Qatar seeks to avoid 'white elephant' stadiums

Qatar seeks to avoid 'white elephant' stadiums

Published May. 25, 2011 12:32 p.m. ET

Qatar has already attracted plenty of attention for the futuristic and colorful designs of its dozen proposed World Cup stadiums - including one shaped like a traditional Arabic fishing boat and another like a sea urchin.

Now the architects have unveiled detailed plans that will allow organizers in the tiny Gulf nation to remove as many as 170,000 seats - including one entire stadium - from nine of the venues and send them to 22 locations in the developing world.

At a stadium conference in Doha this week, they said the initiative was aimed at insuring the World Cup would leave a lasting legacy.

''If we build up to the capacity which FIFA requires, afterward we would have a lot of white elephants around this area,'' said Karin Bertaloth, whose firm is designing six new stadiums and two that will be upgraded. ''I don't think Qatar needs this capacity. We have the concept to build first tier of the stadium permanently and the second would only be for 2022.''


Many of the stadiums also have plans to incorporate hotels, parks and even a spa, or the flexibility to be converted for athletics or other sports.

The push to consider the future of World Cup stadiums is nothing new, but has taken on much greater emphasis in Qatar, where a population of 1.6 million people means football clubs can barely fill a 15,000-seat stadium let alone some of the 80,000 behemoths that are required for a World Cup.

It also coincides with changing attitudes in stadium design, with developers under pressure to build facilities that are cheaper, more sustainable, and which have a long-term use beyond a sporting venue.

''Cities need to think about how a stadium can be used for alternative uses in the context of city, of the neighborhood, of the community it is in,'' said Mark Fenwick, a director and partner with the designer of Education City, which will reduce from 45,000 seats to 25,000 after the World Cup.

Fenwick and others said Qatar's approach also was inspired by the mistakes of past World Cups and Olympics, with several architects complimenting their presentations with photos of stadiums like those from the 2004 Athens Olympics which largely have gone unused or the Bird's Nest in Beijing which is now little more than a tourist attraction.

South Africa, too, is struggling to make use of its 2010 World Cup stadiums. Those in the northern cities of Rustenburg, Nelspruit and Polokwane, and in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town were all built from scratch. They occasionally host games, but the cost of running the modern sites outweighs the income derived from small local crowds.

The company managing Cape Town's $600-million, 65,000-capacity stadium - which held a World Cup semifinal - decided not to continue its contract after the tournament. It has hosted just six club football matches this year. Durban's new Moses Mabhida Stadium is also rarely used, but will form the centerpiece of an expected Olympic bid from the east coast city.

''We are concerned,'' said Eugene van Vuuren, a technical adviser for the 2010 World Cup who spoke at the three-day, Stadium and Venue Design and Development conference. ''We are sharing the stadiums and it is going well with all the existing stadiums. But the new ones in Cape Town, in Durban, until they get it right where the rugby guys are joining the party they will always have a tough time.''

Qatar not only wants to ensure it avoids empty stadiums but is hoping its venues can help transform and even build communities outside of the capital Doha. Many of the 12 are being proposed for areas that are little more than patches of sand, and are expected to either be a destination for sports or education or the anchor for new residential developments.

''In Qatar, it's less about the financial aspect of it as it is about what the World Cup can do for the country,'' said Dan Meis, whose firm is building Sports City stadium which will have moving seats, a moving pitch and a retractable roof. ''The idea of creating buildings to be multipurpose and long use, it ends up developing a lot more and that becomes a legacy for Qatar. The World Cup comes here, changes the country and creates development and experiences the country didn't have before.''

But Qatar is also using the World Cup to raise its profile on the international stage and that is where the stadium donations come in. It plans to donate two 15,000-seat stadiums, eight 10,000-seat stadiums and 12 5,000-seat stadiums as part of a larger football development program that it says will ''contribute emphatically to development of football and local society.''

Van Vuuren welcomed Qatar's offer to give away the seats but warned that it needs to factor in the upkeep and management of these new stadiums.

''It's not just good to give facilities but you have to maintain and upkeep it,'' he said. ''When you are in poorer countries, they just can't do it.''

Markus Pfisterer of the firm GMP also cautioned Qatar not to go too far in removing stadiums after the games, warning ''that if you take it away and give it to somebody, you will have an empty parking lot at the end. This is in our opinion not good for Qatar.''


AP Sports Writer Gerald Imray in Johannesburg contributed to this report.