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The Right Way To Deal With Aging Stadiums

Cities all over the world could learn something from Barcelona's approach to stadium building.

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The average lifespan of NFL and MLB stadiums is shockingly short. Most stadiums these days get demolished after only 30 years—or less, in many cases. It’s a trend that many cities are finding leaves them strapped with debt and urban blight. In Barcelona, a collaboration between Japanese and Spanish architects who are renovating the legendary FC Barcelona stadium, Camp Nou, offers another way.

A battered, hulking concrete icon, Camp Nou is an absolutely massive stadium—the largest in Europe—and for many fans, it’s a symbol of more than just soccer (er, football). Fans often lovingly refer to their stadiums as museums, but in the case of Camp Nou, it’s actually true: the 60-year-old stadium actually has a museum, and it’s wildly popular, drawing in 1.2 million visitors per year (roughly the same attendance Machu Picchu sees every year, for comparison).

Flickr user Sean MacEntee

The building was designed in the 1950s by Francesc Mitjans, as the country was recovering from the Spanish Civil War. It quickly became a symbol of Catalan identity, according to sports journalist Matt Genner. "For more than 100 years FC Barcelona has been a symbol and expression of Catalonia, providing a means of integration for immigrants and standing firm as Franco tried to destroy the region’s identity," Genner writes. One tie of its seats are even colored to spell out the message: More than just a club.

Still, it's a piece of architecture that is, by today's standards, ancient—and way overdue for demolition. But thanks to its embedded cultural significance, it has escaped the wrecking ball. When FC Barcelona decided to renovate the building last year, it did so very carefully, putting out an international tender for ideas and selecting a team of architects to sit on the jury.

When the football club announced the winning design last week, we got a glimpse of an alternative approach to stadium design. Rather than demolish the old concrete venue, the architects at Japanese mega-firm Nikken Sekkei and their local collaborators, Pascual i Ausió Arquitectes, will change the stadium extensively, adding tiered seating for more than 5,000 extra fans, a roof structure to cover all seats, new underground parking lots and structures, accessibility changes, and more—plus, "all seats must have a perfect view of the pitch." Oh, and the stadium will continue to operate as normal.

It’s a major renovation of a 60-year-old concrete stadium—and it's not going to be cheap. That's okay. It’s easy to contextualize how unusual this is, at least compared to stadiums in America: the median age of NFL stadiums that are being replaced right now is just 31 years. And while the changes will be costly—at $711 million, some would say it might make more sense to rebuild—other critics point out that it’s a more sensible solution, since it adds money-makers like restaurants, stores, and "experience" spaces to the venue.

Neil deMause, co-author of Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, argued on his blog that the cost is sensible. "[If] you’re popular enough, obviously, there are certain cases where spending hundreds of millions of dollars in team money on upgrades can make sense, he writes, adding that smaller teams can still learn from this approach, taking on smaller, more incremental renovations instead of jumping ship for new cities and new stadiums. Will stateside teams take the hint?

"That’s also pretty much how the U.S. stadium and arena world worked for the first half of the 20th century, before the threat of moving teams and mayors who thought their job was to throw ‘development incentives’ at private companies and professional economic impact studies changed the world and made it necessary for Joanna Cagan and I to write a book and start this website," he continues. "We might get back there again someday, maybe, but in the meantime I think I’ll be renewing the fieldofschemes.com domain name just the same."

Still, it’s cool to see a city throwing money at renovating a historic structure—especially when other cities are demolishing their own. Just look at Tokyo’s National Olympic Stadium, a venue designed by Mitsuo Katayama that opened just one year after Camp Nou, in 1958. It was demolished to make way for a new stadium in 2014. And we all know how that turned out.

Renderings: Nikken Sekkei + Pascual i Ausió Arquitectes

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