‘Safe buildings will have to be the new normal’


Fenwick Iribarren Architects, founded in 1990 by architects Mark Fenwick and Javier Iribarren, is a nationally and internationally recognised architectural design studio. Its most signature projects are represented in all types of architecture. The Madrid (Spain)-headquartered company was set up in 1990.

Coronavirus has made the whole world go helter-skelter. The fatal respiratory disease has impacted all areas of life. And sports venues are no exception. Globally, to date, coronavirus cases have reached 3,581,879, and the death figures – 248,558.

Going by the colossal damage COVID-19 has caused to human lives and to the economy, the entire perspective of leading lives will have to be changed. Even architects will have to revisit the entire design plan as regards how to design future stadiums and buildings so that the ‘safe’ quotient takes priority.

To this end, Mark Fenwick has written a paper on the topic – ‘Stadium Architecture in a Post-Viral Era’. He shares exclusive details to ‘Coliseum’ on the subject.

Has your business got affected? An optimistic Fenwick says, “I think we are very lucky. We were slightly proactive before we started the confinement. So, we put into status all the technology in our office. And we got 50 people working from home and everything is going smooth. We are working well, we are designing, coordinating in a new world and we adapted to it in a very short time. We have completed all the milestones we had on time. So, I’m very happy about it.”

What about the paper you have developed describing the impact of the pandemic on modern architecture. Can you summarize this in a few sentences, especially when it comes to sporting venues? “Yes, absolutely. I think this pandemic has caused a major issue in the society. I think the last time we had something very similar was the 9/11 attacks in the United States when in September the buildings came down due to terrorist attacks and that caused a change in society. And it caused a change in architecture as well. So, we must learn from those moments as well. In stadiums, specifically, major changes were effected when the massive disasters in England (Hillsborough disaster when a stampede led to 96 deaths) resulted in transitioning from standing in stadiums to seating in stadiums keeping in mind the safety and security factor,” Fenwick informed.

He added, “And these two issues caused major changes in stadiums. I think, with this pandemic there is a change in society, there is a change in perception. It is evident that the impact this COVID-19 crisis will have on society is vast, and hence it is also clear that architecture, and especially sports architecture, will have to develop new ways of expression to adapt to the new society. I have developed a document which really sets aside the needs that modern stadium will require to make people feel that not only are they safe but they will be able to go to the stadiums and watch the game in a post-viral era. The paper stresses on maintaining distance between people and it is to do with not touching. One of the main factors that the virus has done is to change the ratio of “closeness” where one feels comfortable.”

Shedding more light on the paper, Fenwick continues, “All of the measures that we are talking about are to do with keeping distances among people, how they enter the stadium, how they move in the stadium, how they arrive in the stadium (talking about public transport). Keeping a distance will influence architecture, the size and use of lifts, the width of stairs, the design of the bowl, all influence how close one is to a stranger, and hence how comfortable a person is.”

Commenting on the ‘non-touching’ angle, he stated, “The virus is invisible and cannot be perceived, for which all surfaces and all spaces are possible contamination sources. The less we touch the better; however, in buildings, the need to touch is paramount. Turn on a light, flush a toilet, push the button in the lift, hold on to the handrail, or open a door entails touching a surface which may be contagious. Non-touching is also to do with not touching handrails, we do not touch the ticket. As we enter the stadium, we do not touch when we go to the toilet, we do not touch when we actually buy something from a concession. So, these are the stuff that I have actually tried to highlight in the paper, especially in stadiums.

You said architecture has always been an expression of the time in which it was developed. Do you think it is a bit too early to talk about that because we don’t know where the whole thing is going with the pandemic? “Architects need to think and to respond to these challenges – challenges are there, they will continue. We need to think about healthy buildings, we need to put into place ideas, I think there are areas that need to be implemented immediately in stadiums in order to bring back confidence into public.

Ok, let’s talk about one of the main points of your paper – you are describing social distancing with personal comfort zones of human beings in Europe. Can you explain this a little bit? “I think different societies have different comfort zones. In Spain and Italy, people are more into kissing and hugging. There needs to be a new perception about the distance when you go out. People need to maintain a distance of 11/2 meter which seems to be the new standard in society and I think in societies where we have this sort of more close social distancing, now having to revert to much more social distancing to stay safe.

As you know, sports stadiums are becoming alive through people coming close together, shouting atmosphere. How can your idea of healthy zones be realized and implemented in sporting venues? “I think we should also have common sense. I think we are in a moment where to return to stadiums there should be a slight distance between seats, seats should be more and more compressed, I think we should open up a bit. The good thing about stadium is that you are not facing people, you are looking at the back of someone’s head, and there is a slight difference there. I think we have to look to stadiums where you need to keep on using masks and gloves, I think that will continue. Another thing is we will have to create new areas in stadiums. In fact, there could be new commercial opportunities – people over 65, grandfathers may be do not want to be in a common area, maybe areas which could be identified for this segment. I think these are challenges which will have to be developed. I don’t think there will be empty stadiums – stadiums will still continue. I think we need to add touch screens to make them perceptionally safe.”

