Fourteen years ago, Brighton and Hove Albion was a minor club in the Football League whose board of directors had just made a controversial decision to sell its Goldstone Ground in Hove to the developers of a new retail park. As a result, the board was replaced and the team spent almost one and a half decades sharing grounds with neighbouring Gillingham and playing at Withdean Stadium - an inadequate complex that was once used as a zoo and later envisioned as an athletics stadium, its permanent running track putting a dampener on the atmosphere one expects from an impassioned football club.
Today Brighton and Hove Albion is the proud owner of a (literally) glittering new stadium by KSS Group, set snugly in the South Downs and capable of welcoming 22,500 fans for each game (in comparison to 6,000 at Withdean). Each game since the official opening in July has sold out. But how does one insert such a grand structure into an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty? Project Architect Andy Simons explains: “There are so many elevated views particularly from the high walks and South Downs you look down on the roof of the stadium; not so much the size of it but the roof was key, so a rolling sinuous roof form that flowed out of and back into the downs was the whole thing - the inspiration.
“Weirdly the aim here was to minimise the visual impact, to not see it as much as possible which is partly why it’s cut ten metres into the chalk hillside, it’s partly why the arches rather than going high over the top are relaxed back to minimise how much it broke the skyline. But of course you can’t hide a building like this.”
Before KSS Group could tackle the gently arching, translucent roof structure, there was the small matter of removing 183,000 cubic metres of chalk from the site. In an ingenious move, the architects struck a deal with the farmer in an adjacent field whose land dipped in the centre. After replacing the topsoil from both the construction site and neighbouring field, the 183,000 cubic metres of chalk were redistributed into the natural dip with topsoil from both locations spread across the top.
Fundamental to the success of the scheme was a mutually beneficial relationship with the community. Officially named the American Express Community Stadium following a sponsorship deal with the financial giant, the complex offers an extensive suite of conference facilities which has virtually overtaken Brighton’s hotels as the go-to venue for business meetings of all sizes. In tandem with the commercial factor, charitable organisation Albion in the Community (AITC) works in collaboration with the club to encourage adults to return to education using the new stadium as a base - an initiative currently being implemented across the UK.
Simons furthers: “Of all the clubs that run these programmes, Brighton probably delivers 90% of everything in the UK, so that community link is not just a badge. A lot of clubs say ‘We’re a community stadium’ but this is seriously embedded into its community. So when American Express took on the naming rights, the community element had to stay as part of the deal.”
All this is very well and good, but the beauty of this stadium is in the design details. Minor alterations such as the angle of stairwells to ensure that those making full use of the alcoholic beverage vendors can’t see the pitch during play (a law still enforced in the UK) and the integration of technology that tracks each player’s movement throughout the game to improve the accuracy of match feedback make the arena a real winner. Also keeping the structural arches above the stadium relaxed back not only complies with the brief’s low visibility demands but enables those in the surprisingly comfortable seats at the rear of the west stand to gain beautiful views across the rolling South Downs. A triumph on all accounts.