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One-on-one: John Rhodes, senior VP and director of sports, recreation and entertainment, HOK

Stadia catches up with HOK senior VP and director of sports, recreation and entertainment John Rhodes to discuss the firm's winning of the competition to design the new Palau Blaugrana – a multipurpose arena that will be home to a host of FC Barcelona sports teams. 


Rhodes talks about the new venue, the innovations used in the design, and how the structure will interact with its immediate environment – including the soon-to-be-redeveloped Camp Nou

Can you give us an overview of the Palau Blaugrana project?
FC Barcelona is the best soccer club in Europe at the moment, and the European champions. What’s interesting though is that they also have the best basketball team in FC Barcelona Lassa, the best handball team as well, in FC Barcelona Handbol, and they’ve also got a decent roller hockey team, FC Barcelona Hoquei. So FC Barcelona is much bigger than just one team, it’s also about this series of smaller clubs.

They currently have the Palau Blaugrana, next to the Camp Nou, which is a wonderful little venue with a really high-energy environment. But it’s only in the region of 5-6,000 seats. The intention is to take that up – the club needs a capacity of around 10,000 in the European Basketball league – so they really needed a bigger venue.

The arena needs to host all of these different sports, so we had to create a venue with flexibility – that was one of the challenges. The project is actually more than that, however, because in addition to the arena, you also have a community ice rink, and an auxiliary hall with about 2,000 seats. Combining them all makes for a significant development, and then on top of all of this, we have the soccer school, the FCB Escola, with training pitches as well. The combination makes for quite a complex project over a significant area.

The project is enormous, right the way from the Camp Nou down to smaller facilities ...
It really is unprecedented. They’re refreshing their outlook on their existing assets – which are wonderful – and refining their approach to them. The site that we’re building the arena on is where the current mini stadium is, and the training pitch, and these are being relocated to the club’s training facility on the edge of the town. That frees up the site for the new Palau. And of course within all of this, they’re maximizing their real estate potential with a mixed-use plan as well – there’s a lot of office buildings coming in, and that kind of stuff.

There’s also a new tube station being built on the edge of the site, which will have a significant impact in terms of how the venue operates. This all ties in – it’s a very urban environment, and a wonderful part of the town, so the key is how these large pieces of sporting infrastructure integrate with that wider masterplan. That creates some wonderful challenges and opportunities.

Can you talk us through the concepts at the heart of the arena’s overall design?
The difference between architecture and sculpture is that we need to create a facility that is not only joyous, but that also functions. Essentially the building has a series of innovations that underpin it. One is the approach to the bowl.

We really wanted to take the essence of the existing Palau, a very intimate venue, and replicate that as much as we could – albeit at a significantly larger venue. So rather than having a significant upper tier and separating the population, we’ve designed an enhanced lower bowl, but then we’ve enlarged one end to create a ‘home end.’

In some ways, European basketball is different to NBA basketball in that the crowd and the experience is more like a soccer game than an NBA game. So, considering this – how can we create this wall of people to create that energy in that building? That enlarged end has significant advantages – it reduces the volume of the whole building so we can make it much smaller, because we don’t have that upper tier. We’ve significantly reduced the building spans. A lower volume makes it feel more intimate and the atmosphere will be even better.

Another advantage of the enlarged end is that we can leverage the event calendar by having more entertainment-based offerings – exhibitions and plenary session-type programming – using that big theater. I also designed the Leeds [First Direct] Arena [in the UK], which was a big traditional super theater, and some of those aspects are coming into this design, which is a more traditional sporting arena. But I think the great thing will be this home end – a big wall of people.

The venue is also unique due to its close proximity to the 100,000-seat Camp Nou – a stadium which has a certain gravity. The arena, although a significant venue in itself, should reflect, respect, and show some recognition of that larger venue next door. There’s an orientation of the new venue toward the larger stadium, and I think that’s important. There’s a bar that will look toward the stadium as well. It will be a fantastic place to go.

