The Estadio de La Cartuja, on the north-western fringes of Seville, presents a forlorn spectacle. It was built specifically for the 1999 World Championships in Athletics, but with also the Olympics in mind. Twice, in 2004 and 2008, the International Olympic Committee rejected Seville's bid for the games outright. Since then, La Cartuja has had to satisfy itself with hosting: the Copa del Rey (twice); the 2003 UEFA Cup Final (Porto 3-2 Celtic); the 2004 and 2011 Davis Cups; the Spanish national football team, but only in exhibition matches; various musical artistes (AC/DC among them).
Why so forlorn? Despite supporting a fairly attractive pleated polycarbonate roof, the external structure is rudimentary, resembling the sort of faceless hotel you might find to the side of a motorway or nearby an airport. Its peripheral location supplements this impression, lost on the outskirts of town overlooking the arid banks of the Guadalquivir River. Wisely, both Seville’s resident football teams, Sevilla FC and Real Betis Balompié, have resisted any temptation to take up residence, possibly to the chagrin of the Sociedad Estadio Olimpico de Sevilla. Whilst the stadium represents an exemplary athletics venue – albeit an architecturally predictable one – it is not conducive to generating the sort of atmosphere one expects at a football match (ask your nearest West Ham United supporter if you do not comprehend why). In any case, Sevilla FC and Real Betis Balompié have good enough stadia of their own.
Sevilla FC is the city’s dominant club yet it has the smaller ground. Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán can house 42,500 spectators, which is 10,000 less than its southern neighbour but ample enough for an attendance that averages out at just over 30,000. When the stadium opened in 1958 it actually had room enough for 53,000, despite the fact that the second tier lay incomplete: the budget overran and Seville had to content itself with a single circumambient tier and two anfiteatros overlooking each touchline. When in 1974 the second tier was finally made continuous, the capacity peaked at an impressive 70,000. This was in the days when most spectators watched the game on their feet.
Further improvements were made in preparation for the 1982 World Cup. Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán was to host two games: a first round match between Brazil and the Soviet Union, and a semi-final, which would see West Germany pitched against France. Seating was installed, not throughout but in enough places to temporarily reduce the capacity to 66,000 (the original capacity was reinstated soon after). Floodlights were fixed upon gantries at various points along the top tier’s brim, and one of the anfiteatros became a tribuna by way of a roof being put over it. (As far as I can tell, the only difference between an ‘anfiteatro’ and a ‘tribuna’ is the presence of seats and protection from the elements). Supported by 18 pairs of steel struts, the roof appears to balance precariously above the tribuna, its curved edge mirroring the mild arc of the terracing beneath. In profile these supporting trusses resemble Vorticist giraffes thrusting their necks forward towards the pitch, tails extended backwards over the retaining wall. The roofing itself is almost incidental, an ethereal presence that one could imagine being blown away in the wind. The protruding supporting wall, bearing the back legs of those Vorticist giraffes, mimics the general exterior, save for a huge mosaic occupying the central three bays of the facade. This impressive mural depicts Sevilla FC’s crest flanked by those of 60 other clubs that have at one time or another played here. The stadium’s appellation is writ large across the top.
Designed by the same architect responsible for Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, the construction itself is typical of many Spanish stadia built from the 1950s through to the 1980s: Athletic Madrid’s Vicente Calderón, the Estadio Martínez Valero in Elche, Malaga’s Estadio La Rosaleda, Barcelona’s Camp Nou. The common denominator is a reinforced concrete framework upon which the terraces are supported. (The apogee of this way of building may find its representation in Mexico City’s imposing Estadio Azteca.)
As at Estadio de Mestalla in Valencia – another football ground not too dissimilar – Seville has recently embarked on a programme of refurbishment; in lieu of building a new ground elsewhere they have settled on tarting the old one up. The approach is roughly the same in either case: painting the concrete black and covering much of it with aluminium meshing. Valencia has filled in the gaps between pillar and beam with rectangular sheets of perforated metal. At Seville they have enshrouded three quarters of the ground in a metal exoskeleton from which they’ve hung overlapping metal panels parallel to the camber of the supporting stanchions, rather like the armour of an armadillo. The ground floor remains as it was but has been re-rendered to effect a smoother, cleaner finish, and painted red. Both clubs have also suspended huge PVC banners at various junctures: graphics depicting their star players, crowd scenes, and the holding aloft of trophies. This is more prevalent at the Estadio de Mestalla, possibly because Valencia has won more trophies.
Sevilla’s renovations are the more successful. Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán’s fabric remains much the same since it was redeveloped prior to the World Cup in 1982. The metal cladding, the new stucco, the all-red seats – even those PVC banners, mercifully restricted to the exterior of the tribuna – are subtle enough not to detract from the uniformity of the two tiers, the grace of the cantilevered roof and the splendour of the mosaic. It is an edifice in thrall to its cohesion, in sympathy with the environment, appropriate for the climate. One hopes Sevilla FC continues to see it this way.
