Home / ANALYSIS / Face to face: Christopher Lee, Populous

Face to face: Christopher Lee, Populous

by Michael Fahy on May 15, 2013

Christopher Lee, senior principal of sports and entertainment specialist venue architecture firm Populous.
Christopher Lee, senior principal of sports and entertainment specialist venue architecture firm Populous.

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Christopher Lee, senior principal of sports and entertainment venue architecture firm Populous speaks to Michael Fahy about the changing nature of stadium design and how Qatar’s World Cup bid will shape it

For someone who has spent most of his life either designing stadiums, or thinking about stadium design, Christopher Lee is somewhat hesitant when asked to name his most favoured project.

His overall favourite stadium is somewhat easier, plumping for the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro ahead of the old Wembley stadium, although he admits that in terms of usability, the latter was a “disgusting” place.

“There was no leg room and people were pissing in the corridor, but it had a mythical status and it’s very hard to create that magic. But the old Wembley and the Maracana were these sort of mythical places you almost didn’t believe existed.”

Lee, who has worked on a huge range of new-build and stadium redevelopment projects including Olympic stadiums in Sydney and London, the Millennium stadium in Cardiff, Dublin’s Aviva Stadium and the new soccer stadium for the Houston Dynamos MLS team, eventually plumps for Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium as the project which has given him the greatest level of personal satisfaction.

“They were a fantastic client,” he says. “It was a kind-of game changer in the UK for Premiership football clubs – for a stadium to become the primary engine of commerce for a football club, whereas previously they hadn’t been.

“Arsenal increased their matchday revenues by… well, currently they’re £90m a year and they were £30m at Highbury. How that positions a club in the current context is it is self-sustaining as a business as opposed to having wealthy individuals who are funding the club out of their own pockets.”

Lee grew up on the East Coast of Australia and began working after graduating for architect Rod Sheard at Lobb Sports Architecture, which was responsible for delivering Sydney’s Olympic stadium.

The firm has since gone through name changes and mergers since, but Sheard remains as one of the firm’s partners. It is now advising Qatar’s Olympic Committee on a sports masterplan, which incorporates advice on stadium assets.

Lee has spent much of his career in London, where he “got kind-of trapped by great projects” such as the Millennium Stadium and the Emirates Stadium.

He said the brief he received or designing the Emirates was just that.

“If you imagine for a project like Emirates, which was a £200m project – the brief from Danny Fiszman, who was the director there, was that he wanted 60,000 seats – and he wanted the most beautiful and the most intimidating stadium.”

And that, he says, was pretty much it.

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