Stadiums appear smaller when empty than they do full. Which perspective is more definitive? Are they bigger than they look when they’re not in use, or smaller than they look when they are? A binary equation, perhaps it comes down to one’s perspective: whether you're a half-full or a half-empty sort of person. I would also contend that the time of day has an effect: a game played by night, against an obsidian sky, possess a dimensional grandeur that a midday kick-off cannot equal. In my youth, a match down at Home Park on a Tuesday evening was always more exhilarating than the same on a Saturday afternoon.
It was in 2005 that I took a tour of Barcelona’s Camp Nou, and I haven’t the impression it’s changed much since. According to Simon Inglis in The Football Grounds of Europe, published in 1990, “There are stadiums great by reputation and association which, when first encountered, disappoint. The Nou Camp… is not among them.” He goes on to say that, “…when full it is indubitably one of the world’s most breathtaking sporting arenas.” I’m assuming, then, that Mr Inglis is heaping his lavish praise upon the ground’s interior, principally in its occupied state, although he later stipulates that: “Entry to the Nou Camp is no disappointment, full or empty.”
I labour this point because when I approached it back in 2005 I found Camp Nou’s presentation mildly disappointing. Don’t read too much into that – I was aware that the grander spectacle lay within – but as you advance from a westerly direction, which you are obliged to do, the scene that presents itself is comparable to the main entrance of an airport terminal. Two overheard walkways lead at angles from the ‘FC Botiga Megastore’ to the stadium itself, its curved façade swathed in glass. In front, tarmac, amenable to the arrival of taxis, shuttle buses and bloated suitcases. The building’s profile is fairly low from this perspective – Camp Nou’s pitch rests 8 metres below ground level – but rises as one traces the perimeter. At the same time the building takes on the bearing of a multi-storey car park. This is not to disparage it – multi-storey car parks can be imposing structures, entirely worthy of our attention – but in terms of relating to the stadium’s interior, the impression is misleading.
Camp Nou began life in 1957 as a two-tiered manifestation, typical of other Spanish manifestations built from the 1950s onwards such as Athletic Madrid’s Vicente Calderón, the Estadio Martínez Valero in Elche, Malaga’s Estadio La Rosaleda. The common denominator is a reinforced concrete framework upon which the terraces are supported, as I pointed out when writing similarly about Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán in Seville. Before that, FC Barcelona played at Camp de Les Corts, which for its time was impressively modern and suitably large. Opened in 1922, with an initial capacity of 22,000, by 1944, Les Corts could hold 60,000 and had been furnished with a low-slung cantilevered roof ribbed with metal strips, its contour serpentine in aspect. Floodlights were installed in 1954, but by now the demand for tickets was such that the stadium was deemed too small. There wasn’t the available space to expand any further, so the club acquired land a few miles west and set about building their new stadium there.
And a very handsome stadium it was, larger than many of its contemporaries, and costing more. The reason for the greater expenditure, apart from its size, may have had to do with the ground’s shape: a rounded polygon, rather than a rounded rectangle, with elliptical sides. In contrast, Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán has curved sides but straight ends, whereas Estadio La Rosaleda has four straight sides with circular corners. In any case, the ground as it was held 90,000 spectators, second only at that time to Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, which had recently been expanded to hold 125,000. Of course, only something approaching a quarter of these capacities were ever seated.
So far, so typical – the stadia of southern Spain are remarkably uniform – but then came the 1982 World Cup and Barcelona set about expanding once more. What happened next was what gave Camp Nou its visual identity. A third tier was added to the three sides of the stadium that could accommodate it, the cantilevered roof of the tribuna being too low slung to allow for complete encirclement. Actually, a shallow third tier already existed above the two tiers of the tribuna, wedged in beneath the base of the roof, and so was extended outward, rising gracefully and gradually before culminating along the opposing rim. The shape traced is something approximating a truncated elliptic cylinder, as if the structure has been tipped slightly but with its sides remaining perpendicular to the horizon. More pertinently, the stadium’s capacity rose to over 120,000.
A quick word before we go inside. Camp Nou does not domineer it’s environment. It’s slanted profile softens the structure’s silhouette, and it sprawls more than anything else. Moreover, the surrounding utilities, parks and high-rise tenements – as well as the adjoining ‘Mini Estadi’, home to FC Barcelona’s reserve team and a decent enough ground in its own right – aid to uphold the stadium’s physical presence in a way that Barcelona’s gridded inner city would be incapable of doing.
