Close to the action… Freya Lombardo visits the new look Margaret Court Arena at Melbourne Park.
January 29th, 2015
There’s nothing like the Australian Open to ignite a sense of national pride. It is a heady brew when you pool summer sun and our love of sport together with an annually renewed interest in on-court antics.
With the tennis in full swing, millions of Aussies have turned on their TVs and thousands have turned up at Melbourne Park to see our Groth, Kygrious, Stosur, Tomic and Hewitt take their chances against the super seeds like Federer, Nadal, Djovovic, Williams and Sharapova and fast rising stars Seppi, Bouchard, Dimitrov and Radwanska.
Framing much of the action is the newly revamped Margaret Court Arena, which nestles beside Rod Laver Arena. NH Architecture has orchestrated the $180 million upgrade in league with sporting experts Populous. For this first stage of refurbishment, the Major Projects Victoria commission called for a 1500 seat increase in capacity from 6,000 to 7,500 as well as a new facade, a retractable roof and an enclosed foyer and concourse area. The redevelopment is part of a $363 million project that will also feature eight new indoor courts, 13 outside courts, a plaza and a pedestrian link between AAMI Park, Melbourne Park and the MCG.
Tennis Australia chief Steve Wood is enthusiastic about the project. “The redevelopment will ensure the Australian Open has the very best grand slam facilities in the world. We are the only event with two, and soon to be three, retractable roofs, enabling us to continue play in all weather conditions,” he explains. “(The development) has cemented the future of the Australian Open in Melbourne until 2036.”
Scan the skyline of Melbourne’s sporting precinct and a number of buildings use form to announce their function. You could dive into the Olympic Swimming Stadium designed by Peter McIntyre and Kevin Borland. White arcs crown Phillip Cox and Peddle Thorpe’s Rod Laver Arena, and clearly reference the parabolic path of a tennis ball. Cox Architecture’s AAMI Football Stadium playfully resembles a bouncing soccer ball. In each case, the architectural expression enhances the sense of arrival and anticipation of the match that will unfold.
In contrast, the peaks and pleated folds of the roof form of Margaret Court Arena resemble a sea of suburban terracotta tiled roofs rather than playing up any sporting metaphor. Critics have dismissed the structure as a missed opportunity, arguing that the prominent riverside site warrants a bold and exciting landmark. Given the new building is grafted to Rod Laver Arena, NH Architecture principal Hamish Lyon was determined to distinguish it from the host structure so it could be easily discerned by audiences and in television broadcasts. “There are four grand slams around the world – in New York, Paris, London and here – and we wanted the players, local visitors and international audiences to understand something of the design culture of Melbourne,” he explains.
While views of Margaret Court across the Yarra are underwhelming and the exterior aspect may seem somewhat bland, perhaps NH Architecture have made up the difference with an experience that is more welcoming for punters and players?
“The thing that sets this arena apart from previous ones is a real attempt to make the building much more engaged with the public realm around it. It’s an ‘inside-out building’ where the exterior is all glass. When you walk around the precinct you can see what’s going on inside and similarly when you are inside the building you get amazing views of the fantastic location of the precinct next to the Yarra River and the city on its doorstep,” Hamish points out.
Visitors to the precinct have shown their appreciation for the sweeping roof of the entrance by sitting under it. They make the most of welcome shade from the fierce summer sun on hot days and shelter beneath it when Melbourne’s weather takes a tempestuous turn. Many congregate on the timber seating risers beside the processional stairs where they simply enjoy the parade of passers-by. A relaxed atmosphere pervades.
Covered concourses also improve the circulation between Rod Laver Arena and Margaret Court Arena. The first floor plane hosts all food and beverage outlets, public conveniences as well as merchandise stands. Upstairs, mezzanine decks provide informal eating/relaxing areas where soaring glazed walls look across outside show courts to frame b-i-g views of the city skyline, river and parklands.
From here, ticket holders proceed along a balcony screened with spotted gum battens to the doors that access stadium seating. This considered approach relieves much of the congestion that visitors experience in Rod Laver where queues for door entry, toilets and concessions all become entangled. “We’ve definitely tried to allow for a much greater diversity in how the building is used. The concourse had been designed to accommodate everything from sightseeing to meeting friends for coffee as opposed to the usual shunt in and shunt out type of venue,” says Hamish.
Inside the stadium, the crimped white ceiling has some of the elegance of an origami swan and boasts improved acoustics that have impressed the music industry. This applies to the fact that the arena is going to be used for other sports and concerts as well. “If you’re wandering down for a concert you want to make sure that you feel like you’re going into a building that is part of the cultural life of Melbourne. So we also thought of Margaret Court as an arena that would stand proudly together with other riverside entertainment venues such as the Myer Music Bowl, the Arts Centre, Federation Square. We decided not to think of it as a generic, bland sports shed and instead thought of it as a celebration of Melbourne design and Melbourne culture to make it part of the great architecture of the river,” notes Hamish.
Behind the scenes, corridors for players and service delivery have all been refined. NH Architects are also quick to point out the technological advances of the retractable roof that can close completely within 5 minutes making Rod Laver Arena’s roof look like a lumbering giant yawning to a close in 30 minutes. It will quickly prove itself an asset when a cold change whips through the city.
Despite its enlarged capacity, the seating bowl still lets audiences feel close to the court. According to Hamish, the anecdotal feedback from players via Tennis Australia executives is fantastic. “The comment that keeps coming back is that the intimacy of the arena strikes both the player and the spectator. At 7500 seats, there are enough people to generate a real crowd atmosphere. But unlike Rod Laver Arena, when you are seated at the back you are a long way from the play, here audiences are really excited about how close they are to the players. You can hear them breathing, you can almost smell the sweat you’re that close”.
In short, the enhanced amenity of Margaret Court Arena makes it a more hospitable venue for its patrons and players than it might seem from a distance. It certainly provides a great vantage point for enjoying all the action – on stage, on court, and off.
Photography by Peter Bennetts
Margaret Court Arena
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