Authenticity Reigns In Stadium Design

If you’ve been to a major sporting event or significant match anywhere in the world, chances are you’ve sat in a venue that architecture and design firm Populous has created.


Global leaders in the design of stadiums, arenas, large-scale venues and live events, Populous creates iconic homes and experiences for many of the most recognisable names in sports and entertainment. Over four decades, the company has designed more than 3,000 projects around the world. fcbusiness sat down with Populous’ EMEA Managing Director, Christopher Lee, to talk all things stadium design.

Christopher Lee


Originally hailing from Australia, Lee has worked around the world for major international sports clients and designed over 30 stadia on five continents. These include the main Olympic Stadium for Sydney 2000; Europe’s first moving roof stadium, the Principality Stadium in Cardiff; the Emirates Stadium in London, Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Estadio BBVA in Mexico, and Arena Das Dunas Stadium for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.


From their European HQ in London, Lee was also the Project Director for the acclaimed Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, responsible for design direction and strategic decisions across the project. This involved working closely with the club to develop the brief and respond to their vision to redefine the stadium experience and deliver what is acknowledged as one of the finest stadiums in the world.


As part of the company’s service, Lee is involved across the board, from smaller single-stand projects to major developments of large-scale masterplans that integrate the design requirements of a stadium into the wider public realm, such as the new Milan stadium.


Let’s start with a fundamental question – how important is authenticity in the design process?

I believe that as the design of stadia develops and evolves, creating authentic football stadiums is paramount. This is about designing football grounds that have “soul” – that embody the history of the club, that transfer the rituals of the fans and that feel like home but in a new, enhanced, atmospheric stadium.


I remember during conversations around the new Spurs Stadium discussing the idea of authenticity, including incorporating fans’ matchday routines into the design process. Things like meeting your friends and having a pint before the game and how to create those same rituals in a new building.


So, we incorporated elements like the concrete aggregate from the demolition of the old White Hart Lane used in the concourses, or the plaque marking the old centre spot keep part of the history alive and created places like the Market Place where our fans can meet before the game and have amazing food and drink.


Authenticity can also be seen as being ‘individual’. The industry has moved on from some of the identikit box stadiums of the 90’s and 2000’s, and a club’s stadium needs to be clearly of its place – for example, why does Old Trafford look one way, but the Emirates looks another? What makes the Emirates intrinsically ‘Arsenal’?


So, any design we undertake for the redevelopment of Old Trafford will take into account the factors that make Manchester United unique, whether that is the importance of the Stretford End, the trinity statue or elements of Munich remembrance.


Branding also comes into this, reflecting the importance of a feeling of ownership for fans over the stadium and the experience of watching their team.


How does lighting and sound impact the fan experience within a stadium?

Beyond the design and configuration of the bowl or stands themselves, lighting and sound are arguably the two most important factors in the way fans experience a match.


At Populous we have an in-house group – Experience Studios – that tailor and design audio, visual, lighting and media systems to create a bespoke solution for every stadium or stand we design. They also work with clients to create content for the AV systems once in place.


The studio work closely with our architectural teams, and we use their expertise to influence the design of venues at an early stage of the process. That means we’re optimising for fan experience through acoustic and AV installations beyond the standard architectural brief.


A good example is Tottenham, where we used their input to design the seating bowl and roof to create an acoustic environment that is like a concert hall – highly tuned reverberation times to create an incredible atmosphere. This is the first stadium in the world to approach a seating bowl design in this manner and the result is held up as one of the best atmospheres in football.


How have fan expectations changed and what can be done to meet these in older stadia?

Populous has always prioritised the act of “collective togetherness”. Our mission is to ‘design the places that people love to be together’.


So you need to be authentic to the sport, to the fan and to the club you are designing a stadium for, but you also have to recognise there is a generational shift in how we consume entertainment in general – not just for sport. Younger generations prioritise experiences over ‘things’.


We will design a space that creates an unbelievable experience for every fan, whether in GA seats or the top-tier of hospitality. Even within a renovation of an existing suite or stand we can transform that fan experience; it doesn’t have to be done through a new build.


One other point is that inclusivity is rightly higher on the agenda than ever before and that influences design – not just in terms of higher expectations of safety/accessibility or better/more facilities for female fans and families, but, for example, Tottenham Stadium has a ‘sensory suite’ which provides a comfortable and calming environment for supporters on the autistic spectrum or with sensory impairment conditions to watch a match, complete with a tactile wall, a bubble tube and several other pieces of sensory equipment.


Technology has developed hugely and continues to evolve. How can stadia operators ensure they utilise technology to enhance the fan experience?

There are two sides to this: Firstly, the technology that can help us design an absolute state of the art facility and enhance the fan experience; then there is the technology within and outside a stadium that directly relates to that experience once they are at the game.


In terms of designing a stadium or a stand, or a suite, there have been huge advances in the digital modelling of stadiums – fully integrated Building Information Models and Digital Twins have every piece of information about the stadium integrated, from the digital model of the façade cladding to how spectators’ queue at bars. We are also extensively utilising gaming engines and VR to model and visualise our designs before they are built. Allowing our clients, operators, and users to walk around the digital stadium in real time, understand what is proposed and fine-tune the designs.


Then, in terms of the technology around the game, we’ll increasingly see the gap between the physical and the virtual narrowing but the important aspect of ‘shared moments of community’ is what ties them together.


