The Real Star of the World Cup: Brazil's Breathtaking New Stadium

Christopher Lee, a partner at the sports-architecture firm Populous, talks about the inspiration behind the Arena das Dunas ("Dunes Arena"), one of the most beautiful venues built to host the beautiful game.

Photo by Vinicius Sousa/courtesy of Populous.

Pictured above, Arena das Dunas: Rain that falls on the arena's roof trickles down the sides and is used to irrigate the pitch.

Christopher Lee, a partner at the sports-architecture firm Populous, talks about the inspiration behind the Arena das Dunas ("Dunes Arena"), one of the most stunning of the new Brazilian venues built to host the beautiful game.

"We worked with local architects—it wasn't a bunch of foreigners coming in and saying, 'This is our interpretation of Brazilian architecture.' Not many people have heard of Natal and the state it's in, Rio Grande do Norte. The organizing committee saw the World Cup and the stadium as a way of displaying what Natal is about. It's a fantastic location: clear-blue seas, wonderful surf. It's also a linear beach town, but between the beach and the town itself are these 100-foot sand dunes. Arena das Dunas isn't a literal copy of a dune but, rather, evokes a sense of shifting, undulating.

"Natal has a constant on-shore breeze. We were interested in how we could form the stadium to capture just enough of that breeze to cool the occupants without having to resort to air-conditioning or affecting play. So the petals are wind scoops. We worked with a wind modeler to get those shapes correct.

"Over the last 30 years, we've built about a thousand stadiums globally. The bigger the event, the more complex they get. In this case, the event is four weeks. But the building has a 30-to-50-year life span. Designing for a legacy is quite often overlooked by star architects who come in and do their one-off building, where it's some incredible showcase of extravagant architecture. Also, in Natal's case, FIFA required that you have 42,000 seats for the game—but really, the two local teams never have crowds much over 25,000. The stadium is designed to pull out 10,000 seats.

"Stadiums are a tricky beast because they're used comparatively rarely. If you compare a stadium to an office block, it would take something like 90 years for the operational energy expended in a stadium to surpass the energy used to create the materials. In an office block, that's probably more like six. So in stadiums, a lot of work is focused on producing lighter buildings that use less steel and, therefore, less energy.

"These are places of escape, where men and women can yell and cheer and dance and hug. Das Dunas is calibrated to enhance this atmosphere. The seating bowl is close to the pitch, and the seating tiers are gently curved to allow each spectator to see the maximum number of other spectators. The overhanging curved roof is designed to keep noise inside. Stadiums are one of the few places in life where people gather with a single purpose, places where one can connect with others irrespective of ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status. If only for 90 minutes."

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