A Roman from the time of the Caesars would miss the happy carnage freely available at the Coliseum: The impaled creatures, the Christian martyrs tied to stakes, and the sword-whacking gladiatorial ancestors of Russell Crowe.
Some things were just different long ago.
Soccer’s ‘Ultra’ fans probably bring us closest to those fabled days and soon some of the most excitable will get their very own Roman stadium costing 300 million euros ($409 million). Construction is due to start later this year.
In the 2016-2017 season, AS Roma will play its first match in the space-age stadium designed by sports architect Dan Meis. Lazio, Rome’s other team, stays behind at the 20th-century Stadio Olimpico.
The new stadium, halfway between the city and Fiumicino airport, reflects the global ambitions of the team’s new American owners, including its Boston-based president, James Pallotta.
I spoke to Meis, 52, who is best known for the Staples Center in Los Angeles, in the New York office of Woods Bagot, where he is the firm’s Global Director of Sport.
Hoelterhoff: I hope you are a soccer fan?
Meis: Of course. The Italians would be very skeptical of an American who didn’t understand their game.
Hoelterhoff: Anything special about building in Rome?
Meis: The ‘Ultra’ fans have sat in a section of the stadium called the Curva Sud, which means the south curve. Those fans live in another world without laws.
Before the game starts, you’ll see flares, smoke bombs and huge flags. Not like an NFL game!
I once saw a guy running in late with a 20-foot pole that he was dragging on the top of the concourse roof so he could wave this giant flag.
So while a new building brings modern day security and safety measures, you still need accommodate that fan spirit.
Hoelterhoff: How do you do that? These folks seem excitable.
Meis: They don’t like to sit down. We could have just dispensed with seats. Since the project was announced, I’ve gotten hundreds of e-mails and Instagram comments and Twitter messages.
Hoelterhoff: About what?
Meis: The seats. If it were up to the fans, the Curva Sud would be one giant single space. But safety regulations mean you have to have one ticket per seat. Otherwise, they would cram 20,000 people into a 10,000 seat space. However, they will be happy to see that the seats can be folded away if they really don’t ever sit.
Hoelterhoff: Sports facilities take a lot of abuse. What’s the material?
Meis: The bowl is made of precast concrete and steel. Concourses will be poured concrete, stained with accents of steel and stone.
Hoelterhoff: How long was this design process? I see you are still fiddling with the model.
Meis: Traditionally, it takes about a year to design a structure like this and then about two years to build it.
In this case, it’s a bit longer because of the change of ownership and because there’s not just the stadium, but a mixed-use development.
Hoelterhoff: Comprising what?
Meis: There’s an adjacent business park, which will include three towers by Daniel Libeskind. We’re designing the training center and Roma village, a 365-day entertainment destination anchored by theme shops and a Nike superstore. It’s very much like the LA Live concept next to the LA Staples Center.
Hoelterhoff: How flexible is the stadium?
Meis: While it is AS Roma’s home, it’s also a multipurpose venue for concerts and events. The interior is flexible, with a 52,000-person capacity. Using a curtaining system, it can be adjusted for 15,000 or, by turning the stage another way, for 45,000.
Hoelterhoff: You’re building a new stadium in a city with the most famous old stadium on the planet, the Coliseum. That was a sophisticated masterpiece of engineering with a retractable roof and an arena that could be flooded for sea battles.
Meis: We use the same quarry in Carrara for a “floating” wall that is a key feature of the exterior. Floating in the sense that it doesn’t touch the ground but is suspended from the structure of the stadium.
There’s also a fun special effect: Before the game, a hydraulic lift will bring the players up like gladiators.
Hoelterhoff: Any special problems because of the site?
Meis: Because it’s right next to the river, there’s a water table issue. So the whole stadium is up on a podium.
Hoelterhoff: Do American owners mean American amenities like sky boxes?
Meis: Fifty VIP suites and loge seating. Everyone should be comfortable.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor for art at Bloomberg News. All opinions are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)