Awash with the club’s colours of red and blue, Camp Nou’s interior is a neat and tidy affair. There’s something of the American football stadium about it – of New York Giants’ old home (although some of the more recently built American football stadia are the barmiest of them all.) Despite the steep rake of the upper tiers, it doesn’t look as big as you expect, but it still makes for a very impressive sight – Simon Inglis was right. The roof is particularly imposing, and I’d want to be under it on a hot, sunny day and not stranded atop that ascending third tier. I guess that’s why La Liga games kick off at 16:00.
Camp Nou’s current capacity rests at an all seated 99,354, which makes it the largest football stadium in Europe and the largest club ground in the world. Nevertheless, plans are afoot to expand still further. I can understand this. Barcelona have a huge fan base, and it’s unusual for a stadium of such magnitude not to be covered. The video on FC Barcelona’s website talks about such things as ‘urban integration’ (building a new metro station, improved pedestrian access, expanding the car park), ‘urban acoustic comfort’ (an all-encompassing roof that will keep the crowd noise from disturbing the neighbours, although if I were them I’d quite miss it), ‘thermal and visual comfort’ (again, the roof will protect fans from the elements; what ‘visual’ comfort might entail is not explained), and a number of other dubious concepts that I’ll generously assume have been mutilated in translation. I doubt anyone will miss the Camp Nou’s functional exterior – except for maybe aviation and car park enthusiasts – but wonder whether the ground’s internal identity will be diminished? The intent is predictable: the old roof will be done away with and the top tier will be levelled off, enforcing a symmetry that is the plight of many a modern arena.
Nou Camp's iconic third tier being built (Courtesy FC Barcelona)
Prior to 1947, Real Madrid played their football at the Estadio Chamartín, replete with English-style gabled grandstand and room enough for approximately 25,000 spectators (4,000 seated beneath that gabled grandstand). When wealthy lawyer and ex-striker Santiago Bernabéu de Yeste assumed the club’s presidency in 1943, he set about acquiring neighbouring land upon which to build a bigger, more modern stadium, which he subsequently did. Foundations for the new Nuevo Estadio Chamartín (the ground would not be renamed in its benefactor’s honour until 1955) were laid in 1944. However, the footprint of the new ground impinged on the old, which meant the eastern side could not be completed until the old Chamartín was vacated and demolished. There followed, so I have read, a ‘shortage of construction materials’. For this reason, the newly constructed two-tiered structure was left unfinished, leaving a section of uncovered terracing along the ground’s eastern perimeter, and a tower above it maybe by way of an apology. The capacity at this point was around 90,000 and would remain so for the next six years.
In 1953, just as Barcelona were about to begin work on what would become their new home, Real Madrid finally resumed development of their ground’s eastern quarter. Rather than simply joining up the existing structure, an anfiteatro (amphitheatre), flanked by two monolithic towers, was built above the east side’s additional second tier (the original plan and been to do the same thing on the opposite side of the ground, but it never materialised). On its inauguration in June 1954, capacity had risen to an incredible 125,000. More than that, architects Manuel Muñoz Monasterio and Luis Alemany Soler delivered something that was both contemporary and practical, and in the façade of the stadium’s eastern wing a thing of concrete beauty.
Like at Camp Nou, Estadio Santiago Bernabéu depended upon the coming of the 1982 World Cup for the next significant stage of its development. Unlike Camp Nou, Santiago Bernabéu had no roof to speak of, which it needed if it was host a world cup final. Indeed, half of the Bernabéu’s budget would go towards the roof, amounting to somewhere in the region of 350 million pesetas, the rest being spent on extra seating, which pegged the capacity back to 90,200, new changing rooms and press facilities, and an overhaul of the ground’s facade, which was required to support the new roof.
The stadium’s concrete framework was finished in the same material used to assemble the roof – according to Simon Inglis, a light, fibre based cement called Cemfil. Mr Inglis also comes up trumps describing the overall effect: “Like a clean white plastic lid snapped tightly onto a bowl.” That would be a rectangular bowl with curved edges. A black lines runs around the inside fascia of the roof, like the filling in a neatly cut sandwich, giving way to video screens above each goal. Where the ends of the roof finish, contiguous to the two towers either side of the anfiteatro, it becomes apparent that the roof is concave in profile. Inglis offers us this delightful simile: “It is as if (a) liquorice sweet had been neatly sliced at each end, then squashed in the middle.”