The next aspect was to look at the building’s context. You’ve got this urban environment that the building and the complex sits within, but the climate is also important – it’s a Mediterranean climate, which is different to going to a venue in North America or the UK where, in the winter it is cold and miserable. The climate in Barcelona is pretty stable, so we asked – can we blend the spaces inside the bowl with the spaces outside and then blur the line between the two?

Because the building sits on a slope, the idea was to work with a section of that slope to create a level of public realm which is separate from the street, and which can be controlled. So we’ve essentially created this ‘island’, and made it possible to control the entrance to this island. So you can ticket on the edge of the public realm and then people can move freely around the building, because they’re already inside the venue.

That now means that you have a public realm that forms part of the experience, so we can then pull out some of the content from inside the building and put it in that public realm; some of the concessions can move out, which means that they can operate on a day-to-day basis. You can have bars and cafes which can be used every day of the week. That means invariably that they’ll create more revenue, and that means that they can invest in better infrastructure to deliver better quality service. It’s a win-win.

But it also means that a building which would traditionally be a black box has an opportunity to be activated on non-event days. This wonderful public realm around the building means people will be able to spend more time there before and after the event as well. This also works in relation to this larger gravity of the bigger stadium nearby – the new Palau could become a congregational area for fans to meet before or after a game.

It’s very much a strategy based on the building’s location, its context and the environmental conditions associated with Barcelona.

Is this a further adaptation of the trend toward buildings being in use on non-event days?
The venue is a part of the city, and because they’re such big buildings – to me they’re public amenities – we asked “How can we integrate the venue into the city?” It’s nice that these buildings could become, rather than just an object that sits in the city, very much a part of the urban fabric – they’re of a scale and size that they really need to do that.

Does that affect the design process?
I really like the idea of a building creating its own character. Through the design process and the discussions, you almost layer the various factors – the site, the brief and so on – and then after a while the building starts to create its own character. Which is great. It helps with the decision-making process if the building actually starts to make its own decisions for you.

You should always look at a building in terms of how it sits in its environment, and in this particular case I think the character is coming from where it is, when it is, and what it relates to – this location next to the larger stadium, and the particular urban environment.

Is that mindset of ‘bigger is better’ being edged out of venue design?
The approach to these buildings is getting more sophisticated on many levels, with appreciation that these venues can create revenue that can be used to support teams, and which is an important part of the financing of teams themselves.

On another level, I think there’s a more sophisticated understanding of the value of these buildings. In my mind, we design experiential architecture – people go to experience these venues. Underpinning all the decisions is the question of how we can enhance the experience of the event-goer. That’s what’s wonderful about these buildings – they are joyous places where people meet and share those experiences.

They used to be very engineered buildings – years ago, engineering principles would determine stadium design. Now, there’s a level of sophistication where we’re looking more at this experiential quality of the building environment.

Every experience differs, in relation to the context, the team, and the brief. You tailor that and try to make that experience special for that location.

So sport and entertainment are becoming even more intertwined?
The entertainment side of the industry is getting closer to the sports side of the industry, and the two are becoming very similar products – from both directions. And I think there’s lessons to be learned from both sides of the industry as well.

There’s always this discussion of the attention economy – people have very little time, so how do you keep them engaged? That comes down to that experience.

Groundbreaking is set for 2017 – what’s currently going on with the project?
It was a design competition, for the stadium and the arena, and now that the club has decided which designs they want to go with, there’s going to be this wonderful phase where we get the two designs working together. They compliment each other very well, which is great. We’ll be moving the design forward, enhancing the brief and refining everything.

Had you had any contact with the Camp Nou designers?
None at all. The client was very hands on and very much engaged with all the participants in the competitions. There are clearly philosophical similarities between our design and the stadium design, which I think is wonderful, and down to communication with the client.

Is it daunting working on a project that also involves one of the world’s most iconic stadia?
It’s a great privilege to work on such an exciting project. We’re used to delivering these kinds of projects, and they all have their own unique challenges. But we’re very much up to it, and very excited by it. It’s going to be a fantastic venue, and it’s going to compliment the wider Espai Barça aspirations.

March 23, 2016



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