Architecture: The winner is . . . the stadium - The new UK Sports Design Awards have caused controversy, but can only be beneficial, says Simon Inglis

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The Independent Culture
When two of the three winners of a new series of sports design awards, partly sponsored by British Steel, turn out to have been built on sites formerly occupied by Sheffield steelworks, it is tempting to suggest that someone has dropped a clanger.

Particularly as those two winners - the Don Valley Stadium and Ponds Forge International Sports Centre - were built for the 1991 World Student Games, an event that received a pounds 3m grant from one of the awards' other sponsors, the Sports Council (the third sponsor was the publisher Thomas Telford).

But conspiracy theorists should not get too worked up. Quite simply, there were not many worthy candidates for the judges to choose from.

Even so, the awards do represent one small step for sporting kind. Five years ago the idea of such a competition would have had most critics scratching around for candidates. Apart from Michael Hopkins's Mound Stand at Lord's, completed in 1987, plus one or two racecourse grandstands, where else did one look for excellence in British sports stadium design?

Don Valley won the overall UK Sports Stadia Award, with the Ponds Forge Centre and the North Bank Stand at Arsenal highly commended. Ponds Forge received the British Steel award for the best use of steel in construction. Twickenham's East Stand and both Arsenal's North Bank Stand and Don Valley were also shortlisted. Finally, a special Sports Council award for the most effective provision for spectators with disabilities was given to Molineux, the rebuilt stadium of Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The Don Valley Stadium, a 25,000 capacity venue built at a cost of pounds 27m for the loss-making 1991 World Student Games, has won few friends outside Sheffield - it recently lost out to Crystal Palace for the right to stage September's athletics World Cup meeting. Users have complained that it offers little protection from the elements. But the same can be said of a number of stadium roofs around the world, and at least Don Valley is a delight in summer or under floodlights.

More serious is the awkward placement of an ugly tower housing a scoreboard operator, announcer and photo-finish equipment; it obstructing views from a number of seats.

But perhaps the main disappointment about Don Valley remains that, had politics and finances permitted it could have offered a golden opportunity to break the mould of British stadium design by combining athletics, public ownership and use by the city's two professional football teams, Wednesday and United. As it is, it is tailor-made only for domestic athletics, with limited capacity and extended sight-lines for field sports (owing to the width of the running track and warm-up areas). Its only other major users are the Sheffield Eagles Rugby League club during the winter, and this summer the GB Spartans American football team. Neither attract crowds which fill even the main covered stand, which seats 10,000. But it should be applauded for what it is: a fairly basic, though not unattractive community asset which has largely succeeded as a catalyst in the regeneration of a blighted industrial wasteland.

Ponds Forge is a different matter: it is neither a stadium nor an arena (as specified in the competition rules) but an aquatic centre and sports hall with seats for 3,300. To judge it alongside a building such as Arsenal's 12,500- seater North Bank Stand is invidious - one is a building designed solely for spectators while the other is designed primarily for participation. Ponds Forge nevertheless deserves acclaim. Its architects, Faulkner Browns, and structural engineers, Ove Arup, have created a virtuoso building, inviting exploration though its airy concourses and watery vaults. Ponds Forge is a genuinely innovative collection of facilities within one complex.

To make the next round of awards fairer, the overall design awards should be divided into clear categories: for spectator and participation sports; for outdoor and indoor facilities. In the outdoor category the organisers might also consider separate awards for complete stadia (of which precious few are built every year) and for individual grandstands (of which there are many).

With the Sports Council anticipating an avalanche of grant applications from clubs hoping for money from the National Lottery, unprecedented opportunities lie ahead for the kind of small-scale stands and sports centres which proliferate, for example, in rural France. It would also make sense for the awards' organisers to abandon the minimum capacity of 3,000 spectators set for the inaugural awards.

(Photographs omitted)

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