FIFA Arenas: Al Thumama Stadium by Ibrahim Jaidah Architects & Engineers
by Jerry ElengicalNov 24, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Nov 17, 2022
Placed approximately 35 kilometres to the north of Qatar’s capital Doha, the 60,000-capacity Al Bayt Stadium by Lebanon-based firm Dar Al-Handasah is set to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup opening ceremony on November 20, followed by the tournament’s opening match between Qatar and Ecuador. Amidst the sandy expanses that define its surroundings along the fringes of Al Khor city, the stadium’s architecture, wrapped in a flowing tensile fabric envelope, evokes the image of a Bedouin tent—colloquially known as bayt al sha’ar, the traditional shelter of the region’s nomadic tribes. Its pure white form, accented by black streaks and red highlights along the entrances, stands as a contextually-relevant landmark, at home within this setting, despite the exaggerated sense of scale.
The use of ornamentation as a means to ground a structure in its cultural and temporal context, is an idea that has always been in practice at varying scales. Symbolism in this case, is generally expressed through signage, elaborate façade design elements, statues, spires, cornices, and several other forms of decoration. Popularised during the era of postmodernism, by writings of famed architects—Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, particularly in their highly influential book Learning from Las Vegas, this concept is commonly observed in typologies of 'decorated sheds and ducks'—where the former is an existing building that features symbolic embellishments spelling out aspects of its primary function, while the latter expresses its function through the form of the building itself.
Among the FIFA World Cup stadiums this year, Al Bayt Stadium blurs the lines between these approaches, although, in this case, the decoration does not provide a signal to the building’s function, but rather, serves to root it within its cultural context. The use of black and red highlights adds a depth and level of detailing that hammers in the homage to Bedouin tents, as these tones and patterns are commonplace in the textile designs featured on the surfaces of such traditional shelters. In presenting a very direct expression of Qatar's architectural heritage, and by extension, that of the entire Arabian Gulf region, the structure offers a fitting stage to roll out the festivities surrounding the Middle East's first ever World Cup. The stadium is also scheduled to host nine matches during the course of the tournament, including one of the semi-finals, cementing its role as one of the event’s most important venues.
With billowing peaks that soar above its desert surroundings, the stadium’s design is perched atop a circular podium with wide open concourses that accommodate landscape design features, parking spaces, and other supporting facilities. Elevated roads incline upwards along its slope meeting along the stadium’s faces, as tunnels built into its base lead towards the structure’s underground parking facilities. One such roadway makes a dramatic impression above the main entrance concourse, ascending upwards to terminate in a looped drop-off area. As per the architects, provisions for vehicular parking inside the complex were determined by a traffic impact assessment, along with a parking demand and management study conducted during the project’s initial stages.
On finding that most spectators, particularly those flying into Qatar, are expected to avail public transport in the form of metro rides, buses, and taxis to reach the venue, the study settled on a park-and-ride system for visitor parking. The podium is itself encircled by a ring road which separates it from vast swathes of open green areas, including public spaces and water features. In this regard, the stadium's placement within its context resembles that of an 'oasis in the desert', a further nod to the kind of settings where such tents would normally be erected.
Supporting this very literal veil of reference, the structural design of Al Bayt Stadium is composed of two interconnected yet distinct components, namely: the seating bowl and the tent enclosure. As the former contains a ground floor, three more upper levels, and separate seating areas, the latter covers the main volume of the stadium as well as the exhibition areas around it. With dimensions of 372.5 m x 310 m, the tent's monumental proportions are made possible by an assembly of steel cables and trusses supported by concrete piers, collectively upholding the tensile fabric membrane that renders the stadium’s distinct visual appearance.
The concrete piers are evenly spaced along the perimeter of the bowl, playing the role of anchor blocks for the tieback cables that stretch the polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) woven fibreglass membrane to produce the final form. Over the field of the play, the design also features a retractable roof assembly, which allows for greater screening against harsh sunlight during Qatar’s hot summers. A considerable portion of the stadium was built using advanced and recyclable materials, for which the design has garnered recognition from the Global Sustainability Assessment System (GSAS).
In addition to its symbolic purpose, the stadium's envelope also acts as an insulated shield against the region’s extreme desert climate, working in tandem with the cooling system, used inside during match days, to optimise user comfort throughout the year. Hence, the decoration in this case rises above the role of pure ornament to one that merges both form and function, yielding an aesthetic statement that also reduces the building’s energy needs. Dar Al-Handasah's efforts in realising this monumental piece of sports architecture also involved the design of an energy-efficient district cooling plant with centrifugal water-cooled chillers, glycol chillers, ice storage tanks, and thermal energy storage facilities, which together possess a capacity of 55,000 tonnes of refrigeration, as per the design team. Additionally, the practice also developed infrastructure, utility networks, a subsurface drainage system, a waste management system, and finally, performance specifications for a rotating biological contractor wastewater treatment plant, as part of the project’s sustainable design features.
On this note, the ground's 60,000 capacity bowl will contract to around 32,000 after the World Cup, with the dismantling of upper tiers, keeping with the life cycle of other venues that have been constructed for the tournament, and will be donated to countries in need of sporting infrastructure. Furthermore, this upper concourse of the stadium is expected to become home to a luxury hotel, restaurant, gym, shopping centre, and a community hall after the removal of seating, imbuing it with a multifunctionality that will support year-round usage. As it rises beyond the labels of a 'decorated shed or a duck' to an emblematic cultural beacon during Qatar’s debut on football’s greatest stage, Al Bayt Stadium demonstrates that literal reference when executed well, still retains relevance in the sphere of contemporary architecture.
In response to the mounting anticipation, excitement, and fervour around the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, FIFA Arenas: Better Together is a collection of interviews and features that analyse the sphere of stadium design from a multitude of angles, examining the venues which will set the stage for the first World Cup in the Middle East. Diving into the core tenets that forge an arena worthy of football’s greatest stage, the series explores means by which the typology of a football stadium can create memorable spectacles, foster a sense of community, and become a prominent point of convergence within the larger urban realm it inhabits.
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