Despite the fact that not a single stadium, other than the Parc des Princes, met the capacity requirements for hosting World Cup football, the refurbishments bequeathed upon the stadia France elected to use for the 1998 FIFA World Cup were modest in comparison to those implemented in Germany before the 2006 tournament, where there were already more than enough stadia capable of housing the requisite 40,000 spectators. This is not a dig at the Fédération Française de Football but more a pat on the back for the Deutscher Fußball-Bund.
Or is it? I was actually quite taken with the renovations on display in 1998: the two new goalmouth stands at Lyon’s Stade de Gerland, the three banks of elliptical terracing at Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome, the addition of a disproportionately large three-tiered stand at Montpellier’s Stade de la Mosson (although I was disappointed that Strasbourg’s semi-brutalist Stade de la Meinau was not involved). Nonetheless, the Germans embraced the opportunity to upgrade their stadia, and the 2006 FIFA World Cup would come to serve as a template for ground building not just in Europe but across the globe (rendering the new Wembley Stadium, once it had been completed in 2007, anachronistic in comparison).
Architectural success is implied but does not necessarily follow. Nuremburg’s Max-Morlock-Stadion, Hannover’s Niedersachsenstadion, Kaiserslautern’s Fritz-Walter-Stadion and Schalke’s Veltins-Arena are not pretty stadia. Conversely, Cologne’s RheinEnergieStadion, Munich’s Allianz Arena, Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion and Berlin’s Olympiastadion are – or are buildings harmonious in aspect and capable of generating an atmosphere. Others bid indifference. Enter the Volksparkstadion in Hamburg, which wasn’t rebuilt in anticipation of World Cup football at all – although it was known a tender was in the offing – but because the existing structure was in a bit of a state.
If cultural stereotypes are your thing, it might be said that the Volksparkstadion is an exercise in Teutonic efficiency. It is a very simple structure: two continuous tiers with the corners squared off at angles tracing the shape of a stretched octagon, although the sides are cambered slightly. The seats are mostly blue and some are red – mostly notably those in the corners of the upper tier. An area behind one of the goals is unseated, contributing 10,000 to an overall capacity of 57,000. The roof consists of a light membrane supported by 40 poles, like a huge circus tent turned in on itself. Little effort has been made to beautify the functional exterior: there’s a couple of storeys worth of glass covering the main entrance, some verdant banking around the steeper sides of the ground, stairwells shrouded in concrete, and the exposed underside of the second tier and its supporting framework.
Hamburger SV attract a large following, so who am I to complain, but unless you live in Altona, the most westward borough of Hamburg, then a trip to the Volksparkstadion must seem like quite some journey. Moreover, the ground feels cut off from the rest of the city, with woodland, a cemetery, an industrial estate and the Barclaycard Arena for company. On top of all that, the stadium is barely accessible on foot, and those that come by train are obliged to transfer from the nearest station by shuttlebus. It’s like the Nürburgring of football, although I suppose this arboreous setting is preferable to the suburban forms that more normally afflict the peripheries of large cities. Speak again? The Volksparkstadion does what is expected of it, no more nor less.
If I lived in Hamburg I’d offer my support to FC St. Pauli. This isn’t only because I might be able to walk to the Millerntor-Stadion, or that the surroundings are socially alive and provide amply for pre- and/or post-match beverages, but also because of the culture the club has embraced: a sort of quasi-socialist, community-based spirit that values its fans.
It was not always thus, and one should also bear in mind that the Deutsche Fußball Liga runs a tighter ship than most. Up until 1998 football clubs were classified as not-for-profit organisations run by members’ associations, and private ownership was strictly verboten. Clubs have since been allowed to exist as private, limited companies, but under the proviso that they retain the majority of their shares – what’s been termed the 50+1 rule.
In any case, in and around the 1980s FC St. Pauli began to foment something approaching a cult, thriving on its reputation as a place for down-and-outs, immigrants, squatters, students, outsiders. You can make any connections you see fit, but the upshot of all this was that the denizens of St. Pauli contrived to react against the right-wing hooliganism that prevailed throughout Europe at the time, campaigning on progressive issues and fostering inclusivity. Admirable, but for a while it seemed they might pay a price for being so resolutely out of step. The 1990s saw the club yo-yoing between Bundesligas 1 and 2, and in 2003 they were relegated to the Regionalliga Nord, which was at the time the third tier of football in Germany. Almost bankrupt, the outlook was bleak.
