The man who built Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium
Sydney has its opera house, San Francisco its Golden Gate and Durban has its stadium. Gerhard le Roux was lead architect on the iconic project that has transfigured the South African skyline. It’s a role he’s not going to forget.
Story and pictures by Wanda Hennig
This story was commissioned to be published as a chapter in an eThekwini-sponsored coffee table book on the Moses Mabhida Stadium.
From a distance the monumental Moses Mabhida Stadium with its grand arch imposes its unmistakable silhouette into Durban’s urban skyline. The vision is one of a landmark cultural and architectural icon for the city, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and the world. But for the project’s lead architect, Gerhard le Roux, 46, the devil was in the detail.
Or rather, the devil might have manifested in the detail had he and his team not paid meticulous attention to an almighty number of facets and features ranging from the immediately visible, such as the colours and durability of the stadium seats, to things you or I most probably would never notice. For example, the angles in the loos and how accessible they would be to the cleaners.
One has to pay attention.
“From door details to the concrete detail — even the smallest pin and knowing how it will work together with everything else — one has to pay attention. So there were constant meetings, constant auditing of detail in the engineering and in the design. Then we were working with a budget, and the quantity surveyors, keeping everyone and everything in line.”
See: Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium: Backgrounder for a perspective from architect Ivor Daniel on the contest and the stadium.
Starting with the pitch to win the contract and through to completion, there were the relentless deadlines. “I remember even my own parents asking, ‘Will it be finished? Will it be finished in time? Will the arch meet? I never had any doubt at any stage and I think everyone in the team felt the same.”
The brief from the eThekwini Municipality was to create a world-class, multi-purpose sporting facility and an iconic, innovative and sustainable landmark for Durban. The stadium would be the jewel in the Kings Park Sporting precinct. The entire area would feature additional sporting arenas and facilities as well as restaurants, shops, children’s play areas and a pedestrian walkway linking the stadium complex to the beach.
“Because of the project’s impact on the city, the architects and urban designers had a responsibility to consider the design right from the harbor through to the Umgeni River, including roads and open spaces,” says le Roux.
As lead architect on the mammoth project, his role was essentially three-pronged:
- To coordinate the architectural side;
- to make sure all aspects of the plan and design work were optimized (the ‘value engineering’ component);
- and to manage the architects in the Ibhola Lethu Consortium — the collaboration formed to pitch for the contract, that won the contract, and that realized the vision which, among many other things, has given Durban a winning venue for any future Olympics bid.
Team effort and architectural joint venture
Le Roux is quick to point out that while his involvement began with the concept design, included design development, and incorporated final decisions on all aspects of the building, from start to finish the Moses Mabhida Stadium was a team effort and an architectural joint venture.
“There were five local practices in our (Ibhola Lethu) consortium: Theunissen Jankowitz Durban (where le Roux is a director), Ambro-Afrique Consultants, Osmond Lange Architects & Planners, Mthulisi Msimang Architects and NSM Designs; plus our international ‘partner’, GMP Architekten (von Gerkan, Marg and Partner, Germany).”
The inclusion of the Germans was a wise strategic alliance.
“We identified them as good partners and invited them to be part of our consortium because of their very specific skills and experience building three stadiums, with FIFA, for the 2006 World Cup,” says le Roux.
“Their role was to assist specifically on the roof side. It was a very complicated design style. We hadn’t done anything like that here in South Africa.”
A fast-track project, “which means you’re basically drawing this week and the contractor is busy building next week,” le Roux spent literally every waking moment — and many sleepless ones — immersed. “Fast track working require a very good working relationship between all parties. The challenge is getting the right information to the contractors soon as possible. Luckily on this project we had an extremely efficient and pro-active team.”
Still, it was a major process having so many people involved. At peak, there was a stadium workforce of more than 2,800 people on site.
“During the heat of the project, there were meetings every day. All in all, about 15 architects and technicians were working as part of our consortium. The numbers went down closer to completion. It was a lot of strain and hard work. You forget it when you see the building.”
Detail, detail, detail — all the way
The team and keeping them positive was vital, he adds. “If people are negative, they don’t think of the detail. If other things are bothering you, you can’t keep the focus. And on this project, everyone learned the importance of detail, detail, detail — all the way.”
There were the ‘green’ details. The Durban stadium has won acclaim as the greenest stadium built for the 2010 World Cup. Initiatives included the incorporation of a harvest tank, which collects rainwater from the roof to irrigate landscaping; energy-saving light fittings and regulated water flow devices; double-glazing and sun-control features on all windows.
