After events like the World Cup or Olympics, massive sports arenas are often abandoned. But they can be repurposed to benefit society, Jonathan Glancey argues.

When Olympic arenas, World Cup stadiums and other costly sporting venues close at the end of the colourful events for which they were designed, what happens to them? Many go on to host local sports clubs. Others, though, become proverbial ‘white elephants’, scraping by as glorified parking lots, dirt tracks for stock-car racing and even, as in the case of Montreal’s spectacular Olympic Stadium, as a swine-flu vaccination centre.

In truth, such big buildings – the size of entire city blocks or larger – can be almost anything that the imagination, structural limitations, money, political will and planning laws allow. Even so, it is remarkable how many remain empty. While making a film in 1999 about the world’s Great Exhibitions, I was amazed to find the long-abandoned halls of London’s 1908 Franco-British exhibition, host to part of that year’s Olympics, on the site of what is a Westfield shopping mall today. What had become giant pigeon nests were ghostly remnants of what, nearly a century earlier, had been a giant fairy tale realm called White City.

This summer, the spotlight has been on the World Cup stadiums in Brazil, a country where there is said to be a shortage of more than five million homes although many more millions of Brazilian reals have been spent on expensive venues like the Arena de Amazônia in Manaus and the Arena das Dunas in Natal. Host to just four World Cup matches, the ambitious 44,000-seat Manaus stadium is destined to become home to the local fourth-division football team that attracts crowds of little more than a thousand per game. One Brazilian judge has suggested it should be turned into a prison.

The Arena das Dunas is similarly challenged, and even the new $900m Estadio Nacional in Brasília, which hosted seven matches this summer, is destined to serve fourth division teams. It will have to wait until the 2016 Olympics to fill so many of its 72,000 seats again.

From spectacle to service

This is why two young French architects, Axel de Stampa and Sylvain Macaux, have published colourful proposals for what they call “Casa Futebol”. They suggest slotting low-cost housing units, rather like freight containers with picture windows, into tiers of World Cup stadiums. Varying in size between 50 and 150 sqm (538 to 1,614 sq ft), up to 350 of these could fit into the Estadio Nacional leaving plenty of seats for those attending games and other events. The idea is to stimulate debate about what to do with these giant Brazilian venues in the face of poverty and an acute housing shortage.

The French architects might have gone further, and suggested shops, a clinic, a nursery and other commercial and civic activities. Well, why not? These would certainly bring life, money and colour to these ‘white elephants’. In any case, the idea has been tried out successfully in North America. Last summer, residents moved in to apartments built into the redundant Bush Stadium in Indianapolis. The Art Deco stadium, opened in 1931 as home to the Indians basketball team, closed in 1997. Used as a speedway dirt track for a couple of years, it was a storage depot between 2008 and 2011 for old cars dumped during the US government’s $3bn Cash for Clunkers programme – aimed at getting Americans to trade in old gas-guzzlers – before being bought by a local developer and transformed into new homes by Heartland Design architects. It retains much of the appearance of a stadium, including its cinematic entrance, and sports a green space for residents to look out on.

The eye-catching Pyramid Arena in Memphis, Tennessee, dating from 1991 and redundant since 2004, might have made a good housing project, too. This remarkable stadium, designed in the guise of, yes, a 98m-high pyramid, by the Atlanta-based architect-engineers Rosser Fabrap for the Memphis Grizzlies and University of Memphis men’s basketball teams is, however, being converted into a Bass Pro megastore specialising in hunting, fishing and outdoors gear. There will also be a shooting and an archery range along with a 16-lane bowling alley, a high-level observation deck and a branch of Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl and Grill restaurant.

Some arenas have closed because the sport they were built for has lost favour or even been banned. This is the case of Las Arenas, a former bullring in Barcelona. Designed in a Moorish style and opened in 1900, Las Arenas played host to thousands of fights between bulls and such famous matadors as El Cordobes and Dominguin, one time lover of the Hollywood star Ava Gardner, before it gave up the ghost, and gore, in 1997. In 2011, the year after Catalonia abolished bull fighting, Las Arenas reopened as a shopping mall. The architect was Richard Rogers, best known for the Pompidou Centre, Paris, and for the colourful new terminal at Madrid’s Barajas airport. With its rooftop walkway, atrium cafes and designer shops, Las Arenas is perhaps even more popular than it was in the day of Dominguin and El Cordobes. This summer, the Emir of Qatar said he is willing to spend €2.2bn converting another redundant Barcelona bullring, La Monumental, into Europe’s biggest mosque complete with a 300m minaret.

In this era of fervid global consumption, however, ever more ailing sports arenas are likely to become shopping malls. While this is not the most imaginative use they can be put to, it is a profitable one. And, yet, looking at such epic follies as Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, designed by the French architect Roger Taillibert in a heroic Organic Modern style complete with a 175m sloping tower incorporating a funicular cable railway, wouldn’t it be good to see such a bravura design conjured into a ‘city of the future’, complete with ultra-modern homes and other showcases of the very latest science and technology? Of course, with so much space to play with, there would still be room inside for at least a modernist ice hockey pitch, a basketball court and a public swimming pool, if not a 70,000-seat World Cup football arena.

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