Versatility and flexibility in delivering events tend to feature highly among the myriad skills required of successful venue managers, but often the venues under their charge struggle to share the same attributes. The higher up the ladder a manager might climb, topping out at arenas or stadiums, the less likely it becomes that the facility’s design can cater to the demand spectrum of modern events and event organizers.

Such a pinch on venue potential might leave today’s managers dreaming of a switch they could flick to transform their facility into something offering a little more diversity, yet the switch no longer has to remain but a dream, as since the turn of the century it has been a reality. Back in September 2000 in the Japanese city of Saitama the Super Arena was unveiled, a high-spec facility with cutting-edge technology that could be quickly transformed from a 36,500-capacity soccer arena to a 19,000 to 22,500-seat basketball-ready format. Behind its trailblazing design was a U.S. architect who is recognized today as one of the world’s foremost designers of sports and entertainment venues.

Dan Meis
Dan Meis

“It was actually back in the early 1990s when I first began working on Saitama and it was a time when there was a realization that arenas would drive a lot more event days than stadiums, so we had a conversation about them being much more multi-use capable and that was when the challenge came about,” said Dan Meis, founder and managing principal of Meis Architects. “The Japanese prefecture responsible for the arena said that they’d like to do a venue that could be a multi-purpose arena and yet expand to accommodate a soccer stadium configuration for 30,000, so the challenge that was very clear was that it was going to require some pretty sophisticated modularity.

“There had been some sort of rough attempts at this, like in the Alamo Dome, where basically it’s a football stadium that you move some seats into a basketball format, but it was recognized that it was compromising everything because it wasn’t great as an arena,” he continued. “So a big part of the challenge was whether this could be done without compromise, which meant that when it was to be truly in an arena configuration it was an arena, and as a stadium it was a stadium.”

Sophisticated Simplicity

Up against some of the design world heavyweights and having to push technology’s envelope to find a solution to the challenge, the commission was secured by offering a technically pioneering modular building that could be very easily and quickly transformed.

“It was a big design competition and there were a lot of wild ideas about how you do it, but we tried to make it as simple as possible, basically splitting the arena in half, moving 10,000 seats and filling in on the sides,” Meis said. “To make that work, it ultimately required inventing technology about how the connections are made and how even the plumbing connections—the toilets and everything else—unplugs and slides back 70 meters, so it did require a lot of innovation to accomplish what was a fairly simple idea and concept.

“We knew that it was going to require some pretty sophisticated technology, but the idea was really all driven by the ease of convertibility, that it had to be fast and reliable,” he continued. “It couldn’t be one of those things where the technology got in the way of the operation of the building, which would be a constant maintenance headache and things like that.”

Triggering Progress

Opened to great acclaim, Saitama Super Arena continues to be heralded as the only building of its kind and the perfect venue for every type of event, yet despite this success its technological advancements have not been mirrored in other venues that have followed.

“While the trigger point for something automated like Saitama is pretty high, it now seems like a bargain compared to some of the costs we’re seeing for regular, multi-purpose arenas and sometimes it takes that initial bit of technology to raise the bar and solve the need before the technology comes down in price and gets demystified a little bit,” Meis said. “We have been asked to look at similar technology a number of times since and I think that to do it in that same, very automatic transformer-like way can be pretty cost prohibitive, unless there is a significant value of land and that you’re solving two venues in one place.

“I believe it was Montreal, closely followed by Toronto, that was the first retractable roof, venues that were really expensive and people said of them that there’ll never be another one because it would never be paid for, but then all of a sudden there was a whole string of retractable roof baseball stadiums,” Meis continued. “There’s also a lot of talk around the Qatar World Cup bid about doing ‘demountable’ venues. I think that it requires some special cases like that to really push the technology to get developed and we’re starting to see it more. And what’s been interesting is that I was recently asked in an interview about what I think the greatest challenge is in developing venues these days and I think that it is the capital cost of the venue. There’s always a driver to get capacity up for very special events, so this idea of modularity really becomes pivotal.”

Saitama Sketch
Credit: Dan Meis

Passively Retro

With modularity an increasingly important aspect from initial venue design through to event delivery, and yet with its balance sheet reality perhaps a little bit daunting, the potential for passive approaches to modularity—even for retrofitting venues to be modular—is coming more onto the radar of designers’ and venue operators’ thinking.

“Retrofitting a building could make some sense where it’s not easy to start off from scratch, so the investment in making a building more multi-purpose can make it much more useful,” Meis said. “It’s not necessarily changing its use, but even significantly changing its capacity can do this, whereby it becomes a better concert venue for example, or it doesn’t feel like a big empty house most of the time but can expand to host a big derby or something of that nature.

“I think the real low-hanging fruit is in more passive systems and they don’t have to be the kind of thing that is at the touch of a button so it can transform,” he continued. “In our new Rome stadium project [AS Roma soccer team] we’ve done it in very passive ways by looking at spaces that are naturally open most of the time, but that we could fill with infill seating. I don’t look down my nose at that technology, as I think that having some really great temporary seating systems that are easy to install, put up, and bring down is going to be more important to new venues. It’s certainly not so sophisticated in the sense of moving things, but there’s thought about it and it certainly adds modularity on how we can parcel and expand it.”

Design Compromise, Venue Demise

The demise of many a venue has often begun with their design stage having a sole focus on a single use and with little, if any, thought given to being more multi-use. There is a long list of casualties around the world to choose from: Many of the arenas built for the Athens’ Summer Olympic Games today are empty and in disrepair, Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium is a white elephant in the city, and the escalating cost of converting London’s recent Olympic Stadium to be soccer suitable are just a few that spring to mind.

“This is one of those areas that while it seems like we’re already 20 years past Saitama but first talking about this now, I just think that the technology and that idea have not come together, because there hasn’t been a great need,” Meis said. “But I think that need is now far more likely to be at the forefront of designers than it was before, because the cost of venues has gotten so outrageous.”

Responding to this need and shying away from such striking and costly design flaws of the past, French architect Christian de Portzamparc has designed Arena 92 in Paris, a venue set to open later in 2016 that with a strong nod to the modular achievements of Saitama can be transformed from a 40,000-capacity concert arena to a 32,000-capacity rugby stadium and down to as small as a 5,000-capacity indoor sports facility.

“I think this really is the future of the development of these venues, because we’re seeing NFL stadiums at well over a billion dollars for a basic stadium in any market and you can’t continue to march those numbers up and have them make sense,” Meis said. “No city would want to build a stadium, particularly for a building that only gets used 20 times a year, if it’s lucky.

“I will tell you even now, 20 years later, that it is still incredibly impressive to me that the technology was worked out to make it all work and I think modularity will have to become more common, so Saitama is in my mind when we design every venue,” he continued. “I’m always thinking of how a venue can be something much more than what its base use is. It’s the only way for these buildings to have any kind of real sustainability, so I think that whether it’s a fully automated version like Saitama, or a very passive way of doing similar things, I think it’s critical for the design of any future venue.” FM