New London Architecture

Five minutes with…Chris Lee, MD EMEA, Populous

Thursday 15 October 2020

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor catches up with Populous EMEA MD Chris Lee to talk about how sports stadia are faring in terms of getting the fans back, hybrid and virtual events, how clients are consequently becoming more focused on wellness and sustainability issues – and how exactly he got away with designing stadia for Tottenham Hotspur and their arch rivals, Arsenal…

David Taylor: Hi Chris – how are you?

Chris Lee: David. I’m very well thank you. Monday morning!

DT (laughs): If I can start straightaway, you’ve been doing quite a lot of work with stadiums over the years, and with more of a call recently that I've noticed from fans to be let back, I wondered what sort of work you're doing in terms of making stadia Covid-safe and Covid-compliant? And, indeed, with stadia of, say, 30,000 to 60,000 seats, how does that look, essentially? And what do you think the prospects are for the return of spectators?

CL: Yeah, it's a great question. I think almost as soon as we all globally went into various forms of lockdown, including obviously all our clients, we set up a working group globally to look at how our clients could make their venues Covid-safe. And ultimately what they've all turned into is returning-to-venue studies. 

So, we had about 40 architects around the world working on various studies for varying clients on how they could get back into venues, and in what form. There has been a huge amount of work that change teams have put in around the world, working with virologists, epidemiologists, security and hygiene experts. I think we're probably doing something like 50 venues at the moment around the world examining how they can get back, what precautions they need to take, what new infrastructure they might need to plan, andwhat bits and pieces they might need to change in their venues. 

And then, ultimately, their operational protocols, which end up eventually with the capacity, and those capacities obviously change as local rules or national rules amend. So that's been a lot of hard work since March, really. 

THFC v EVERTON © Peter Hill
DT: So what do you think is actually going to happen? Can you look into your crystal ball – I mean as much as anybody can at the moment with tiers and different rules, seemingly every week? When do you think fans might be allowed back to, say, Premier League club venues?

CL: That’s an almost impossible question to answer! We were we all working towards a return last month. A lot of our clients would be working towards - in the Premier League here – some kind of return, with obviously reduced capacities. 

DT: And how reduced is that?

CL: Well, it really depends on the venue. But you're probably talking about crowds of maybe 30% but with differing capacities in different bits of the stadiums. And then that’s very different depending if it's a new stadium or an older stadium. So, it’s really nuanced on the venue itself. 

DT: Is the main challenge in circulation and the alcohol selling areas; the mingling areas?

CL: Well, I think the main challenge is all the way back. If you think of getting to a new stadium like Tottenham, for example, it's looking through the transport infrastructure; how you get people to the venue and then outside the venue. How you do the health screening, the PPE provisioned sanitization bit, on top of the normal stuff we would have to do with security, the ‘mag and bag’ checks – all of that piece? 

And then, yeah, once you get inside, obviously a lot of the work we’ve done is looking at helping our clients switch to as much touchless as possible. Touchless tickets, purchases, all of that piece as infrastructure changes there. And then obviously maintaining social distance in concourse spaces or restaurant spaces much the way you would do in a restaurant or bar. Then there’s the wearing and provision of PPE, how you enforce that, what sort of operational protocols. There's an enormous amount of work globally with people ultimately repurposing technology. From CCTV work to robots who roam around corridors making sure people are staying two metres apart (laughs) or whatever the distance is. 

Then, once you get into the seating bowl, it's a little bit easier. Obviously you're sitting in a certain place; you can work out the distances between seats and to maintain social distancing there, but obviously ins and outs and re-purposing what we call the vomitories – which are the tunnels that get you into a seating bowl to be one-way rather than the two-ways that they are normally designed as. So, it's a pretty holistic view all the way, almost from leaving your home to getting to the venue and then leaving again, on how you can provide a safe and secure environment.

DT: As a practice I think you have been involved with some work in Sydney and New Zealand actually live-trialling some of these kinds of arrangements. What's been the main learning to arise from that?

CL: Well, about a month ago we held a game at Bankwest, which is the new (rugby league) venue which opened in Sydney. It went remarkably well. But the whole team really globally worked towards that. It was a great test case and it went fantastically well. I mean, the numbers went relatively well and everyone was well behaved; there were limited alcohol sales. The game at Bankwest went really well, so they were very pleased. I think they weren't too far off full. 