Yet whereas Barcelona had increased their stadium’s capacity, Real Madrid had reduced theirs and could only offer something like 30,000 seats – just one third of the ground’s capacity. It’s also worth noting that, despite his enthusiasm for the roof, Inglis laments the general condition of the Bernabéu, and in particular its physical discomfort. It’s little surprise, then, that Real already had plans to add another tier to the south, west and north sides of the ground, making room for a total of 110,000 spectators.
By the time work began in 1992, UEFA had taken note of what happened at Hillsborough and the recommendations of the Taylor Report, which would culminate in the ruling that from 1998 all games played under its patronage would have to take place in an all-seated environment. (UEFA has since has broken down its ‘Stadium Infrastructure Regulations’ into four separate categories. A ground awarded Category 1 status permits standing. However, UEFA will not consent to the use of anything less than a Category 4 stadium in any of their competitions. Weirdly, UEFA has not published a list of which stadia pass as Category 4.) Whether this legislative development was taken into account is moot: the Bernabéu’s new tier was to come with 20,200 actual seats, as well as four cylindrical stairwells providing access, which will have satisfied the most stringent of requirements.
Completed in May 1994, the Bernabéu was visually transformed. The original roof had been raised by 23 metres to allow for the addition of the steeply raked top tier – technically two tiers stacked on top of each other – which was a feat of engineering that doubled the height of the existing structure, diminishing the anfiteatro in the process. The previously subdued exterior took on an almost post-modern character. In between every other supporting stanchion, there appeared protruding semi-cylinders, which I assume serve some sort of substrative purpose. Below these, rectilinear concrete struts lean outwards, connecting the newer supporting stanchions to the older ones. Glass fills the space between. The stadium’s façade has changed little since.
In 1998, Real Madrid installed seats throughout, reducing the capacity of the Bernabéu from 110,000 down to just over 75,000. Come 2001 and they were at it again and by 2004 the east side of the stadium had been expanded, covered and re-finished, raising the capacity to what it currently stands at: 81,044. It’s this most recent development that is the most interesting. For one, it cleaned up the area behind the east stand, along Calle de Padre Damian (to an extent: there are commercial premises built adjacent to the stadium that obscure the view). Its rear has been clad entirely in what I assume is aluminium meshing, as have the towers, and the roof itself appears to be made from the same material but without the holes. It should be a little incongruous, but rather the modernity and clean lines of the east stand have allowed it once more to take centre stage, as it did prior to the redevelopments undertaken in 1992-94.
Santiago Bernabeu, 1982 - note the 'liquorice' roof.
Stadiums are not structures that call for equilibrium. I’m not sure any structure generally does. Symmetry is ornamental, and buildings are not normally supposed to be ornamental. Buildings that are we call follies, which in their disingenuously ruined state will be asymmetrical. The only structure that might demand a symmetry of sorts could be a fort built upon a perfectly circular hill. Even then, one would probably want to take into account the position of the sun and the surrounding topography.
Football is a game that concerns itself with geometry and space. But it is a game and is thus improvised, reactive in nature. Players need to orientate themselves accordingly, both physically and mentally. Quite aside from the benefit of having actual points of reference by which to gauge one’s ever changing position, there’s also the added intrigue of exploring areas of space that possess their own character: “Just kick towards the Gwladys Street end, the fans will suck it into the goal,” said Howard Kendall to his Everton players in 1985 before the second half of their match against Bayern Munich during the second leg of European Cup Winner’s Cup semi-final, which they subsequently won. The Gwladys Street end does not resemble the Walton Lane end and cannot be confused for it. Nor can the three tiers that make up the Goodison Road Stand be mistaken for the two that comprise Bullens Road directly opposite. Liverpool were right to expand their Main Stand rather than move elsewhere (although a grandstand’s lowest tier should never be its deepest). If at all possible, I advise that Everton follow their neighbour’s example.
Real Madrid are planning to embark on a project that will alter the exterior of the ground while leaving the interior relatively untouched: a retractable roof, restaurants, a hotel, landscaping outside, a radically different façade. Regardless of whether this goes ahead – funding permitting – fans of Real Madrid probably won’t feel any less at home than they do now. For the hordes that follow Barcelona, familiarity is not part of the plan.