25 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

Chris Lee: the stadium designer

Architect Chris Lee, 45, is a senior principal at Populous, reputedly the world’s biggest player in stadium design. He tells us what makes a sporting venue great and why a project is a marathon, not a sprint

By Mike Peake
30 May 2016 | 10:25 am
  • Chris is now working on Tottenham’s new stadium, and says computing and virtual reality have changed everything.


How did you get into this, Chris?

By accident! I’m an architect by trade and I had a chance meeting with my now partner – a fellow Australian architect living in London – who had developed a specialist sports architecture practice, and they’d just won the competition to design the Sydney Olympic stadium. We got together, got on well and I moved to Sydney and worked on the Olympic stadium for a few years: that was my introduction to it.

What was the appeal?

I love that people genuinely care about these buildings, whether it’s an Olympic stadium or, more likely a club stadium. We’ll be designing for a team in the UK or Mexico and you’ll get into the taxi and get chatting to the driver and you realise that the clubs and stadiums are so important in their lives. That’s what really hooked me.

Were you arty as a boy?

Not so much arty, but I had always wanted to be an architect from a very early age. My parents tell me I was building cites in Lego when I was really young.

What’s a typical day for you?

There isn’t one, which is why I love the job. One minute you’ll be out on site – and we’re currently building Tottenham’s new stadium – the next there’s a design meeting with clients to talk about how we’re developing bits of the building. It’s a varied role that currently takes me to the Middle East a lot.

When you come to Dubai, do you find yourself looking at empty spaces and wondering if you could squeeze a nice stadium in there?

There are some fantastic spots in Dubai and I think there are some great opportunities 
to build some brilliant facilities. I find clients in the Middle East very open to ideas, very determined to deliver the world’s best, and they choose great consultants.

When it comes to a new job, does a developer typically offer the contract straight to you or do you have to win it?

For a lot of jobs the client comes to us, but we also do a limited amount of what we call competition work, where a client might say, ‘OK, we’re going to invite four teams of architects to show us their ideas’. We finished one just recently, a massive competition to redevelop Barcelona’s Nou Camp. That was a huge competition that we had teams of people working on for months.

What tools do you use when designing?

It’s totally changed since when I first started studying architecture about 25 years ago, when we used pen and ink. Now we design our buildings using a digital 3D model where everyone contributing to the project – architects, engineers, interior designers or landscape architects – is working on a single virtual model simultaneously.

Computing has totally changed what we do. Take the Aviva Stadium in Dublin – it’s a very unusual shape driven by a bunch of constraints like rights to light and in many ways we couldn’t have designed that without the current software. We are also using a lot of virtual reality, driven via gaming engines and Oculus Rift goggles, to enable our client to immerse in the design as it is progressing.

How deep does your planning role go – does it extend to things like toilet fittings?

Yes – tiles, carpets, taps, door handles. 
We think of ourselves as designers of an experience, rather than designers of facilities.

Once work has begun, what’s most likely to mess up a budget?

Anything! The unexpected tends to be under the ground – we’ll take on a site and find there’s contamination under the soil 
or different bearing capacities than you expected from soil surveys. Security is also having a big impact. Everything that’s happening through France and the rest of the world now means that security is a major issue for big facilities and how we deal with that has a huge impact.

How long does a stadium typically take to build?

They can take years – I think we worked on the Yankee Stadium in New York for almost 20 years from start to finish. Typically it’s a two-to-three year build with two years of planning before, and there are thousands of people involved. On the design team you’d have 100-150 designers and on a 60,000-seat stadium you’d likely have about 2,000 guys on-site building that for two-and-a-half years.

Does it ever feel a bit overwhelming?

Yes, quite often – but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You work through the issues, know where you’re heading and everyone’s working together. The great projects happen because of the team working together. When we designed the Emirates stadium for Arsenal we had a brilliant team; we’re all still friends.

Finally, what should a great stadium do?

I think the most important thing is to move the people who inhabit it. The reason these places are so special is that in our day-to-day lives we rarely connect with people physically, and you rarely sit with 50,000 other people wanting one thing to happen. This magical connection, this sense of community is really special. Making you feel connected to your fellow humans in a single space is what a great stadium should do.

By Mike Peake

By Mike Peake