Qatar World Cup stadiums: pitch fever at any price | Architecture

Qatar’s impending World Cup, which kicks off next Sunday, does not only require the creation of vast sporting infrastructure almost from scratch. It also comes with a striking fetish – in the case of six of its eight stadia claiming to look like things that they are not: a “diamond in the desert”; a traditional woven cap; the sails (or possibly the hulls) of a pearl fishing dhow; a nomads’ tent; an ancient ceramic bowl that is also a candlelit lantern; a sand dune that is also a shield. There’s something a bit gift shop, a bit tourist tat, about this shifting of shapes and scales – an Eiffel Tower cigarette lighter, anyone? A koala made of seashells? But the designers and marketing wizards behind this construction project, variously reported in a range from £5.7bn to £8.7bn, seem to think that metaphorical monikers are somehow essential to their grand project.

The stadium designs do at least take to some sort of parodic conclusion the logic of “iconic” architecture over the past quarter-century, which is to get big names to design something striking, marketable and (since the invention of the platform) Instagram-friendly. The “Birds Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics had all the essential ingredients. The naming of London skyscrapers after edibles and domestic objects is another precedent.

Education City stadium and Al Thumama stadium, Qatar

Internationally celebrated practices are involved in Qatar – Zaha Hadid Architects have designed the dhow-like Al Janoub, Foster and Partners the bowl/lantern of Lusail– alongside some less so. The designs come with swirls and patterns and changing colours and glow-in-the-dark features. They have those metaphors. Of the two that do not, one has the edgy-sounding name of 974 – like a Shoreditch club, perhaps – which refers both to the number of shipping containers out of which it is partly made and the international dialling code of Qatar. The other, the Khalifa International stadium, is the transformation of a facility first built in 1976.

These buildings have jobs to do, of course, in particular the hosting of World Cup football matches. On this, it’s premature to judge them until they have done so, and – given that considerable global expertise has now accumulated around such matters as sightlines, acoustics and crowd management – it can be hoped they may make a reasonable fist of this. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that much by way of atmosphere will be conjured from the brand-new constructions, rising from car parks and plazas and (in one case) the edge of a golf course.

The Ahmad Bin Ali stadium, 90% of whose construction materials were recycled.
‘A sand dune that is also a shield’: the Ahmad Bin Ali stadium, 90% of whose construction materials were recycled.

They also have to overcome paradoxes inherent in their very existence. The problem of legacy that afflicts Olympiads and other temporary sporting extravaganzas – what to do with the vast facilities after the crowds leave – is here more extreme than ever before. The combined 380,000 capacity of the eight stadiums roughly equals the total number of citizens of Qatar and is a large proportion of the country’s total population (including migrants and other expats) of about 3 million.

Clearly, the numbers are not there to sustain a football culture that would fill the stadiums with folk out for their banter and pies every weekend. So the stadiums have mostly been designed to shrink after their brief use. Several will be halved in capacity by having their upper tier removed, with hotels promised for the Al Thumama stadium (the one like a gahfiya cap) and the Al Bayt (the giant tent). Stadium 974 can be wholly dismantled and re-erected, in whole or in parts, elsewhere. All have a capacity of 40,000 for the World Cup, except for the 60,000 Al Bayt and the 80,000-seat Lusail, where the final will be held on 18 December.

Al Bayt stadium and Khalifa stadium in Qatar

The latter could be converted to house (according to the official explanation) “affordable housing units, shops, food outlets, health clinics and even a school”. It would be a remarkable achievement so radically to transform an ex-stadium in this way, but these vague-sounding plans, 10 years after Qatar won the bid, prompt scepticism. There has to be some doubt, too, whether the remaining stadiums would easily be filled, even at reduced sizes.

These buildings also have to look as if they are at least trying to be sustainable, because environmental rhetoric is now built into grand international endeavours. The really sustainable thing would have been to hold the World Cup somewhere where countless tonnes of concrete and steel would not have been needed to construct ephemeral stadiums; also where regular 40C temperatures would not have necessitated extensive air conditioning, but the Fifa of Sepp Blatter, when it awarded the competition to Qatar, unaccountably overlooked these considerations. Qatar can, however, boast that water is recycled to irrigate the Lusail stadium’s plants, while the Al Thumama is claimed to have “efficient” air conditioning; 90% of the construction materials of the Ahmad Bin Ali stadium – the dune one – are recycled and trees already on the site have been spared the axe.

The exterior of 974 stadium, with shipping containers visible
The ‘edgy sounding’ 974 stadium, named after the number of shipping containers used in its construction. Photograph: Heath Holden

Most of which sounds like a flimsy response to climate emergency. But then the biggest job these stadiums have to perform is propaganda – they must present the 2022 World Cup as something other than the triumph of pure wealth that it mostly is, and they must distract from a flurry of allegations on such awkward issues as human rights and the ill-treatment, and deaths, of migrant construction workers. They must conceal both the deep absurdity of the operation and the near-nothingness that lies behind it.

This is where the bowls and tents and dunes come in, with their allusions to nature and culture. They come with some virtuoso PR guff – “alive with heritage, an icon for the future”, “where desert stories unfold”, “a shimmering jewel of inspiration”. The patterns on the facade of the Ahmad Bin Ali stadium, by British based BDP Pattern, “characterise different aspects of the country: the importance of family, the beauty of the desert, the native flora and fauna and local and international trade”. With these words and images they attempt an illusion of localism that is wafer-thin.

An aerial view of Al Janoub stadium
‘A certain poised dynamism’: Al Janoub stadium, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, has gained notoriety for its resemblance to a vulva.

Some of the projects display architectural skill. Lusail has grace and the Al Janoub has a certain poised dynamism. If Stadium 974, by the Spanish practice Fenwick Iribarren, successfully demounts as advertised, it could be a useful prototype for the future. But in the end, the farce of Qatar 2022 is summed up by the resemblance of the Al Janoub stadium, widely noticed when the designs were revealed in 2013, to a vulva. The subsequent squaring-off of the opening in its roof has reduced but not removed this likeness. If the organisers of this vainglorious event want to play silly games with images, it’s karma that they got one they didn’t want.

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