In Monaco, the playground of the rich, where untold riches are won and squandered on the turn of a card or where a little silver ball lands on a roulette wheel, and where millionaires’ yachts are but the poor relations of those owned by the billionaires, there’s only one thing more highly prized than money – land. The whole principality covers a little over 200 hectares and, with prices at more than 44 euros per square metre at the time of writing – the highest in Europe, almost double that of the UK, which ranks second – complete utilisation of each precious hectare is of the highest priority.
Ahead of the current stadium being built, the original Stade Louis II was constructed as a single stand stadium in 1939, on a precious three hectares of land out of a total 22 reclaimed from the sea. When the new stadium was planned, its architect Henri Pottier was given a seemingly impossible task. He was briefed to design a larger, modern stadium, that also would accommodate a sports hall, administrative offices, a four-storey car park and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Oh yes Henri, and use no more of that precious land than the existing footprint, s’il vous plait. D’accord?
His ‘iceberg’ solution, where the stadium sits atop, with the remaining facilities hidden beneath it in ever increasing spirals into the depths of the earth akin to some kind of Arne Saknussemm adventure, fitted the bill, and gives us the instantly recognisable stadium of today.
The home of AS Monaco, and the Uefa Super Cup match between 1998 and 2012, the stadium capacity offers seating for around 18,500 people. It’s a seemingly meagre total, and one not helped by the requirement to also have a running track, à la West Ham United’s ‘London Stadium’ to allow it to host Diamond League athletics meetings. Given the population of the principality however, that capacity figure represents more than half of the people living in Monaco. Proportionately, at least therefore, that’s a fairly generous offering. This is especially so, when one considers that the average gate for a Monaco home game is around half of the capacity figure. Strangely, for one of the top sides in Ligue 1, it puts the club bang at the foot of the attendance figures for the top league in France.
Often, visiting fans are offered the less attractive seating areas at stadiums. This is certainly not the case with the Stade Louis II however. With another accommodating nod to the twin needs of space saving and maintaining an ambience for the stadium with its surroundings, Pottier devised a sumptuous view for fans of visiting clubs if the fare on the pitch is less than absorbing.
Eschewing a traditional stand, the area is cut back and uncovered, but a series of nine high arches, opening out behind the seats, offers a panoramic view of the Port de Cap d’Ail with its azure waters, and the aforementioned yachts bobbing up and down as if seeking the attention of any envious onlooker. It’s a far from traditional ‘behind the goals’ viewing area, surrounded by concrete or painted steelwork.
Although ingenious in concept on an architect’s drawing board, there are inevitably compromises between form and functionality. Visiting mangers have commented on the nature of the playing surface as the car park underneath prevents a natural growth pattern, a situation not helped by the overhang of one of the concrete stands denying any natural light to a portion of the playing area. It’s a scenario both Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger commented adversely about after their sides had less than favourable results there. The latter, however, should have been used to the situation having managed the Monegasque club from 1987 to 1994, joining two years after the stadium was opened.
Traditionalists may decry the compromises snatched from the prime function of the stadium to accommodate the demands of space and surroundings, and it’s easy to emphasise with that view. It’s more difficult however to deny that its design has allowed football to exist, check by jowl, with that little ball on a roulette wheel.
(This article was originally produced as part of the ‘Stadia’ series for These Football Times).