'Big Dumb World Cup Stadium’ in Russia has been called an eyesore and a paragon of practicality

Constructing two additional stands that protrude from openings on either end of Tsentralnyi Stadium (left and below) expanded the arena's capacity to 35,000, from 23,000, while preserving the old lower facade as a base.
Constructing two additional stands that protrude from openings on either end of Tsentralnyi Stadium (above) expanded the arena's capacity to 35,000, from 23,000, while preserving the old lower facade as a base.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Constructing two additional stands that protrude from openings on either end of Tsentralnyi Stadium (left and below) expanded the arena's capacity to 35,000, from 23,000, while preserving the old lower facade as a base.
Constructing two additional stands that protrude from openings on either end of Tsentralnyi Stadium (above) expanded the arena's capacity to 35,000, from 23,000, while preserving the old lower facade as a base.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

To boost the capacity of Tsentralnyi Stadium, protruding stands were built on either end of the facility, with some calling the solution an eyesore and others hailing it as practical and sensible

YEKATERINBURG (Russia) • In the run-up to the World Cup tournament in Russia, which ended two weeks ago, architects here were tasked with temporarily increasing the seating capacity of Tsentralnyi Stadium, originally built in 1957, while keeping its historical walls intact.

The eventual solution represented a bit of outside-the-bowl thinking - the construction of two additional stands that protrude from openings on either end of the stadium, uncovered by the roof, like enormous drawers pulled from a cabinet.

Critics called it an eyesore, a slapdash solution bordering on the absurd. Defenders hailed it as a paragon of practicality and preservation and the sort of sensible, sustainable construction too rarely seen at major international sporting events.

The ridicule bubbled up last autumn when photographs of the construction site first began to circulate internationally, inspiring a stream of news articles and many an incredulous emoji on Twitter.

Wide aerial shots of the temporary seats, in particular, made them look like steep stairways ascending to outer space, comically distant from the field.

An unsparing headline from the sports website Deadspin, Look At This Big Dumb World Cup Stadium, seemed to capture the general tenor of responses online.

"We got a lot of e-mails at the time about how stupid the stadium is," said Mr Michal Karas, editor-in-chief of StadiumDB, a website that covers arena construction worldwide.

But, in interviews, Mr Karas and others singled out the stadium for praise amid concerns that other World Cup stadiums in Russia would become white elephants after the competition.

Mr William Craft Brumfield, a historian of Russian architecture at Tulane University, called the redesign "obviously very curious", but otherwise commended the local government and architects for maintaining the spirit of the site, which has been used as a playing field since around 1900.

"They see it as sort of a hallowed ground," Mr Brumfield said of residents in Yekaterinburg, a historically industrial city in the Ural Mountains region.

The stadium was first opened in 1957 and its historical facade - adorned with semicolumns, basreliefs, sculptures and stucco details in the Stalinist, neoclassical style - was eventually given protected landmark status, surviving multiple renovations.

Instructed to expand the arena's capacity to 35,000 while preserving the old lower facade as a base, Mr Oleg Gak, the chief architect on the project, and his team at Project Institute Arena, a Moscow-based architecture firm, devised a plan to essentially plop a new stadium inside the existing walls and add stands that could be removed after the tournament.

The stadium, once reduced to 23,000 seats, would be used by the local team, FC Ural.

The project cost 12.5 billion roubles (S$270 million), according to Mr Leonid Rapoport, the sports minister of the Sverdlovsk region.

The temporary seats perch steeply upon a dense latticework of steel beams. Each auxiliary stand is 42m tall and spectators were positioned right up to their outer edges. Those on the uppermost rows could feel like they are peering off the roof of a 14-storey building.

From there, spectators view the action through a wide rectangular opening in the side of the stadium - with the roof partially obstructing their view of the other seating areas - like pedestrians catching a game from the sidewalk outside a sports bar.

The stadium hosted four World Cup group stage matches, including one between eventual champions France and South American side Peru, which the French won 1-0.

Ms Elizaveta Likhacheva, director of the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture in Moscow, favourably compared this hybrid approach of melding new into old to "inserting a glass into a podstakannik" - a traditional Russian decorative teacup holder.

Though she, too, was lukewarm about the stadium's aesthetics, she said the negative hubbub around the arena revealed a deeper impulse in some from the West to mock all things Russian.

"It's not about the World Cup, not about stadiums, not about architecture," she said. "None of these critics have ever been in Yekaterinburg and these critics don't understand what Russia is, exactly."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2018, with the headline ''Big Dumb World Cup Stadium' that did its job'. Print Edition | Subscribe