Argentine inspectors remarked “A real football stadium and not a cathedral!” And in addition to that, all proudly South African to boot. The architecture is direct, the structure simple and legible, and the giraffe pylons a little touch of whimsy to add to the festive air. In recognition of its architectural distinctiveness it is a worthy recipient of the Mpumalanga Institute of Architects 2011 Award for Architecture.

All truncated references not fully cited below are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.