Tuesday, 27 October 2009

New Aviva stadium in Lansdowne Road

THE curves and expanse of the elegant stadium roof follow a graceful dive, like the down sweep of a giant skateboard ramp. From the south side, it races from its highest point, falling towards Havelock Square and the city centre. There, it dips dramatically at the north end, where Dart travellers can catch a glimpse inside to the rising stands and to what might soon become the dominant building on the Dublin skyline.

On the south end is the area where rugby fans used to have to cross the Dart lines from Lansdowne Road Station with a grim mix of fear and exhilaration. They will soon be swept safely underground on both sides of the tracks to avoid the famous crush. Here, there is another dip in the roof, albeit more subtle, a sort of little brother to the more dramatic sag of the north end.

The Aviva Lansdowne Road Stadium is a fraternal adventure between the sports governed by the IRFU and the FAI. In its new polycarbonate cladding and steel-tube splendour, with its reconstructed hour-glass curves, it is also unmistakably younger and more feminine than the venerable but declining old Lansdowne lady, with her decaying concrete, asbestos roof and famously over-flowing urinals.

Sexy probably isn’t what Henry William Dunlop had in mind in 1872, when he set about pulling together the means for what is the world’s oldest international rugby venue, one that represented the sport’s prudent and conservative values.

Now, the inescapable fact is that the building does look pretty cool, even with six cranes and lifts ploughing up the infield, and a township of stacked containers outside the veranda at the front of the Lansdowne Road Rugby Club pavilion.

No, she is not quite ready for a night out. There are still some last-minute touches to be seen to, such as grass, a finished roof and inside fittings. But the appeal and a strong impression of what the finished product will look like, the vision of architects HOK Sports Architecture (now called Populous), in conjunction with Scott Tallon Walker, can now be clearly seen in outline and girth. It is shamelessly modern and ambitious, reflecting the new success and popularity of the rugby of Leinster, Munster and Ireland. In that respect, the IRFU’s partner in the development, the FAI, is lagging some way behind.

The stadium already has four tiers, with the lower and upper tiers to be used for general access, the second tier for premium tickets, and the third tier for corporate boxes. There are also two basement levels and seven storeys of floors, which are more visible from the back of the building.

From the south stand, which used to be terraces with their back along Lansdowne Road, you can peep north towards the new Docklands. Staring back is what looks like a giant glass beer can, heroically teetering backwards – the National Convention Centre. While the chimney stacks at Poolbeg power station remain the set-piece landmarks of the Dublin docklands and city, the fact that their very existence is coming under threat suggests that a new building defining the cityscape might be required.

A quick sweep of the Dublin city skyline, from the second of the four tiers, puts Poolbeg, Lansdowne Road, Croke Park and the Spire as the major, recognisable pieces of architecture on the capital’s horizon.

U2 immortalised the chimneys in the music video for Van Diemen’s Land but by next August the Irish rugby team will begin the rehabilitation of the 50,000-seat Aviva venue, after three years of squatting in the 82,300-capacity Croke Park.

The convention centre in the complex, which can cater for up to 800 delegates, will open for business before the rugby kicks off. The company is already taking bookings for next May. The first match will be rugby, on November 6th (see panel).

It is a matter of record that the IRFU has already applied to the European Rugby Cup to stage the 2011 Heineken Cup final in the new stadium, a request that, given that Munster and Leinster have won the past two competitions, is unlikely to be met with entirely deaf ears. Hopeful is how the IRFU describes the state of play on that issue. Dublin has not staged a European rugby final since the all-French affair in 2003, when Toulouse beat Perpignan.

The FAI has already attracted the Uefa Europa League final (the former Uefa Cup) in 2011, as well as dual World Cup winners Argentina for the first football match, scheduled for August 11th, 2010. The Aviva Stadium will become Ireland’s first Uefa Elite Stadium.

Luminaries have already visited the ground, including former French midfield maestro Michel Platini, who has long since swapped the soccer locker room for the harder hitting presidential offices of Uefa. Former Irish football manager Jack Charlton has had a peek and so has an array of rugby players, with Irish second row Malcolm O’Kelly a regular visitor, through his surveying interests.

From a punter viewpoint, modernity often means being further away from the players, and Aviva is no different. Those fans who used to loiter at the back of the west stand hours before kick-off will no longer be able to catch a glimpse of the players trekking off the bus in the car park or grab an autograph as they make their way to hospitality.

The team bus will now sweep in under the south stand and drive around inside the stadium to the changing rooms, which are located on the traditional west side. Vehicles can complete a full circle of the stadium around the inside tunnel.

One of the most pressing issues of the new stadium, however, has not been fully resolved, and that is whether fans can take their drinks to their seats and watch the match, as they do in other countries around Europe.

Rugby is one of those sports where fans safely mix and in which there have been no instances of any serious trouble. The most famous and serious disturbance in the old Lansdowne Road was triggered by a football match between the Republic of Ireland and England.

It is currently within the remit of the Garda whether rugby followers can drink and watch the match from their seats, while soccer fans will be subject to Uefa regulations, which clearly state that no public sale or distribution of alcohol is permitted inside the stadium.

Close up, the glass exterior of the stadium at the Lansdowne Road end curves smoothly northwards. It looks tighter between the houses and the stand, but the road here will actually be twice as wide as it was before. Construction of a much broader entrance and exit gate for Dart commuters approaching from the north of the city is under way.

It is an eye-catching construction and clearly a design based on a compromise between the needs of the sporting organisations and the people who live in the area. But that association ensures the shape is innovative. Even with the semi-transparent cladding, which makes the exterior look something like a giant armadillo, the stadium, viewed from the north of the city looking south, has the shape, head-on, of a low-slung sports car.

And the old roar, the old atmosphere? It will be more contained, we’re told, which suggests that it will be even better.

Stadium Statistics

Cost: €411 million

Original cost of leasing in 1908: £50 per annum

Capacity: 50,000 seated

Roof: 3,000 tonnes

Completion date: April 2010

Naming rights: Aviva, €40 million over 10 years

Location: 1.5km from city centre

Highest attendance: 1981, Ireland v France World Cup qualifier (football) – 53,500

Irish Times


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