This Friday, the 2010 FIFA World Cup gets under way in South Africa, marking the first time an African nation has hosted the global sporting event since it began in 1934. With 3.8 million tickets for sale, the month-long tournament, organized by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, is expected to draw approximately 450,000 foreign visitors.

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The South African government has reportedly spent billions on infrastructure improvements and stadium construction since the country was selected in May 2004 to host this year’s tournament. The match-ups will take place in 10 arenas—half are upgraded venues, the other half are new— located throughout the country and designed by a mix of local and international architecture firms. Here, we take a quick look at some of the stadiums. For in-depth coverage, check our RECORD's July issue.

A Renovated Landmark
The most extensive renovation involved the 700,000-square-foot Soccer City in Johannesburg. Originally opened in 1987, Soccer City was South Africa’s first international soccer venue; citizens also rallied there when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. The City of Johannesburg hired the South African design office Boogertman + Partners with Populous (formerly HOK Sport), to strip the building and reskin it in a colorful mosaic of glass-fiber-reinforced concrete tiles, meant to resemble a traditional African calabash, interspersed with windows.

The Soccer City undertaking also involved installation of a partial roof around the stadium’s perimeter, new changing facilities, replaced floodlights, and expanded upper-tier seating, boosting total capacity from 80,000 to 94,700. The final match of the World Cup will be hosted here.

German Firm Scores
Of the five stadiums commissioned for the World Cup, three were completed by the Hamburg-based architecture firm GMP (von Gerkan, Marg und Partner). Green Point, in Cape Town, is among the trio, and it borrows its undulating geometry from Table Mountain and Signal Hill, which dominate the city’s horizon. The 1.25-million-square-foot building’s suspended roof with radial truss systems, clad in approximately 350,000 square feet of laminated safety glass and as much PVC mesh, best strikes the rolling form.

Both Green Point and GMP’s Moses Mabhida Stadium, located in the east-coast city Durban, will host semi-final matches: Situated on a plinth, 994,000-square-foot Moses Mabhida is dominated by a 345-foot-tall arch topped by a cable-car line for tourist rides. One side of the arch is two-pronged, while the other has a single footing, symbolizing the union of the formerly apartheid-afflicted nation. PTFE-coated membrane rises and falls like meringue between the arch and stadium bowl’s compression ring.

The third GMP commission, the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, returns to nature for aesthetic inspiration. Perched alongside North End Lake in the southeastern part of the country, the building features structural members that form a colonnaded perimeter walkway and PTFE-clad triangulated roof trusses, evoking a waterborne flower.

Taking Cues from Nature
More so than cultural references, Mother Nature has been the muse of architects participating in the World Cup construction effort. In addition to the lotus-like Nelson Mandel Bay Stadium, the Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polekwane, designed by Manchester, UK–based AFL Architects with local architecture studio Prism, takes cues from Baobab trees. The roof-supporting steel structure of this building has been gathered into each corner; paired with giant service cores, those corners are suggestive of Baobabs’ massive trunks. The tree motif appears elsewhere, such as in the branch-like truss system. 

In Nelspruit, the Mbombela Stadium also deploys columns to evocative effect. The only design entirely shouldered by South African studios, led by Cape Town–based R&L Architects Interiors, features 16 columns that poke above the roofline. These tapered latticwork forms, finished in a bright orange, easily can be compared to giraffes. Inside, the stadium seats are either black or white, and configured to appear like giant zebra stripes.

Snags and Snarls
New construction did not proceed without some kinks. Erection of Moses Mabhida suffered from two strikes as well as weather delays. Within days of that stadium’s December opening, FIFA officials ordered the full replacement of the field at Mbombela, because it contained clay soil. “We also revised the grass type in line with FIFA’s preference, planting from seed this time; the first pitch was from 18-month-old sods,” says R&L architect Mike Bell.

More controversially, the 2009 documentary Fahrenheit 2010 accuses South Africa of diverting scarce resources from the HIV/AIDS epidemic and other urgent social causes, and the film takes special aim at Mbombela for lacking effective uses after its World Cup occupancy.

Yet the World Cup, as an architectural accomplishment, deserves a nod. In January, GMP partner Volkwin Marg told Die Zeit, a German newspaper, that “the peacefulness of the transformation in South Africa was a miracle.” He added that he hopes the GMP-designed stadiums contribute “toward the country’s growth.”

A June 3 editorial in The Economist states that South Africa—a country rife with problems—is to be commended for its World Cup preparations. “Sceptics said South Africa would never make it,” the article notes. “But, billions of dollars and much heartache later, it is ready. With ten spectacular new or upgraded stadiums, as many new or revamped airports, hundreds of kilometres of expanded highways and city streets, and the continent’s first high-speed train up and running (just), South Africa is rightly proud of its achievement.”