MK Dons


Then there is the second screen viewing explosion going to the next level, with personal AR experiences such as choosing viewing angles or tech like AR glasses or contact lenses that allow wearers to see anything from AR replays to overlay of in-real-time stats – even AI driven play predictions!


And as clubs develop their metaverse proposition, we can digitally ‘twin’ a stadium right from the point of design. So, you don’t end up with a clumsy reproduction of a physical stadium, you can use the digitised design plans to create an exact digital replica that can bring our remote fans into the live experience, create incredible live experiences regardless of where in the world you are and increased commercial opportunities.


Safe-Standing has now been approved in the Championship and Premier League, how will this impact future design expectations?

We were a consultant to the SGSA and the authorities on the Green Guide, so we’ve been part of the discussion around safe-standing from the start.


The key here is that safe-standing systems can be bespoke to clubs and don’t have to be ‘one size fits all’ but there is a strong section of football fans that very much desire the inclusion of safe-standing areas, and this refers back to our earlier discussion about ‘authenticity’ and inclusion of fans traditions but in a correctly designed and where safety is key to the design.


Of course, designing safe-standing into a new stadium is easier in one sense than adapting an existing stadium or stand, but from experience talking to owners, CEOs, and Chief Operating Officers there’s a real commitment to give fans the option of standing in the safest way possible.


We developed bespoke standing/seating products for Tottenham’s stadium, as they embarked the safe-standing trial in the UK. This product allows for safe-standing to be incorporated into a stadium whilst retaining the seated position with unobstructed sight-lines when a seated position is required.


Populous is known for major stadium projects (Emirates, Tottenham etc), what can you offer to clubs operating on a different budget or not looking for a total stadium redevelopment?


We work across the board in terms of type of project, size of projects and scale of budgets. Of course, we are better known for high profile projects like Wembley, Tottenham, and Emirates but we are currently working on Southend’s new stadium and our projects for Huddersfield Town, Bolton Wanderers and Ipswich Town are some of the ones we are most proud of.


What is important is the right solution for the client. The new Riverside Stand we’ve designed for Fulham demonstrates that the redevelopment of one stand can fundamentally enhance the fan experience, shift perceptions, and still remain true to the club’s traditions and location. This has all been done while increasing revenue with the addition of hospitality amenities and allowing the stadium to better connect to its locality with the opening up of the river walkway.


Fulham Riverside Stand


Another factor is making sure any design allows for future expansion. With MK Dons we designed the stadium in such a way that the capacity can be increased from 30,500 to 45,000 with the addition of a third tier if needed.


Our practice is built on providing genuine expertise gained over decades of designing and delivering all kinds of projects, in many different countries. Our experts advise clients from the earliest idea of a project through to architectural feasibility and business planning – helping a club of evaluate their options and optimising their investment isn’t necessarily budget-intensive.


Design-Led Business Planning

Alongside its core architecture and venue design practise, Populous has evolved a range of services and sub-brands that enable it to provide a full end-to-end service for potential clients as they look at a new venue, or upgrades to their existing one.


One key division is Populous Consulting, founded by Diarmuid Crowley, a former senior VP at IMG. Along with more than two decades of experience managing major international sports events, Crowley has managed the financing and commercialisation of some of the world’s leading stadiums, including Wembley Stadium in London and the Maracana Stadium in Rio.


fcbusiness caught up with Diarmuid to hear more about Populous Consulting, and how a firm best known for stunning stadium architecture can bring increased value to a club or sports organisation before a blueprint or render is ever created.


“I’d summarise what Populous Consulting provides as design-led business planning” says Crowley. “Traditionally, business planners operate separately from designers or architects. They do the market research, crunch the numbers, build revenue models and then the design teams get involved. But the reality is that disconnect means opportunities for innovation and creativity at the very earliest stages may be lost, along with loss of potential revenue in unrealised business opportunities.”


So how does the model work in practise? “Design-led business planning is an evolution of the traditional method. It’s a more holistic approach that aims to create revenue generation opportunities by putting design right at the heart of the planning process.


“Then instead of separate teams and hand-offs between different consultancies, the client has a one-stop-shop, with business planners sitting right next to designers acting as one team on a project. The business planners become integral to the design brief, instead of an auditor of a proposed solution.


“Similarly, as architects we might create innovative, unique spaces, but a business planner working as part of the team has the experience to evaluate quickly whether such a space might create additional revenue.


“The key is to intricately link design, revenue generation and costs. That then means we can design a venue specifically tailored to maximise both fan experience and revenue generation, while minimising capital and operational costs.”


Once the venue has been built, Populous Consulting can also offer a sales service: “Effectively we offer a full 360-degree consultancy, from designing to the business plan through to delivering on the revenues we forecast. Because of our experience delivering on projected revenues, the client can have confidence that their facility is designed to achieve a revenue target that we have proven to be achievable through subsequent sales delivery.”


With extensive experience, including Wembley, Russia and Qatar World Cup venues, and new builds in Saudi Arabia, Italy and Greece, Crowley is enthusiastic for the possibilities his consulting group opens up for Populous and, more importantly, the clubs, federations and developers they work with.


He concludes: “We believe that design-led business planning challenges the traditional model of venue feasibility to deliver increased revenue. It’s about examining each part of a client’s model, from business and operational plans, architecture and experience through to design and brand, to find hidden opportunities.” 


Images: Populous