There's no doubt that the venue for the World Cup Final next summer, a new 80,000-seat stadium, north of Paris at Saint Denis, is a triumph of engineering and a beautiful thing. It is also built almost entirely of PVC. It's enough to make any Green see red.
Greenpeace have targeted PVC on high-profile, quick turn-around projects such as the Sydney Olympic stadium and the Millennium Dome, both to be completed in 2000, and they have been successful. Sydney has replaced all PVC piping with clay. At Greenwich, even though the British government doesn't want to admit that Greenpeace's "Toxic Monster" claim influenced them, they pulled the contract for PVC from the German company Koch Hitex and gave it to the American BirdAir to supply coated glass fibre. Environmentalists object to the way PVC is made and the difficulty of disposing of it.
The reason given for changing the composition of the Millennium Dome was that it would have a longer shelf-life. Everyone cheered up at that. Maybe the dome would become a sports arena after all the celebrations.
But the PVC manufacturers resent that argument about longevity even more than the one about pollution. So when Le Stade was completed, all the rival manufacturers banded together to form the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers and show off the stadium as the jewel in their plastic crown. Does it have a sell-by date? Architect spokesman Rene Provost was disappointingly vague: "I don't know exactly the life of the product." It's reckoned to be about 25 years. And a bitumen roof would have to be replaced in 10 years' time. So unless the French have scored an own goal they will have the most photographed stadium in the world. It is the basis for their bid for the 2006 Olympics.
Why didn't Paris feel the heat? Above the spectators in Le Stade float 14,000 tons of PVC. The roof is weighted with concrete sandwiched between the membranes, so it doesn't have lift off in a high wind. Below the pitch and running under the tiers of seats are 50,000 square meters of PVC sealing off the toxic wastes deep underground from its legacy as a gas site (Greenwich is twinned with Saint Denis in this respect). The kings of France buried just down the road in Saint Denis must be turning in their graves. When the grass on the pitch still turned yellow the authorities said it was the sand mix and zealous mowing. The irony is that to clean it up, a PVC membrane is laid over it. Then fumes are piped off and burnt on site.
"All materials are scrutinised by environmental groups these days. But the choice of PVC wasn't an issue, any more than asbestos ceilings," Provost reports. In just 30 months the stadium was built.
Provost is typically Gallic in his priorities. The appearance of PVC, "white and light, luminous", influenced their decision. As well as more mundane considerations: plasticity, lightweight, sealing abilities, implementation and supply.
That diaphanous quality is what makes such a gigantic building hover so agreeably above ground. Colour number 7035 is now named Le Stade and looks more like aeroplane wings than the black bag liners that PVC somehow conjures up.Reuse content