By Al Baxter
I’m passionate about sports stadiums, 1950’s modernist houses, transport architecture, sustainability, German sailing boats and rugby.
I am in the fairly rare position of being both a professional rugby union player as well as involved in the design of stadiums as a practicing graduate architect for Cox Richardson Architects (I have not yet sat my registration exams so I am only allowed to call myself a graduate architect).
To the best of my knowledge there are no other current professional rugby players in this same position and indeed only three other retired professional sportsman/architects that I know of – Justin Madden who played AFL for Essendon and Carlton in 80’s and 90’s, Sean Godsell who played for St Kilda in the early 80’s and Scott Radecic a NFL linebacker in the 80’s and 90’s who now works for the firm Populous. Indeed, the only international rugby union player/architect that I know of is the Irishman Ronnie Dawson who played hooker in the non-professional era for the British and Irish Lions, Ireland and Leinster in the 50’s and 60’s.
There are many aspects of rugby and architecture that are worlds apart but I’m lucky that in stadiums two of my passions intersect nicely. Not only do I get to play in fabulous stadiums around the world but I also get the opportunity to design them. (In a quick count off the top of my head I’ve played in 42 stadiums around the world, watched sport in a further 20 and been involved in the design of 6).
Of all the stadiums I’ve either played in or been a spectator in I think a couple are poor, most are good and only a few are great – not just really good but truly great – and it’s this difference between a good and great stadium that I want to discuss…
A good stadium is a satisfactory utilitarian space, pleasant to watch sport, easy in play in and generally an unseen backdrop to what is happening in the centre. A great stadium however creates an atmosphere and an energy that gives life to an event. It can drive the players on, it can make grown men jump on their seats and weep with joy. It has a wow factor where you walk to your seat or run out onto the field and you instinctively catch your breath while staring in wonder at the built form around you. A great stadium will form a palpable connection not only between the players and the spectators but also between the spectators themselves.
The Crowd, Noise and Intimacy – Atmosphere
When playing in a great stadium the crowd has the ability to lift your game when they are with you or dampen it when they are against you. If you are the home team they lift your game by building your adrenalin and confidence at the same time as deflating the spirits of the opposition through silence and intimidation.
No matter whether the crowd is with you or against you though, one of the great thrills in a stadium is running out of the players’ tunnel to a roaring crowd, physically being able to feel the waves of sound rolling over you and feeling your heart start to race with excitement, nervousness and adrenalin as you take your place in the middle. The impact of the crowd continues when the game begins but is largely disregarded by your conscious brain as you become intensely focused on the game. In fact, most of the conscious part of the brain takes a back seat when playing as the skills, habits and instincts formed at training takeover (as a prop this probably occurs more than most and some would say that this is actually our usual state!)
To try and give an idea about what goes through my mind, what my inner dialogue is like during a game and the effect of the crowd on me – it is close to something like this:
Our scrum… ball’s out… where’s it gone… ok there it is it’s in the centres… gotta get round the corner… sprint… legs feel like crap – push through it… cleanout… where’s a target – him – he’s trying to get the ball… he’s too high – sweet… got’im (feels good)… ok get up – legs feel so heavy – gotta push through… quick next play – scream to half back as come round corner that I’m in position – want the ball… shit he passed it the other way – back up… he’s made a break (ground roars, adrenalin builds, excitement builds… forget about tired legs… forget about tired lungs… head is clearer)… scream to ball carrier ‘ I’m on your left’… gotta get past defender in the way – prick – got the ball… have defender in front… no space to step… going to try and go over the top of him… fuck he’s got me… (try to pump the legs, brace for other defenders)… sweet can feel my mates coming in from behind… protect ball.. fight for ball… got to get long place of the ball… get up… shit lungs burning legs feel like jelly… get into position… where’s ball?… play’s slowed down… get to ball, shit crowd’s gone quiet… turnover? Fuck they’ve got it… heads up, look which attackers are in front of me… scream to man inside me that I’ve got his outside covered… oh no it’s one of the quick backs… stay on his inside shoulder… speak to men on inside and outside… gotta get up in a line… lungs burning, push through… they’ve knocked on… thank god – I was in trouble if that bloke got the ball… ok, scrum time, our ball… have to win engagement… listen to ref’s call… crouch, touch, pause, engage. And so on.
Al Baxter is a Professional Rugby Union international and a graduate architect, to continue to follow his blog and read more about his two worlds visit Al's blog here