DT: So what of the hybrid experience? You’ve been doing work there too – what's the scope there, and could you explain it to some of our readers as well? 

CL: There are lots of technologies which have already existed in many forms that have been accelerated during this pandemic, and virtual augmented stuff is one of the big ones. We have seen great games in empty stadiums with everything from very cute cardboard cut-outs to zoom calls in Denmark but I think ultimately a lot of the work has been accelerating what already was happening. If you look at a Manchester United, I think they get something like a million, two hundred thousand or a million three hundred thousand people through Old Trafford in the year, but, you know, 650 million people around the world claim to be Manchester United fans…

NFL Raiders vs Bears © Edward Hill
DT: Mostly from Surrey (laughs)…

CL: (laughs) So, how do you integrate that remote audience, which is significantly larger than the live audience, and have an experience that is comparable? Because if we just focus on football for a second, I do a lot of work in the Middle East and I was recently dragged by a Spurs fan to some dusty bar in the back blocks of Sharjah at 11:30 in the evening, and there were 300 Spurs fans watching a game together. It is how you how you take those pockets of people who all want to be together but from the other side of the world or elsewhere and integrate them into a live experience and have some kind of shared experience. Because ultimately that is what we assume is craved and why we love live sport – these shared moments of positive or negative. A great goal, a crushing defeat – but there's this idea of community.

I think the virtual piece that we’ve all experienced; what video conferencing can do and how at some levels it replicates an interaction that you would have in a physical space, and bringing that into a live experience – whether that’s sport or then entirely virtual where you start looking at music and entertainment where there's been obviously for some time but accelerating entirely virtual events – that is really interesting. 

DT: As a designer of stadia like Spurs which are so focused, as I understand it, on achieving atmosphere and enhancing an atmosphere, does it make you especially sad about our current situation?

CL:  Well it's very odd as a fan of sport to watch big games in empty stadiums. And there's endless reporting at the moment of why the games have been so erratic, with large score-lines partially to do with the lack of interaction of a crowd not being there spurring their team on and the home team advantage, and all of that. I imagine there probably is a huge impact. If you speak to any of the players in the big stadiums, having their hometown, having that adrenalin rush of the huge crowds spurring you on does push you more than if you're in an empty stadium. Early on it was an incredibly surreal experience watching these empty grounds, so it is a bit heart-breaking watching them (laughs)

Populous, Tottenham Stadium London ©Hufton+Crow
DT: So, just to end on something of an optimistic note, do you think in say a year’s time we will be back to some semblance of normality in our in our stadia, and other venues?

CL:  Yeah. Look, I’m confident we will be back, certainly in a year, hopefully earlier than that in varying forms. I think on a personal level once we get over this second hump, or spike, there are definitely systems and operational ways of getting smaller crowds back into live venues.  We have just done one in New Zealand as well that shows that it can happen safely, as long as everyone behaves and follows what they're meant to do, wear the appropriate PPE and the appropriate social distancing. I'm sure we will be back. But you know I think the interesting question probably is what happens beyond this, once we defeat this virus and move back into some kind of new normal. What does that mean for venues moving forward? That is an interesting question for a lot of our clients at the moment who are in the design stages and they're all asking: what does this mean for our venue design and stadium design? Should we be making amendments now?

Populous, Tottenham Stadium London ©Hufton+Crow
I think there are some amendments, definitely – the space requirements go up inside and outside the building to accommodate health checks and the like. But I actually think that the biggest move I've noticed is a lot of our clients focusing on health, wellness, sanitization and as a sort of tangential sustainability – making buildings in this sort of weird term, ‘wellness-focused’. And a lot of that then moves into pure sustainability and energy minimization or a tangential view from the pandemic. That seems to be a big move that a lot of our clients are now more focused on. 

DT: That’s really interesting. 

One very final question. I notice you also were involved in designing Arsenal's Emirates Stadium as well as Spurs’. How did that go down with the rival fans? How did you get away with it? (laughs)

CL: (laughs) I think Daniel (Levy) knew right from the beginning when we met that I designed Emirates. No, it's great. I mean, they are two fantastic clubs, two brilliant venues, and I am proud to be part of continuing that ongoing north London rivalry between the two clubs and producing great venues for both of them! 

DT: Brilliant! thanks very much. That's really great!

CL: Good. Nice to talk to you. Bye! 

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



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