Evolution of Stadium Design

Scarano Architect
5 min readFeb 8, 2022
Evolution of Stadium Design

As the Super Bowl approaches, many Americans can be found glued to their television sets, anxiously awaiting the opportunity to watch their team’s victory. Some die-hard fans prefer to see the action in person by paying a visit to the sports stadium. Most of us are familiar with the horseshoe-styled stadium which was the brainchild of the ancient Greeks. The Romans can be blamed for the high-rising, cheap stadium seats we all know and they were the only stadium seats we knew for centuries; until the 1800s rolled around.

The earliest stadiums came from Greece and the word itself comes from a Greek word for a unit of measure. They are recognizable by high rising stands surrounded by U-shaped tracks below. Some of the stands were actually built into hillsides, while others were made of stone or marble, to give spectators a stepped-type view. The Greeks gave us stadiums about six centuries before Christ but the Romans gave those stadiums a monumental shift in the first few centuries after that. The Colosseum, which was built in 80 AD, is the father of all modern stadiums. Tim Cahill, the architect of the NFL’s Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, said his design was modeled after a “Roman Amphitheater.” For reference, the Roman Colosseum is 157 feet tall with 50,000 plus seating. It has 80 entrances, of those 76 are numbered and 4 are considered “grand entrances.” The tiered seating design was based squarely on social hierarchy, with the seats farthest from the action left for those of less social standing. The same principle applies today. Those with the most money or notoriety will be able to afford the best seats, while the majority of the visitors will be sitting far from the action. The ellipse-shaped venue allowed the three tiers of travertine (a type of limestone), concrete, stone, tiles, and other materials to surround the field of sport. This design enabled to pack in a large number of spectators.

Another style of venue that appeared was the circus. The circus-style of the stadium was a take on the Greek horseshoe where stands were built on exact measurements of a track with one end left open. The largest circus stadium, Rome’s Circus Maximus, welcomed up to 250,000 visitors into the three-story stone structure.

The Middle Ages did not bring much into the world of stadium design. Jousting tournaments were held in bleacher-style seating in open fields or castle courtyards, and this trend lasted well over 1,000 years. But the Colosseum would again make a return as amphitheaters and jousting fields combined to create a modern style of stadiums in the 19th century.

Stadium construction moved from Italy and Greece to England. Lord’s Cricket Grounds in London began to take shape in 1787. By 1812, Lord’s found a new location and created what is now the oldest in-use stadium in the world; its first structure was built-in in 1814. The 30-foot high grandstand is 175 feet long and took shape in 1867, complete with a private box for the Prince of Wales. In Australia, stands for watching cricket matches appeared. The Melbourne Cricket Ground’s bleacher-styled venue opened in 1854.

The late 1800s saw a rise in wooden stand stadium construction. The home of Wimbledon, starting out as the “All England Croquet Club,” was erected in 1868 as well as a smattering of baseball parks in the United States. Steel and concrete helped to give form to these grandstands that we’re able to hold over 10,000 spectators. The University of Pennsylvania opened Franklin Field in Philadelphia in 1895, the oldest stadium still operating football games.

In England, where soccer was on the rise, the first soccer-specific venue, Goodison Park in Liverpool, was opened in 1892 by Everton F.C. Expansions eventually made Goodison Park the first English soccer stadium to be four-sided with two-tiered stands as well as the first club to have a stadium with a three-tiered stand. The 1800s saw a rise in baseball parks in the U.S. while soccer stands in Europe grew more varied in the 1900s.

The first 50 years of the 20th century saw a combination of materials start to take shape in stadium construction. This included wood, concrete, and steel. Assizes of stadiums continued to grow, so did their use, which led us to the 1950s and 1960s where large concrete structures were built plain and abstract enough to hold any type of event or use.

In 1923, old Yankee Stadium gave the nation, and likely the world, the first three-tiered stadium under the design of Osborn Engineering Company. The 68,000 seat Astrodome, first seen in 1965 became the first completely enclosed, domed stadium that heralded the need for artificial turf. The Astrodome stepped up the use of luxury box seating, a trend that has since ballooned and now leads to new stadium design discussions.

Dodger Stadium, opened in 1962, showed off engineering designs that reduced poles blocking views. Toronto’s SkyDome embraced this same idea but with a unique twist. It was the first successful retractable roof stadium of its kind. In 204, college football in the US and soccer in Europe continued their push to enlarge stadiums. Michigan Stadium seats 109,900, the largest non-racing venue in the US, while Barcelona’s Camp Nou holds nearly 100,000.

Creating a space for spectators to enjoy watching events has become the leading concern among designers. There is always a distinct delineation between luxury suites and the common bleacher seat. Stadiums are home to mind-boggling energy, visited by people who celebrate a sport they love. The dynamic performances of teams create an enthusiastic environment like no other. To design the perfect stadium, architects focus on the most important aspects of building a unique, intricate coliseum. These include, but are not limited to, sightlines, how well the stadium can be converted to house other events, the sound design, and most importantly, how it fits the team that will be playing in it. This is a tall order for today’s enthusiastic fans. As you watch the Super Bowl or any other arena event, look around and ponder the history of these great stadiums.

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