INTERVIEW: Ben Vickery, Senior Principal, Populous

The enticing, solid-void relationship of the Grand Stade exterior The enticing, solid-void relationship of the Grand Stade exterior (Photo: Populous)


Stadium design giant Populous has teamed up with Paris’ Atelier 2/3/4 to win the competition for the new, 82,000-seat French Rugby National Stadium to be located in the town of Evry-Essonne, approximately 25 km south of Paris. Just as Twickenham is owned by the English Rugby Football Union, Murrayfield by Scottish Rugby and the Millennium Stadium by the Welsh Rugby Union, the Grand Stade will be owned by the Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR) and will be a major stop on the international rugby circuit.

The project’s rough, volumetric exterior represents a marked break from other recent European stadiums where slick surfaces morph vertical facades with roofs overhead. Along with a retractable roof, a pitch that slides out for ideal light conditions, and unique, amphitheater-like internal spaces, the Grand Stade will be an iconic new stadium with unique character and tremendous game-day atmosphere. Stadiafile had the privilege of talking with Ben Vickery, a Senior Principal at Populous about the process behind the new design:

Stadiafile: Congratulations on your competition win for the Grand Stade.

Ben Vickery: Thank you, we are delighted to have won!  It was a year-long design competition against our dear rivals. We think this is an unusual and innovative project which we think will suit the FFR well.

SF: The images suggest it will be an unusual yet exciting project whose exterior will be unique among large, contemporary European stadiums. What were some of the ideas behind the design that led to its unique appearance?

BV: French Rugby are currently a tenant in Stade de France, essentially renting space in the French National Stadium. The England, Ireland and Wales Rugby Federations all own their own stadiums which the FFR felt they needed in order to compete.  They initially wanted 80,000 seats, a closing roof and moving pitch to allow natural grass to grow and concrete surface inside to enable multiple uses, like the University of Pheonix Stadium in Arizona, Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen, Germany and GelreDome in Arnhem, the Netherlands, only bigger.

GRAND STADE FFR_PELOUSE_POPULOUS and Ateliers 2 3 4 low res
The Grand Stade will feature a retractable playing surface (Photo: Populous)

They also wanted a convivial, relaxing and comfortable building with plenty of places to eat and drink.  For the unique design, we have a belief here at Populous that each of our projects should look different – when seen on television you should know immediately that this is the French Rugby Stadium.  We wanted the stadium to be rough like rugby and there will be an echo of the white stone quarries in Baux de Provence and fortified towns where all the town’s occupants can come and feel safe inside.  From that the visual impression was created. That being said, how the stadium functioned inside was just as important as how it looked.

SF: Staying outside the stadium for a bit, the depth of the exterior created by the tremendous volumes and voids seems to imply a public, civic quality that stadiums, because of their private nature often deny.

BV: Yes, it is the intention for it to be more than just another building but a civic building; it should be welcoming 365 days per year.

SF: How many days per year will it be used by the National Team? Will there be other uses?

BV: The FFR envision 17 to 20 events a year, including five to six games of the French national rugby team and the final of the TOP 14 and will hopefully attract other sports, football, concerts, other big indoor events. The French Rugby Team sells out Stade de France for the Six Nations, Autumn Internationals against South Africa, Argentina… so they expect to do the same at the Grand Stade.

SF: How does the stadium work on the inside? Did we see a brass band playing in one of the renderings?

BV: French Rugby wanted closeness to the pitch, for the spectators they wanted all the sightlines to be good and also to have a physical connection to the field of play. When on the concourse you can see the pitch; when getting a drink or something to eat you won’t miss anything.

The field of play will remain in view when up to grab a drink (Photo: Populous)
The field of play will remain in view from the concourse (Photo: Populous)

We also wanted to create unusual spaces, one of which is Plazas des Bandas; brass bands play during French Rugby matches. We’ve created acoustically enhanced, open platforms designed to reflect the band out to the seating areas – creating more atmosphere. Also, double-height boxes for lounge areas. Creating (amplifying) atmosphere was a goal of the project, as the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff does so well during Six Nations Matches – with a closing roof, the atmosphere is amazing when fans start singing.

Amphitheater-like spaces mark the upper deck corners (Photo: Populous)
Amphitheater-like Plazas des Bandas mark the upper deck corners (Photo: Populous)

SF: The project is a collaboration with Atelier 2/3/4?

BV: Yes and engineering with Egis from France as well. Also, the FFR will be launching a debenture scheme like in the US, where you can buy a ten-year license for a seat which will allow you to attend all events at the stadium – concerts and other games in addition to the national rugby team’s matches.

SF: We call it Public Seat Licenses (PSLs) in the US, and they are fairly controversial here. The general perception is the team owners are forcing fans to pay additional fees just to have the right to buy a seat, on top of already high ticket prices. However, the idea of buying your seat for all events at the stadium is different and could potentially be quite attractive if done well.

SF: Speaking of team owners, it is often said that good buildings require good clients, just as much as they do good designers. With that in mind, what are club owners like as clients? 

BV: Firstly, they vary greatly and are often great characters. People at the top of sport tend to be strong characters and tend to know what they want which is great. Our philosophy at Populous not to repeat things and to do something unique with each project works well with unique characters for clients. French Rugby are also very organized and methodical about each step, in addition to being strong characters and an enjoyable bunch. Also, stadiums are very intimate to the client, because it will be theirs – unlike designing a spec. office building, for example.

SF: Finally, Populous is about to release the 5th Edition of Stadia: A Design and Development Guide (Routledge). What’s new and what has changed since the last edition?

BV: We surprised ourselves with how much ideas in stadiums have changed in five years since the 4th Edition. New ideas, case studies, thoughts about finances, technologies, structures have surprised us tremendously.

The heavens will shine down through the open roof (Photo: Populous)
The FFR hope the Rugby Gods shine down on the new Grand Stade (Photo: Populous)

Since chatting with Ben Vickery, I came across this article about the great American architect Louis Kahn and can’t help but see similarities between the proposal for the Grand Stade and Kahn’s wonderful National Assembly in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Architecture critic Ada Louis Huxtable describes the ‘deliberate roughness’ and ‘primal simplicity’ of Kahn’s work, which is also true of the designs for the Grand State. It is still very early in the design process and whether Populous and Atelier 2/3/4 continue in the same vein might be asking a lot. But the initial images are encouraging and the fresh, playful reading of French culture looks set to make this a truly National stadium for French Rugby.

Main picture credit: Populous