The sense of the stadium

The sense of the stadium by Anna Tudos [HU]

There is a stadium on the outskirts of the town. I have never been there. It was built in the post-war era, where cities were imagined as the collection of functionally separated quarters: for living, for working, for recreation. This stadium doesn’t integrate into the city. The building is without a character and its whole surrounding area is derelict during working hours.

There is another stadium I have never been to. It is a football stadium, the home of a Lithuanian cement factory’s team. In the short film ‘Cheer Up, Virginijus’[1] , I get to experience it through the eyes of a small child. The film is similar in style to propaganda films common in the Soviet Block, but there seems to be a bit of irony disguised as naivety in the voice of the narrator – the small boy. He explains the weak performance of the factory football team as the symptom of them having eaten too much or having not slept enough. He decides it would have been a better choice to visit the community garden instead, right next to the housing estate where he lives. I wonder if there’s still a stadium in that town in 2021?

cement

The social spaces offered by stadiums are deeply embedded in the fabric of their environments. The backside of separating recreational spaces from working and living areas has become apparent by the 21st century, and new approaches to building have been implemented all over the world. Social activity (sports) in the city and its venues are constituting each other [2], which is visible through the historical examination of the ‘sense of place’ (place in our case being the stadium). By looking at the specificities of the context and architecture of urban stadiums, I will attempt to contextualize the ‘sense of the stadium’ and its place in urban society.

Where is the stadium rooted?

There are multiple directions one can take with this question. I can of course mention the ancient Greeks, with their horseshoe-shaped structures built in preparation for the Olympic Games, organized to honor Zeus. Fittingly, spectators were often watching the games from a hill, without seating. The Greek and Roman stadiums differ largely from the modern stadium, a typical example of the Foucauldian model. Different sectors welcome different classes and neighborhoods and this internal segregation is matched by the external look: the common homogenous concrete structure of the stadium building presents the image of a fortified prison. This slightly darker vision of the stadium creeps into our contemporary experience and includes high-tech surveillance thanks to the televised games and the manifestation of consumer-logic as gift shops and food trucks start to multiply. However, there is also an approach that favors the community aspect and promotes the stadium experience as ‘topophilia’, the love of place.

Stadium on the outskirts of the town

In the end, it can be said that stadiums spill their benefits as well as their problems on to the urban communities they are embedded in. With a variety of landscape elements, the stadium can be a defining point of association when talking about a specific neighborhood. Oftentimes, stadiums of contesting football clubs create an East-West (Glasgow, Scotland) or North-South (Budapest, Hungary) axis in the city. As agglomerations grow, the territories old stadium buildings are standing on become valuable, leading to a constant demolition of the old and building of the new. A typical case of fanatic stadium building can be witnessed in Hungary, where aspirations for national football trophies resulted in megalomaniac architectural solutions. As a part of this plan, plenty of stadiums lacking any character were built. These are uniform structures, sanitised ‘non-places’ that don’t connect to their environments (they could literally be anywhere in the world), leave no room for spontaneous action and suppress the expression of human emotions.

The special case of Hungary: prison-like, uniform stadium complexes such as Puskas Arena (left) are being built rapidly but a unique project resulted in the Pancho stadium (right) inspired by the architectural style of Imre Makovecz. This stadium serves as a tool for cultural politics, merging conservative ideals of national folklore and national sport. ‘A stadium can be a sanctuary too’ – described by Pál Schmitt (former president).

Internationally, this tendency to homogenise the style of the stadium goes hand in hand with leaving behind the ideals of gigantic complex stadiums and building multiple smaller sports facilities, spread all over cities. Smaller units can fit better with specific needs of specific sports and they also grant the diversity of functions of the built environment in a given neighborhood. Such sports facilities are often housed within transformed and renovated, already existing venues. The question arises whether such acts of care could be performed with derelict stadium structures?

The stadium as future potentiality – Stadionul Republican

There are examples of stadiums in Ireland or Chile that have been used to intern prisoners, but also the news has been filled lately with stories of stadiums being turned into emergency hospitals in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stadium grounds can be used for militaristic activities and other political displays, local rituals, high-school leaving balls and so on. In the future, we might see more alternative uses popping up for such structures. The adaptability of an abandoned stadium however might not match these examples. Electricity is needed to be able to light up the grounds after sunset and running water for hygienic needs. Historic stadiums are in this case a bit like prefabricated homes to be filled with new modular furniture – they offer crucial space, but not many regard them as sites with history, or even of heritage. In 1985, White City Stadium in London was demolished by developers, because it didn’t occur to give the stadium (built for the 1908 Olympic Games) preservation status. Society preserves its collective practices and memories in its buildings and when a building is lost, efforts have to be made to save that heritage for the future.

There is a stadium in the centre of Chisinau, Moldova. I have never been there. I understand Stadionul Republican as a ‘nonument’[4], a public space that has undergone a shift in symbolic meaning as a consequence of political and social changes. When people are denied access to Stadionul Republican, because the territory is being sold to build the next US Embassy on it, the space is being taken away from the city. Stadiums have been identified as spaces of political representation since the Roman circus, where emperors solidified their power by giving people bread and circus. The inhabitants of Chisinau shouldn’t be bribed with clownish performances to hide the real reason of the deal. The facts are presented: the decision has been made that the stadium must go.

wim_delvoye

Wim Delvoye: ‘Panem et circenses I’ (Bread & Games), Football goals, made of glass, 1990

I would argue that in this case, the stadium could benefit from embracing the fact that in the end what it does, is offer space. It offers the freedom of physical movement, bodily exercise. It offers the opportunity to be outdoors, with others, a quality that became highly valuable in 2020 when everybody was instructed to keep a distance. Why can’t we turn the logic around and use the lightning that brings football games closer to theatrical acts for actual performances? Communal cheering, singing songs, and even the mockery, which contribute largely to the ‘sense of the stadium’ can be saved, by bottom-up initiatives, DIY skateboard ramps, parkour presentations, people walking dogs, doing graffiti, carrying banners. The ‘sense of the stadium’ can be saved for the future, even for after the stadium facilities are all gone.

[1] http://www.sinemateka.lt/en/documentary#cheer-up-virginijus
[2] Henri Lefébre: The production of space, Blackwell, Oxford, 1991
[3] John Bale: Sport, Space and the City, Routledge, 1993, referencing Yi-Fu Tan: Dominance and Affection, Yale University Press, 1984
[4] Term borrowed from: https://nonument.org/

* header image: Levente Leitner: Foosball Stadium, installation, 2018

Anna Tudos is a curator and researcher based between Glasgow, UK and Budapest, Hungary. After attending the Hungarian University of fine Arts she graduated from the MLitt Curatorial Pratice course at Glasgow School of Art. Her main research topics relate to the intangible heritage of modernist architecture including prefabricated housing (through BRUT Collective), and experimental playground structures (through Roundabout Project).

brutcollective.com
roundaboutproject.co.uk

This article was written in the frame of the Edu-Art 2020 program / The Course of contemporary art and curating.

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