As an architectural student Bob van Bebber dreamed of designing a world-class soccer stadium. At the age of 47, his dream materialised into Soccer City, the flagship stadium for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.
This year, as the applause of over 88 000 people launches the FIFA 2010 World Cup within Soccer City’s compelling calabash, Bob van Bebber will be a man fulfilled.
Ever since his student days at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg he wanted to design a world-class soccer stadium.
“I proposed the idea to my professor, Herbert Prins, for my design project, but he said that there was too much engineering in a stadium this size,” recalls Van Bebber, architect of Soccer City and senior director in leading South African architectural company, Boogertman Urban Edge and Partners.
“So I designed a hotel school, but I never gave up on my dream. In my mind stadiums were ugly objects begging to be designed by architects
As it turns out, this is exactly what has happened, and most of the greatest stadiums in the world today are architect designed.
“Stadiums have become far more than functional objects, they have become aesthetic icons that people relate to, feel proud of and regard as theirs,” Van Bebber explains.
“Stadiums in countries like England and Holland have evolved way beyond soccer or football, to become centres of community life. They have become multi-purpose sports complexes, designed for conferencing, product launches and retail, with shops, restaurants, hotels and residential units on site.
“Unfortunately we have not been able to do this locally because we were driven by financials.”
Perhaps his next stadium will include all the community elements, but, for now, the community of Johannesburg celebrates and embraces the giant calabash as its homegrown monument to design.
Its organic shape and pied piper appeal has become the symbol of the city. Soaring 60 metres into the air, and spanning 300 metres, the three-tiered stadium is magical, embracing, playful and practical.
“The calabash concept came about when our firm was asked to present design ideas for an iconic stadium to Danny Jordaan in 2006. After all these years my dream was within reach, and I grabbed the opportunity,” Van Bebber explains.
Van Bebber already had several significant architectural credits to his name, including the Emperor’s Palace Casino and sections of the OR Tambo International Airport, but he was about to take a vertical leap in his career.
“Fortunately experience helps you not to panic,” he smiles. “You know that you can apply your mind and make fairly good decisions, and you know you can draw on others with experience in their fields.”
Few architects get this kind of opportunity.
“I have always chased work that offers me unique opportunities and experience,” he says. “Along this path I have been lucky enough to work myself into a position of leadership and ownership.
“I also work hard, in fact I’m a bit of a workaholic, which means I don’t have much of a social life or take too many holidays. Dis lekker by die see. I know this because someone told me so.”
With Soccer City is almost ready to fly, where to from here?
“I’m looking for work! I would love to do another large stadium or work on a large office block or two with very good green credentials.”
His firm is a gold-founding member of The Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA), which encourages and recognises green credentials in design.
Soccer City boasts several green credentials, including the re-use of materials from the old FNB stadium that was demolished to make way for Soccer City. Demolition materials were used as base layers for Soccer City’sparking area. The new stadium also includes water recycling (the moat constructed around the old FNB field was incorporated in the new design to water the field and flush the toilets); and all the lighting is energy efficient.
Van Bebber gives his word that the lights won’t fail: “A requirement of all the World Cup stadiums is that they can generate power independently, off a generator grid.”
Asked whether he has been in contact with Professor Prins now that his signature is engraved on Soccer City, he replies: “I bumped into him a short while back, but he was blissfully unaware of having turned down my stadium design.”
The wheel has come full circle with architectural students, architects, engineers and media from all over the world wanting to talk to Van Bebber and discuss Soccer City’s design.
“When students consult me I always impress on them never to be scared to chase their dreams,” he says. “What I would like to do is to encourage more Wits students to apply for positions with us. Only five out of the eighty people working in our Joburg office are Wits graduates. I am not sure why. Maybe we work too hard!”
Soccer City fast facts
80 000m3 of concrete used;
9 000 tons of reinforcing steel used;
8 000 tons of structural steel used;
120 000m3 of soil;
1 350 piles driven into the bedrock;
Some piles 1,5m in diameter, 33m into bedrock;
Roof supported by 12 40m-high concrete shafts and 16 circular columns 1m in diameter;
Over 3 500 construction people on site;
88 851 seats at last count (almost double the capacity of any of the other nine World Cup stadiums around the country);
11 million bricks used;
Cost of the stadium: R3.3-billion (compared to The Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban at R4.8-billion and the Green Point Stadium in Cape Town at R5.8-billion).