Axel Bienhaus is a very busy man these days. As well as working on the eye-catching stadia designs for the Qatar 2022 World Cup, the softly-spoken partner and shareholder at Albert Speer & Partner (AS&P) is also contributing to the European Central Bank in Vienna, a housing project in Frankfurt and criminal courts in Saudi Arabia.
The World Cup commission is probably AS&P’s most high profile project to date; eight of the competition’s 12 stadia are designed by the German company. Bienhaus explains that the Qatar Football Association directly approached AS&P during an exhibition in Denver two years ago.
AS&P’s designs played a pivotal part in the winning bid and the renderings are now very familiar images. Cynics would claim that there is little detailed thought behind the slick renderings, but this far from the case according to Bienhaus. “We have detailed ground floor plans for all of our stadia,” he explains.
Bienhaus continues: “The bid book is owned by FIFA and is still handled with relative confidentiality. The plans cannot be released to the media.
Considering it was a bid book, I think we designed the stadia to a very detailed level – to a stage between preliminary and detailed design.”
He adds that AS&P had to increase its team to work on the bid but it has not expanded since then, and any future increases will revolve around the timings of the stadia delivery.
He notes that the client is poised to embark on a bold construction programme to complete the stadia well in advance. “I don’t think they will wait three years to get going on the stadia. There are many things, such as the cooling strategies, that need to be tested ahead of time,” he says.
According to Bienhaus, the stadia could be completed up to four years before the event. “It would be a good idea to have the stadia ready by 2020 and use them in the Confederation Cup football tournament in 2021.
But they may even be ready before then, perhaps by 2018. Qatar wants to show the world that it is well prepared for the World Cup.
They know the delivery is enormous and they have to build 75% of the infrastructure from scratch. We are currently discussing with the client which stadium will be implemented first. An idea is to build one as a prototype.”
Bienhaus explains that the look of the stadia is an integral consideration for a client that has an appetite for good design. “They’re not just focused on functionality – the appearance of the stadia is very important.”
He adds that AS&P will do everything in its power to maintain the original appearance of the stadia.
“We will have to bring these designs to life and one of the main tasks is to ensure that the outer appearance doesn’t change. It’s part of an architect’s job to realise the vision within budget, and maintain the appearance and quality of the design.”
The most architecturally impressive stadium is the subject of some debate in the AS&P office. Bienhaus says: “My personal favourite is Al Khor – the shell-like form fits perfectly in the urban context as it is located near the Gulf.
But people in our team have other favourites. Many like the Doha Port stadium – it’s completely modular and resembles a marine creature. Al Shamal is also popular. In reality, the form is less dramatic than depicted in the images. Shamal is a former fishing village so we wanted to relate the stadium to the local heritage by making it resemble a dhow fishing boat.”
He adds that this response to the locale is an approach that is adopted throughout the designs. “For instance, the Qatar University stadium features Arabic decoration on the façade. A lot of clients want iconic stadiums, but these aren’t always related to a place.”
The client specified the need for sustainable cooling strategies and modular upper tiers that can be removed and donated to developing countries after the event.
According to Bienhaus, these requirements are fairly straightforward in isolation, but extremely challenging when combined. He says: “The greatest challenge for us is the combination of having a modular upper tier and the requirement of cooling these sections. Developing an interior that works with the upper tiers removed and replaced with VIP boxes is also a challenge, but it’s solvable.”
In Europe there are many examples of modular stands, according to Bienhaus. He cites the Monaco Grand Prix, in which stands are temporality built and then removed, and the BRITA Arena in Wiesbarden, Germany.
Commenting on the latter, he says: “You would think it was a conventional stadium, but it was constructed very quickly and can be dismantled in one or two weeks.” He says that AS&P is working with NUSSLI, a Swiss specialist in modular systems. “Modular technology isn’t that new. I truly believe that these modular stadia will become the norm for future World Cups.”
He continues: “Germany and England are two of the few countries around the world that have a demand for 12 stadia with capacities in excess of 40,000. For almost all other countries that are hosting the World Cup, it’s better to enhance the capacities for the event but reduce them afterwards. Interestingly, we had the very same idea for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa but unfortunately it wasn’t implemented.”
With its capacity issues, combined with heavy cooling requirements, many have questioned the practicality of holding a World Cup in Qatar.
Bienhaus, however, believes that the country is ideally suited for the occasion. He comments: “We thought Qatar had a good chance of winning as it answered all of the questions. Bringing the World Cup to Arabia helps to spread football in the region. Qatar is a stable and liberal country and there is no problem with finance. The country is also looking at green measures and ways of reducing the carbon footprint.”
He believes its diminutive size is also a big plus. “You are able to travel from one stadium to another in a matter of minutes. It’s quite unlike holding the World Cup in countries like Brazil or South Africa. It will have a very unique, compact character, and it will be great for the fans.”
Regarding the Qatar market in general, he comments: “At the moment there is a lot of work in Qatar. They have to build the transport infrastructure and an enormous amount of hotels, plus there is a lot of investment in housing and retail.”
AS&P is open to future opportunities in Qatar, although these will have to wait until the stadia are finished. “We are now very well known in Qatar and we would like to do further projects there. But at the moment we can’t because the client wants us to concentrate fully on the stadia designs.”
He adds that AS&P will establish an office in Qatar to work on the stadia. When asked if he will be joining the office he says: “I don’t know, we have to discuss who will make up the team. But it is a popular destination. The 10 or so architects involved in the bid all came and said they would like to go to Qatar. It’s a nice place to stay. Apart from the summer, the weather is better than Germany’s.”
Al-Khor is a new 45,330-capacity stadium with a seashell motif and a flexible roof. The permanent lower tier seats 25,500 and the modular upper tier seats 19,830. It offers spectators a direct view of the Gulf from their seats and will be located in a new sports and recreation zone.
The existing 21,175 capacity Al-Gharafa stadium will be expanded to 44,740 seats using modular elements. The façade is up of ribbons representing the nations in the 2022 World Cup. The stadium will be downscaled to its existing capacity after the tournament.
Umm Slal Stadium
The 45,120-seater Umm Slal Stadium is a modern interpretation of traditional forts, inspired by the proximity of one of Qatar’s most historically important forts. After the World Cup, the stadium will be used by Umm Slal FC and have its seating capacity reduced to 25,500.
Doha Port Stadium
The Doha Port Stadium will have 44,950 seats and sit on an artificial peninsula. Water from the Gulf will run over its outer façade. After the event, the stadium will be disassembled and the seats sent to developing countries to further their football development.