The revitalized Margaret Court Arena by NH Architecture and Populous explores the complex relationship between sports stadia and the city.
The Australian Open tennis championship means big bucks to Melbourne, Australia’s “sports capital.” In 2007, the City of Melbourne estimated it brought over $240 million into the state’s economy, along with more than 554,000 visitors. Melbourne Park, located less than a kilometre from the offices of Collins Street in the CBD, has played host to the Open since 1988. The park, along with the adjacent Olympic and Yarra Parks, forms part of the Sports and Entertainment Precinct, a key staging ground in Melbourne’s attempt to project itself as a “world-class” events city.
So imagine the panic when, in 2008, a covetous New South Wales launched a bid to pinch the Australian Open, one of the crown jewels of Melbourne’s annual events calendar and the raison d’être for Melbourne Park and its many tennis-focused facilities. It certainly got the attention of Victoria’s state government: two years later, it announced a $363 million first stage redevelopment of Melbourne Park. Carried out according to a masterplan by Cox Architecture and Populous, this renovation would include upgraded and increased seating in major venues, improved player facilities and revamped public spaces. Partly in response to the increasingly hot temperatures of Melbourne in late January, when the Australian Open is played, it would also include an essentially “new” covered venue at Margaret Court Arena.
Designed by NH Architecture and Populous, the new Margaret Court Arena could be described as not much more than a roof and some extra seats (1500, to be exact) for the old Show Court One. The media has certainly made much of the operable roof, which can open or close in just five minutes – purportedly faster than any other roof of its kind in the world. As the history of this precinct demonstrates, though, this project is also about Melbourne’s identity and how it projects that identity to the world; it is about realizing the opportunities stadia bring to the city but it is also an attempt to tackle some of their problems.
Margaret Court Arena shares turf space with some illustrious (and not-so-illustrious) sports architecture: the MCG, AAMI Park, The Westpac Centre, Rod Laver Arena and a slew of other lesser stadia and facilities in the muscular, expressed engineering mould established by their bigger, more prominent teammates. Most of these projects were completed within the past three decades. Although they are contemporary works, the precedent for these buildings stretches back two millennia. As Philip Cox, one of the architects of both AAMI Park and Rod Laver Arena, has put it: “The Colosseum is the genesis of this architecture and has always inspired me – a round theatre with a space that has the sky for a roof.”1 There is, however, only one Colosseum – it stands alone in the heart of Rome. What do you get if you have half a football team’s worth of would-be Colosseums, all muscle and might, jostling for attention in the middle of a city? Well, you get Melbourne’s Sports and Entertainment Precinct, and a terrible mess.
Unlike the humble neighbourhood sportsground, which makes for a great place for those lesser mortals who aren’t professional sportspeople to walk the dog and kick a football, contemporary stadia have a tendency to suck the life out of urban space, hoovering up the land that surrounds them to accommodate an irregular influx of crowds and cars. Sealed off from all but the sky internally, externally they tend to be monumental objects that, due to their scale, economy of construction and singular purpose, bear little relationship to their environs. At Melbourne’s Sports and Entertainment Precinct, these problems are multiplied manyfold. The result is that a large chunk of prime riverfront parkland in the heart of the city has become a discombobulated field of giant objects that is disorientating for visitors and near impassable for casual pedestrians. Quite understandably, outside of events periods, much of this precinct remains sparsely populated and under-utilized. While the masterplanning work by Cox and Populous tries to rectify these problems, the requirement to cram an ever-greater number of facilities of ever more-enormous proportion and “iconic” quality into the precinct works against these efforts.
As Hamish Lyon, director of NH Architecture, says, Margaret Court Arena is a clear break with this legacy of “Brutus Maximus” sports buildings. In place of muscular twentieth-century engineering, the design team looked to twenty-first-century consumer electronics for inspiration – the design of the arena’s coppery, pleated roof, for example, mimics the ultrathin, metallic forms of smartphones and other portable media devices. The roof reads as an understated series of pitched roofs in profile, but from a distance – say, the upper floors of the office towers in Collins Street – the iridescent orange of the copper paint makes for a sharp contrast with the homogeneous white steel of the arena’s neighbours. Appropriately, for a building inspired by portable media devices, the hope is that this will make it stand out for camera people filming from news helicopters. This departure from precedent has made the building unpopular with some. I’ve heard it described as too different, the wrong colour, the wrong shape and even too polite – this last from Joe Rollo, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, who also found it reminiscent of the terracotta roofs common to suburban housing. It’s unlikely Rollo intended this as a compliment, but it’s not a bad metaphor: there’s something appropriate about this roof being a subtly heroic monument to suburbia in the heart of the city, given most people will be sitting at home watching the tournament on telly (or on their portable media devices). For better or worse, in the great suburban tradition of the extension or the lean-to, the new building is also attached to Rod Laver Arena.
Apart from the inevitable awkwardness that results when you build onto an arena designed to read as a singular, semi-radial building, this relationship presents some urban problems that haven’t been entirely resolved. My first visit to the project fell on a sunny Friday evening during the middle of the 2015 Australian Open. Lyon had arranged to meet me at the main entry to the building and was very particular about directions – all for naught, of course, because when the time came I joined the hundreds of others on autopilot, following their noses from the city down Batman Avenue and along the river to the public forecourt in front of Rod Laver Arena, on the corner of Batman Avenue and Olympic Boulevard. The main entry to Margaret Court Arena, however, is actually on the opposite side of Rod Laver Arena, facing north-east, towards the tram and train lines. From a public transport perspective, this makes sense, but intuition and experience tell us that buildings address the street, especially when that street backs onto an important public promenade like Birrarung Marr on the banks of the Yarra River. The forthcoming footbridge (designed by John Wardle Architects and NADAAA) that will span from Birrarung Marr across Batman Avenue might help, as it will provide direct access for those pedestrians arriving at the precinct from the north-west, but it won’t change the fact that the building’s most dramatic address, the main entry, has been reserved for a rail yard.
Nevertheless, the main entry to Margaret Court Arena certainly has drama. Here, any perception of the building’s roof form as somehow “suburban” gets barrelled aside by the sheer scale of it, as it swoops out to shelter the grandly proportioned stairs leading to the entry. These stairs double as tiered seating, where visitors might gather in the shade and watch the passing crowds. The roof plane, in fact, stretches out to form deep eaves all around the building, providing much-needed shelter from both sun and rain – a clear indication that this building has ambitions to be more than just an “icon,” or a great place to play tennis. This impression is born out internally, where a glazed double-height concourse that wraps the arena proper provides an elevated prospect across the outdoor tennis courts to leafy, riverbank parkland and the city skyline beyond. Where the conventional stadium is a sealed and singular amphitheatre that looks only inwards, or skywards, this building offers its visitors – be they spectators or news presenters with cameras in tow – a distinctive sense of place, of being a part of Melbourne.
Margaret Court Arena is not a heroic landmark in the mould of the MCG or AAMI Park, but it is a valiant attempt to establish a new, more human precedent for the sportsground type – one that improves, rather than detracts from, the public amenity of its setting. If numbers are anything to go by, the improvements are proving attractive for the public, too: by the close of play in 2015, the Australian Open had logged a record number of 703,899 attendees.
New South Wales, it seems, might have a while to wait yet.
1. Philip Cox in Dean Dewhirst (ed.), From the Ground Up: 20 Stories of a Life in Architecture (Melbourne: Uro Publications, 2014), 36.