Balancing function and heritage concerns, Cox Architecture in association with Walter Brooke and Hames Sharley redevelops Adelaide’s iconic sports venue.
How do we experience architecture? In just one evening this year an estimated one billion people watched a game of cricket at the redeveloped Adelaide Oval. Watching sport on television provides opportunities for different levels of engagement with a physical environment. The viewer can drift in and out or be completely immersed. Television cameras only distinguish peculiarities such as roof shape or the punctuation of light towers. Zoom out and it is the ground’s setting that gives it identity, leading commentators to rate sporting venues not just for their popularity, but for how picturesque they are.
The redevelopment has not been without controversy. With a history dating back to 1871, when the grounds first served as a cricket field, what we now know as the Adelaide Oval has seen several changes to its original form. Historic photographs reveal idiosyncrasies long lost: a narrow and irregular shape, characterized by a short and straight western boundary (to accommodate a previous finishing straight for bicycle racing); a collection of low-lying, red-roofed pavilions set back from the concourse, with the near-uninterrupted view of tree canopies disrupted by the spire of St Peter’s Cathedral; and the innovative but ultimately flawed retractable light towers added in 1997. Not to mention the contentious issue of building in Adelaide’s beloved ring of parklands. As the new works emerged in 2013, the Oval was cited by the UK’s Telegraph as an example of heritage “being desecrated by architects as iconic stadiums switch to the soulless Starship Enterprise school of design.” Indeed, the Oval, previously described as one of the most picturesque in the world, is now almost unrecognizable. Flying into Adelaide on a flight path that almost nudges the Oval, you can see how dramatic the transformation has been.
The groundwork for the redevelopment was laid in 2008 with the completion of the Western Grandstand, designed by Hassell and Cox Architecture in association. This grandstand, which subsumed the historic George Giffen, Sir Edwin Smith and Mostyn Evan stands, had a major transformative effect on the Oval but managed to retain critical features such as the ivy-covered red brick arches and the Village Green to its rear. The Oval’s completion in March 2014, by Cox Architecture in association with Walter Brooke and Hames Sharley, includes the Eastern and Southern Stands, public plazas and ancillary spaces. This latest development was initiated because the Oval failed to meet key performance criteria for a number of sports, putting at risk its ability to host major international events. The redevelopment was conceived as an activated and flexible public events platform to encourage a greater diversity of activities, for while it had hosted eighteen different sports and events ranging from concerts to corroborees, the Oval was seen primarily as a cricket venue. One strategy to increase use of the stadium has been the relocation of match-day operations and some training sessions of the two Adelaide-based Australian Rules football clubs to the Oval. On the footy clubs’ game days, attendance consistently reaches close to capacity.
From above, the Oval has a near-symmetrical form defined by white floating diagrid roofs, scalloped on two sides and anchored by a massive inverted dish above the Southern Stand. But perhaps what differentiates it from many other modern stadiums is that the roofs do not form a complete whole – there is a gap at the northern end. This creates a horseshoe-shaped enclosure not dissimilar to the venue of the first modern Olympic Games, the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens. To its detractors, including The Telegraph , this lack of singularity may mean that the Oval’s new roofs crassly resemble an open-ended toilet seat. However, it is precisely this missing part that helps explain the driving principles behind the Oval’s redevelopment.
In a nod to the Oval’s heritage, the project was conceived as three pavilions in a parkland setting to maintain visual permeability. These pavilions form a composition around the northern mound, retained not only to provide a relaxed alternative viewing platform, but also to preserve the Moreton Bay fig trees and Kenneth Milne’s Edwardian scoreboard located at that end. Another goal was to maintain views of St Peter’s Cathedral, although it is now screened from parts of the ground and no longer a prominent feature on the horizon. Nonetheless this attention to outward views, rather than the normal focus on the game, is a potent move. It is amplified by the provision of open decks at both north and south ends, each affording alternative spaces for social interaction and panoramic perspectives of the parklands and the city.
The stadium is a civic place and fortuitously located. Sports fans ritualistically congregate in the city and troop across the new Riverbank Bridge pedestrian link to the Southern Plaza, conceived as a town square for events and replacing a former car park. Arrival into the ground is marked by voluminous foyer spaces providing a direct connection with the green of the playing field. This sequence of experiences helps to develop a strong, almost visceral sense of theatre. And it doesn’t end there. The redevelopment recognizes that as much happens behind the stands as in front of them, with an amalgam of spaces of individual character providing specific moments for pause, retreat, refreshment and entertainment. The primary horizontal connector within the Southern and Eastern Stands is a promenade running under the seating plats that terminates in a framed view of the scoreboard. While this is a device for the movement of large numbers of people, it has none of the prosaic herding qualities of a bunker, airport queuing space or livestock run. Instead it acts as an internal street, overlooked and activated by adjacent spaces.
Many of the functions under the tiered seating are deliberately punched through the perimeter skin, revealing the mix of movement and activities within, and interrupting the homogeneous and impersonal exterior sometimes associated with stadiums. External materials were selected to age gracefully and to act as reference points to Adelaide’s heritage. For example, coloured and textured precast panels incorporating local sands respond to the stonework of Adelaide’s early civic buildings, and bronze cladding and copper mesh screens acknowledge the scattering of metal sculptures in the city’s terraces and gardens. These materials are wrapped through to internal spaces and combined with timber, providing a higher level of detail, intimacy and richness than what is normally expected in a building of this type.
The Oval especially comes alive when illuminated at night; its glowing roofs and silhouetted movement make it look like an animated vertical village. And while it now positively hums with a full crowd, an atmosphere that can be captured by the television cameras, it is the peripheral activities that provide the full experience. The redevelopment reinforces the Oval’s status as a characterful place, one that is not just a stadium, and in turn extends the contemporary typology of sports venue design. Much like its host city, the Oval is not necessarily as big or as bold as some of its international counterparts; its qualities are subtler than that. It’s the subtleties that would not be apparent on the screen that may well prove to embed this venue in the sporting fixtures and minds of generations of sports fans.