Architect: Hassell Cox HKS
Review by Philip Vivian
Photography by Peter Bennetts and John Gollings
As the centrepiece of an urban rehabilitation project east of Perth’s CBD, this sporting landmark is uniquely of its place while also serving as an international gateway to the city.
A government’s investment in cultural infrastructure such as a stadium is fundamentally an exercise in city building. As Norman Foster once remarked, “You cannot separate the buildings out from the infrastructure of cities and the mobility of transport.” Before reviewing Optus Stadium by Hassell, Cox and HKS, it’s worth considering the Western Australian Government’s aims in commissioning it and whether they have been achieved.
The government decided to locate the stadium on the Burswood Peninsula, across the Swan River from the eastern end of Perth’s CBD. The site was originally quite isolated and used as a rubbish dump, with an adjacent horseracing track and a casino. In recent times the Graham Farmer Freeway has been extended through the centre of the peninsula, as well as a new railway line, making it much more connected to the city.
In selecting the site, the aim was to even out Perth’s traditional bias toward the west of the CBD, with its older beachside suburbs, while also providing a site that was highly connected to public transport. All train lines in Perth connect, either directly or indirectly to Perth Stadium railway station. In this sense the site selection has been highly successful, with early estimates of spectator transport suggesting 90 percent arriving by either bus or train, far exceeding the government’s 70 percent target. The location also capitalizes on the tourism and branding potential of event coverage, being close to the Perth CBD, with scenic views of the city skyline and river in the background. A new bridge designed by DCM (under construction at the time of this review) will connect the stadium precinct to the eastern end of the city, making it possible for spectators to walk or cycle to events and, importantly, back to the city afterwards. While it is too early to judge the success of this move, it is hoped that it will allow the city to capture the economic benefits of hosting major events.
While the rehabilitation of the rubbish tip to create community benefits such as rehabilitated river and lake edges, playing fields, bike and fitness tracks and an extensive children’s adventure playground is clearly welcomed by the community one can’t help wondering if the parti of a stadium surrounded by parkland is based more on a car-centric suburban model than on a compact, connected city model. It needs to be acknowledged that the stadium has potentially precipitated the development of residential apartments on the Belmont Park Racecourse site and has the ability to connect to the Burswood residential and resort complex to the south. However, in my opinion, surrounding the stadium with a park is a lost opportunity to use the government’s investment to catalyse development on the site and create an urban place along the lines referred to by global cities author Edward Glaeser in his book Triumph of the City when he says, “Today successful cities, old or young, attract smart entrepreneurial people, in part, by being urban theme parks.”
The urban setting was, however, beyond the control of the architectural joint venture made up of Hassell, Cox and HKS. The team, tasked with delivering on the government’s vision, has remained faithful to the reference design, the primary change being to rotate the bus hub ninety degrees to the stadium to allow for future expansion while also improving pedestrian flow. Accepting these starting conditions, the team has focused on enhancing the visitor experience in every design decision.
Notwithstanding my earlier critique, the parkland surrounds provide a beautiful setting from which to survey the sculptural qualities of the new stadium. Sitting on a single-storey masonry plinth that feels like a human-made West Australian limestone outcrop or mesa, the stadium has the dynamic interplay of a powerfully simple elliptical geometry and complex referential overlay. The elliptical geometry of the field is designed for multiple sports including cricket, soccer, Australian Rules football and (with some adjustment) the Commonwealth Games as well as music concerts. The elliptical bowl is aligned east-west to the primary axis of the city – a fortuitous alignment of functional and symbolic requirements.
Externally, the stadium is expressed as two components: a façade wrap that encloses the stadium bowl and a floating “halo” roof. The wrap consists of horizontally layered perforated strips of aluminium in various tones of bronze, intentionally recalling the striated rock formations of Western Australia’s north-west. This façade is a ventilated rain screen, protecting fans as they circulate while simultaneously allowing natural ventilation. LED lights integrated into the screen can be animated and change to the various team colours, allowing the entire perimeter of the stadium to participate in building the atmosphere in the lead-up to a game.
The wrap is ‘eroded’ on the cardinal points of the field to signify entry. Opposite the new Perth Stadium railway station to the east, the wrap lifts up to reveal a grand five-storey atrium as the main entry and arrival point. On the other side it is inflected toward the city, gently curving down to reveal views of the Perth skyline and Swan River from indoor and outdoor hospitality facilities. This firmly establishes the stadium’s urban connection and aspirations beyond a building isolated in a park, while elegantly acknowledging its context.
The Western end of the stadium is further reinforced by two restaurant pods located outside the stadium bowl, framing views to the city and offering fans venues for pre- and post-game dining. While successful at an urban scale, these zinc-clad pods are one of the few architectural elements that are underwhelming and lacking in a finer scale detail or rationale.
Around the southern side of the stadium, an arbour of parabolic steel arches connects the bridge to the train station, with a tensile artwork for shade, one of many interpretive works by Aboriginal artists around the site. While this is an elegant structure and acknowledging that every effort has been made to animate the site throughout the year, with artworks, community events, trails and playgrounds, one can’t help wondering if this could have been an urban boulevard defined by buildings with ground-floor restaurants and bars, like the Colosseum embedded in the fabric of Rome or, closer to home, the Docklands Stadium in Melbourne.
The roof “halo” appears to float above the façade wrap, like an array of clouds over landscape. Striking in its simplicity, the halo consists of a series of white steel triangulated trusses, with a white membrane fabric infill roof providing cover to 85 percent of the sixty thousand seats. The roof glows during the day and with uplighting at night contributes to the animation of the stadium. This simple and singular signature roof makes the stadium a recognizable gateway to the city.
Internally, the stadium bowl far surpasses the functionality of its layout. A broad public concourse between the façade wrap and the bowl keeps fans connected to the fame while creating a grand perimeter promenade. Inside, the stadium bowl is designed to maximize the intensity of the game. Seating tiers are layered to increase proximity and density enhancing both the spectator’s experience and the atmosphere of the stadium itself. Even when it is empty one can experience the intensity created by the geometry and sectional characteristics of the bowl. As Peter Dean, design principal at Hassell who led the design, says “intensity equals proximity with density.” While the open seating bowl has been crafted for the spectators, no stone is left unturned for premium corporate entertaining, located on the long north and south sides of the stadium, with optimum views of the field. These hospitality venues have interiors more commonly associated with a high-end resort than a sporting venue.
Today, as sport has become a global commodity, many new stadiums are designed around the world. The can be broadly classified into three types: functionally expressive stadiums, such as Foster and Parters’ Wembly Stadium in London, Renzo Piano’s Stadio San Nicola in Bari or Arup’s Cardiff City Stadium; designer stadiums, such as those by Herzog and deMeuron in Beijing and Munich; and urban renewal stadiums, such as Populous’s Oriole park at Camden Yards in Baltimore or CenturyLink Field in Seattle, designed by Ellerbe Becket, LMN Architects and Streeter and Associates. Perth’s Optus Stadium cleverly melds the best of these types, with a functional clarity of purpose overlaid by interpretive design references to Western Australia’s unique geology. In doing so it manages to be both uniquely of its place and an international gateway to the city. Perhaps over time its success will lead to the urbanization of the peninsula and embed this architectural gem in urban fabric.
-Philip Vivian is a Sydney-based design director of Bates Smart, a contributing editor to Architecture Australia and president of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (Australia).