Estadio Benito Villamarin used to be known as Estadio Heliópolis but actually began life as the Estadio de la Exposición, built as it was for the Ibero-American trade fair of 1929. Initially, Real Betis played there only occasionally but decided to take up semi-permanent residence after winning their first – and only – championship in 1936. The Spanish Civil War then followed.
Such peculiar beginnings explain why Heliópolis looked apart from most other Spanish stadia. It took the form of four separate, whitewashed concrete open-air stands designed in a vaguely neoclassical vernacular with a nod towards Moorish Revival – this is Spain after all. In 1958 the north and sounds ends, behind the goals, were replaced with more substantial structures, and floodlights were installed in 1959. Soon after, the stadium was purchased outright and renamed Estadio Benito Villamarin in honour of the chairman who facilitated its acquisition.
The seventies saw various adaptations including the filling in of the corners, further augmentation of those north and south ends, and the addition of a massive slab of a second tier above the western tribuna, replete with cantilevered roof and alternating blocks of white and green seats (the colours and pattern of Real Betis’ shirts). The eastern tribuna was expanded backward in 1981 and another cantilevered roof built over it – albeit a more rudimentary iteration than the one gracing the stand opposite.
Whether the Estadio Benito Villamarin would have been selected as a venue for the 1982 FIFA World Cup had it not undergone such substantial restoration is hard to say. That the Spanish football authority elected to utilise no less than 17 different grounds throughout the course of tournament – a number unsurpassed to this day – suggests maybe so; far smaller stadia hosted matches. In any case, a new amphitheatre was slipped in between the lower and upper tiers of the west stand, increasing capacity and allowing space for the sort of media facilities required for reporting on World Cup football.
One would think that for a club of Real Betis’s inconsistent stature the ground as it then was would have sufficed. New owner Ruiz de Lopera begged to differ and in 1998 the north and eastern portions of the ground were torn down and a continuous three-tiered structure erected in their place. The idea was to rebuild the southern terrace in the same fashion, but contractual disputes resulted in the work being postponed indefinitely. Not until the summer of 2016 would the funds finally be in place to begin to finish the job.
Although still incomplete, Estadio Benito Villamarin is looking good. The three tiers that now wrap around the northern, eastern and southern sectors are not conjoined with those on the western side. Why would they be: the top two tiers of the western tribuna were built upon the old Heliópolis and follow its shallower incline, whereas the three tiers now surrounding it have been raked more steeply. Nor has any attempt been made to ape the exterior of the western tribuna: despite the generally good condition of the supporting concrete stanchions, the structure shows its age. Moreover, three floors of offices and amenities have over time been untidily shoehorned in between said stanchions.
For the new build, the need for indoor space has been anticipated. The second tier is enveloped in a skirt of concrete parallelogram-shaped panels, each one punctuated with four triangular shaped apertures – hypotenuse facing upward, right angle pointing down. An imbricative belt of concrete signifies the rim of the second tier’s reverse, whilst also acting as a concourse at the rear of the third tier, whose exposed form tilts overheard. The patina is a raw shade of grey. It is left to the surrounding palm trees to provide colour. The interior has been subjected, via the medium of chairs, to alternating horizontal stripes of green and white, in contrast to the vertical streaks covering the old tribuna.
The result is a modernist take on the Neo-Mudéjar style that flourished in Spain in the late 19th Century: geometric shapes repeating, Moorish gestures; gentle curves, functionalism. Given Sevilla’s Berber heritage this seems entirely appropriate and is almost certainly intended. It should be appreciated that an effort has been made, having been obliged to work with concrete, to try and make something half interesting out of it. Moreover, that in an era of decorative façades, the original concept for stadium has endured, rather than being lost beneath swathes of revisionist ornamentation.
One pauses for thought. Could it be that the 1990s saw modernism’s last hurrah, before postmodernism finally overwhelmed it and gave way to more indulgent, deconstructivist architectural forms? Consider the tube stations built for the extension of London’s Jubilee Line, at Canary Wharf in particular, opened in 1999. Gare de Lyon-Saint Exupéry connecting Lyon to Paris and Marseille: opened 1994. Bari’s Stadio San Nicola, built just in time for the 1990 World Cup. The Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói, designed by Oscar Niemeyer: completed 1996.
It’s hard to say. Cologne’s excellent RheinEnergieStadion – effectively rebuilt for the 2006 World Cup – leaves its concrete endoskeleton on display in much the same way as those old Spanish stadia built from the 1950s through to the 1980s. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium is structurally the same thing as Estadio Benito Villamarin, just with glass panelled sections, daft murals draped over the exposed concrete sections, and a snazzy roof – all the consequence of a much bigger budget. There’s the crux – bigger budgets. And yet both Seville’s resident football teams have stadiums that retain a sense of history, of purpose, and identity, whilst offering architectural subtleties that need not be bought.
[This article also features in The Football Pink.]