Another point you literally touched on is touching. What can venues do to prevent the spread of the virus in stadiums/arenas of the future? “Well, this happens right from the very beginning. We have to be careful about how people arrive, how they get to the stadium through transport, we need to make sure people do not arrive late. I think in Spain people just arrive five minutes before the game starts and there are massive queues. We need to spread out the time people arrive in stadiums on time to avoid the queues, maintain distance in the queues, need to make sure that access is not through touch, and for tickets, we need to revert to technology like telephones, access control will be done through the telephone, you do not need to touch turnstiles, certainly there will be some sort of health control, as there is security control. I am actually looking at systems when you come into stadiums you are actually disinfected. I think it is not that difficult. When you come into the stadiums, obviously, the areas of most contamination could be the toilets, so everything to do with not having doors, you do not need to open the doors it will open automatically, you do not have to turn the lights on, it will turn on automatically, you do not need to flush the toilet, drying the hands will be automatic by person. So, many many things will happen like this.

Fenwick added, “Another point in stadiums is at half time, when you are ordering food, in America, people actually bring food down into the stadium, so much in Europe. But, maybe, now we will have to order on the telephone, so that they can bring the food to our seat or you order it, when you order it from the concession, and when it is ready from the concession it will be notified on your phone, and without touching, you can pick up and you are back to your seats. There are many many things that can be done in stadium to avoid constant touch. Maybe, we need to have stairs which are only one way – where people only go up and do not come down. So, you do not cross with people, the lifts you do not have buttons in the lifts. You just need to telephone – you do not have to touch things or non-touch is essential, yes.

But, what you just described, this will take 200 years to implement it in all the stadiums. “No, no, no. I really think technology will do that. The technology in the toilets will do all this non-touch systems. It is totally available and not too complicated to implement the same. The idea to implement these non-button lifts is so available. We are doing most of our buildings at the moment as non-touch lifts. So, I think many of these things are applicable at the moment. Obviously, there will be a cost in these measures. But, really they are not massive. Not only are they needed, they will be essential to make people return to the stadiums.”

So, how will post-viral architecture look like in terms of capacities in stadiums and arenas? “I really don’t think this is massive. I really don’t know. I think this is something you need to wear off in stadiums. We saw that where you came from the standing to seating stadiums. And reduction in the capacity of the stadium was over 30 percent. Nothing really happened. It is a matter of changing the world. You can possibly commercialize the stadium. This is also a challenge for people who run the stadiums as we need to slightly increase the cost of the tickets if you are in a safer seat. To adapt the seats and you have to be careful in the VIP areas and make sure that where people are sitting, there are possibly sufficient distance between people. I think it is a matter of common sense. I think we don’t need to go too far. We certainly need to be pragmatic.”

But, reducing the capacity is not an option you are thinking about? “Yes, absolutely. I think reducing the capacity will help and distance between seats will have to be maintained. Remember, the most at risk are people over 65, people who are with underlying health conditions, maybe we need to identify health safe area. Don’t forget that the real risk in this coronavirus is actually people over 65 and people with underlying health conditions.”

I just spoke to two companies who wants to achieve social distancing by using the mobile phones and is this realistic in sports venues. What do you think? They are trying to measure the distance between by using their data, the GPS. Do you think this is realistic? “I think in stadiums, the mobile phone will become a major contribution to this technology. I think this social distancing in stadiums is very difficult because you have got tens of thousands of people in these areas, so, in the existing stadiums we need to live with certain social responsibility and I don’t think the phones will keep us apart from people. We can use it so that we cross path with people less and less. Stadiums are built in such a way that we go upstairs, and we cross over. If we go to a stadium where it is very simple to go to our seats, and we avoid the idea of crossing the people, we need to definitely design the stadium to avoid contact. But, I don’t think we are going to actually avoid keeping social distancing to that limit.”

Did you share your ideas with some of your clients already? Fenwick sums up by stating, “Yes. Absolutely. I have been talking to our clients in Qatar for 2022 because it is a major event coming up very soon – World Cup which will be coming up. We have got 2 years away. And they certainly got time to react to this. And, obviously, they will be very very interested in implementing it. In Spain, we are finishing off a project for Valencia. So, finally, after 10-11 years. And, we are working on a White Paper to implement these areas and the stadium is very interested in implementing these areas. Their Commercial Department will be looking into it. I think in crisis, there are opportunities. The fact is that we do not have to look into something as negative. We need to look at it as something that will make stadiums better. Actually, I always think why as architects we haven’t been thinking about healthy and safe buildings for health. Before, we had flu and many other things in Europe. We thought nothing about it. I think this an opportunity to learn from and make much better buildings and stadiums.”

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