“We were busy with our initiatives when the government started looking at the greening of the stadiums. As part of our concept, we had already investigated our best options. I think that as an architect you have a social responsibility to acquire the knowledge and to advise the client. It shouldn’t have to be law. It should come naturally.”
Then there were the wind details. “The biggest factor we had to consider was wind loads on the building given that the stadium would be situated in a flat coastal belt. Wind tests were done. These indicated the degree of perforation required on the outer facade. This became integral to the design concept.
“Our wind tests indicated that the wind through ‘the window’ would not be a major factor during sport events. But given the unpredictability of the weather, as a contingency we designed a glass wall that sometime in the future could be installed in the window if the owners feel this is needed.”
There were a myriad security details plus design details that took into account options and potential use. “We designed the retail area to operate outside the secure zones so stadium security would not be compromised. In addition, we put convenient, visible parking close to the retail area plus additional safe undercover parking. The cable car is an obvious attraction and the retail area was designed to optimize visitor potential,” he says.
“Apart from the retail flexibility, the upper levels of the stadium were made accessible from outside the stadium operations zone for potential entertainment facilities with magnificent ocean and stadium views. Flexibility allows for additional hospitality suites, including sub-division of existing ones. People’s Park on the south side was set up for relaxing family times or training on the 1 km running track. All these things were discussed many times over with the city and among the team.”
- There are more than 1,000 rooms in the building. “Individual room data sheets were prepared for 90 percent of the rooms to ensure all information was clear and everything considered”, says le Roux. “This was a lot of work but co-ordination of services in a building of this magnitude are very important. There was no space for errors.”
- And there were the aesthetic details grounded in practicalities. The seat colors, for example. The stadium needed 54,000 permanent seats and the ability to increase to 85,000. “It was vital to be able to increase the seating without taking away the architectural beauty; the aesthetics; the escape routes; the sizing,” says le Roux.
“Detail design is important in any quality architectural building. It is not always in the visible aspects but the combination of all the detailing at the end provide the final result. With the seats, for instance, we had about 30 options installed on a temporary stand and we jumped on them and did things that could pop rivets to see how they withstood wear and tear. We didn’t want something that could cut someone’s hand, for example.
“And how would they withstand the climate? We really put the seats through some abuse to make sure the best option was chosen.”
There are 11 seat colours in the stadium. “From a management point of view, this was a nightmare,” says le Roux. “It meant they would need to stock 11 replacement colors for if a seat gets broken, and they do. Things happen.
“From the client point of view it took a lot of meetings and discussion. It took a lot of drawings. It’s a very white stadium but we looked at the beaches, the sand, the colors of nature and KwaZulu-Natal and the beadwork. KwaZulu-Natal is very colorful. It was important for us, the seat color, and how the color would work.”
Finally, for installation of the seats, “we developed a programme with one of the engineers so that the seat colours appear random and not in a pattern.”
It’s a marriage of quality and practicality.
Le Roux considers himself and the project fortunate to have had a good client. “The city’s Specials Project Unit comprises dynamic and forward thinking people. To have a client with an understanding of the pressures of a project of this magnitude played an important part in the overall success. Decisions were made in time, with the proper consideration.”
What architecture is about, says le Roux, “is sticking with your idea and achieving it at the end of the day. It’s a marriage of quality and practicality. It is commitment and adherence to the purpose of the design.”
The stadium project was about “building something unique, something iconic that makes us all proud. Apart from the personal enjoyment, it has also been a learning curve for everyone. Everyone was much richer by the end. It was great to be part of a team of committed individuals, where we all shared the same passion for the project and always kept the end result as the main focus.”
It was a wow moment.
Le Roux has an abiding memory involving details. It was back in 2009. “Early one morning just after completion of the stadium and before too many people had arrived, I stood on the grass in the middle of the field. I was alone and gave myself the time to think back to where we started and to recall the journey. What I saw then, with no interruptions, no cell phone ringing — just the vast empty stadium — will always remain with me. It was a wow moment. Every stressful memory disappeared and I felt a sense of thrill and excitement.”
Since that first intimate ‘wow’ moment, there have been so many more. “The first game, for instance,” he says. “And so many comments.
“Every time I go to the stadium I feel a sense of excitement. I hope this will never change. And it’s really great seeing people using the stadium, enjoying it and really looking at the architecture. The scale of the building is so overwhelming. It is gratifying that so many school kids are being exposed to this kind of quality architecture. All the hard work and frustrations are forgotten when I see the stadium now. The end product is just so inspirational.”
One of the nicest thing now, says le Roux, is to walk into the stadium “and remember how much you discussed the details.” And within this context, to see how much the end product looks like the initial idea.