With millions watching the first World Cup to be held on the African continent, the spotlight is on the host country — and the stadiums commissioned for the games.

History was made on June 11 when the first game of the 19th FIFA World Cup was played at Johannesburg’s stunning Soccer City—one of 10 new or refurbished stadiums in nine cities —launching South Africa into a highly visible economic and architectural arena.

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Teamwork, communication, and a willingness to engage were essential for the successful delivery of these projects in time for opening day. To respond to the demands of (largely) global funding, the perceptions of an international audience, and the stringent requirements of the world football (aka soccer) organization that oversees the monthlong event, local architecture practices collaborated with international consultants, whose input ranged from an advisory capacity to leading roles and on-site supervision.

Each venue is set within a context as unique and challenging as the continent itself. However, the three largest—Soccer City, Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, and Cape Town Stadium—are the most representative of the process that the country has undergone over the past five years in preparation for this quadrennial event.

Cape Town Stadium

With a seating capacity of 68,000, the Cape Town Stadium nestles in a remarkable setting, between Table Mountain and the Atlantic Ocean. Located in the trendy and flourishing residential Green Point neighborhood, the stadium was built on part of an existing golf course on the area’s eponymous Common, a previously neglected and poorly defined open space.

The design consortium responsible for the project includes Hamburg-based Von Gerkan, Marg and Partners (gmp), for its expertise with this building type; Cape Town’s Louis Karol Architects, for a capacity to realize large South African construction projects; and Point Architects and Urban Designers, an alliance of four firms (Munnik Visser Architects, Jakupa Architects, Paragon Architects, Comrie Wilkinson Architects and Urban Designers — notable for their skills at achieving contextual fit.

To assure the stadium’s appropriateness for its site within a very sculptural landscape, the architects established a “docking station” to deal with interfaces, scale, and pedestrian routes from the building through the podium and forecourts to the park and city beyond. The resulting approach is layered, gradual, and unfolding. The structure itself is unique and undulating, but fairly self-contained. The challenge, therefore, was to create a smooth transition between the 138-foot-high structure and the finely textured, primarily residential surrounds.

Located near the Cape Town Central Business District and Victoria & Albert Waterfront, the stadium lies within a sensitive urban context. According to Henri Comrie, principal of Comrie Wilkinson Architects & Urban Designers, its scale, covering nine city blocks, is significant in a city unused to such large-scale structures. And because it is situated in a prominent, historic, and gentrifying area, serious public concerns surfaced around noise, light pollution, visual impact, and traffic congestion that might impact negatively on property values and on one of the last remaining open spaces in the area.

These concerns were dealt with through an environmental-impact assessment, a rezoning application that required public input, and an extensive public participation process for redevelopment of large areas of the Common into a public park. The result is a compact, elegant, and polite building that does not compete with its natural surroundings.

The building’s skin, made of translucent polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)-coated silver glass-fabric mesh on a steel frame, lessens its visual impact and makes the building appear scaleless, a neutral backdrop in its setting. The translucent, curved-laminated-glass roof improves its acoustical performance by reflecting sound from the bowl back into the bowl.

According to Henning Rasmuss, codirector of Paragon Architects, the stadium has been detailed for flexibility and compatibility. Installations can easily adapt when its spaces are used for different functions; a sophisticated building management system and human machine interface provide operational control over all communication, fire prevention, and mechanical and electrical systems; and the lighting has been designed to avoid excess spillage into the night sky.

A catalyst for a number of hospitality developments, this project promises much in terms of sporting, conference, and cultural activities. Rasmuss adds that the real legacy of the Cape Town Stadium is the decision to establish the redeveloped, 31-acre Green Point Park as one of the great open spaces in the world, within a vastly improved urban context.

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