Depending on who you ask or what you read, the club was saved either by the intervention of a ‘theatre impresario’ named Corny Littmann or the efforts of the local community who persuaded the local bars to donate to the club 50 cents from every bottle of Astra beer sold, in a campaign that became known as ‘drinking for St. Pauli’. Whatever the reason, the team’s fortunes were revived, and by 2007 they’d been promoted back into the 2 Bundesliga. Perhaps more crucially, that same year FC St. Pauli embarked on the stalled redevelopment of their ground.
The South Stand was developed initially, perhaps because it wasn’t much of a stand in the first place. At a quick glance it still doesn’t look like much: a single-tiered structure built from terracotta red bricks with a glazed façade, like the sort of modest office block you might find around the back of your local high street. But take a closer look. Those bricks form three arched atriums, the ones to the left and the right set back beneath a glass-fronted gantry framed in a material the colour of copper carbonate (more than likely aluminium panels painted pistachio green, perhaps in homage to the metal roofs of the old warehouses that occupy Hamburg’s Speicherstadt district). This gantry is actually a corridor providing access to a row of executive boxes to the rear of the stand – private suites that have been decorated to the tastes of their individual leaseholders. The middle arch intervenes, rising above the rest of the ground, displaying the club’s crest and hoisting flags. Darker brown bricks run horizontally to join with the cladded material that demarcates the various floors. These same brown bricks alternate with red ones around the semi-circles of all three arches. The quality of the build appears to be of a very high standard.
Next up was the Main Stand, which was to be similar in style to the South except with two rows of executive boxes stacked on top of each other. Indeed, the two stands are conjoined. This was not part of the original plan but was insisted upon to keep the crowd noise from disturbing the residents living diametrically opposite. Rather than just add to the ground’s capacity, this space has been set aside as a family area with seats reserved exclusively for children, an area of decking above for their parents, and rooms behind for entertaining even younger fry – what’s effectively a kindergarten. As opposed to the South Stand, which is comprised of seating in the upper tier and standing room in a paddock beneath, the Main Stand is all-seated, although there is space for wheelchair users at its base.
Work began on the Gegengerade (the ‘againststraight’) in January 2012, approximately a year and half after completion of the Main Stand. An alternate, more elaborate design, dubbed The Wave, was considered but ultimately rejected on the grounds of cost, the time required to build it, and its potential incongruity. This was the correct decision. The Gegengerade is built of the same red brick and repeats the green cladding around edges of the roof, with plexiglass panels in between to protect from the elements. The rear of the stadium is mostly exposed, revealing the underside of the terracing, except at ground level where there are bars. These bars have been sold on to the local supporters’ association who invite local (graffiti) artists to decorate them prior to the start of each season. The Gegengerade can hold 13,199; 10,126 spectators in the paddock and 3,030 seats in the upper tier.
Finally the North Stand, which looks much as it did prior to redevelopment, only bigger. Like the Gegengerade it accommodates both seating and standing, as well as visiting supporters. Despite its simplicity, building it was a bit tricky due to the public football pitches pressed up behind, but they managed it. The stand is again finished in red brick, and the same pistachio green fasciae run around the side and rear edges of the roof. The imposing Flak Tower IV looms in the middle distance.
Flak Tower IV behind the North Stand
The seats, where they are present, are a combination of brown, white and red. Along the walls that demarcate the various paddocks, we have text writ large: VORAN SANKT PAULI (ahead Saint Pauli) KEIN FUSSBALL DEN FASCHISTEN (no football the fascists) and KEIN MENSCH IST ILLEGAL (no one is illegal). This really is no ordinary club, and the Millerntor is far from being an ordinary stadium, despite its simplistic array. The terracotta red bricks compliment the pistachio green of those roof fasciae and provide the stadium with a sort of architectural motif, while the clear plexiglass panels that close off the open sides of the stands – as well as those that wrap around the rear of the Gegengerade and North Stand – let in just the right amount of light. Random murals adorn many of the bricked walls. You wouldn’t know from looking at it that the ground had been redeveloped in phases over a 10 year period, yet each side of the Millerntor possesses its own identity, immune to the bland uniformity that so often blights contemporary stadia.
It goes to show that stadium architecture needn’t rely on costly gimmicks to make an impact, nor subscribe to the idea that a ground needs to be completely demolished and remodelled as a cohesive unit. The physical hinderances and limited budget have worked to the Millerntor’s advantage and have left St. Pauli with a stadium that they can be proud of and that still very much feels like home. British football clubs on a budget would do well to take note.
[This article first appeared in The Football Pink.]