Editor's Note: This is the sixth in a series of essays profiling all of the cities set to host World Cup games this summer. Eliot Rothwell visited every venue to get a sense of how preparations were going and what the mood was like ahead of the tournament.
EKATERINBURG, Russia -- As I walked along Prospekt Lenina, the main road that runs across central Ekaterinburg, the city's World Cup stadium soon came into view. At the front, fans gathered around the concourse, buying hot dogs, soft drinks and FC Ural merchandise. Behind them, a grand Soviet facade seemingly encased the stadium's vast, metallic, net-like structure.
Chiselled white statues of footballers stood on plinths high above grey arches but around the side, the main body of the stadium ended abruptly. Behind each goal, a huge patchwork of metal bars joined together to form a temporary stand that jutted out into the concourse. Its summit sat level with the curve of the roof. At its base, a door-shaped gap in the metal doubled as the entrance to the press lounges.
When the stadium's design became known around the world, it went viral. It was pilloried, laughed at and mocked. Pictures emerged from the dizzying peak of the temporary stands. The view looked terrible. A cascade of orange seats fell towards the goal but the roof appeared to block almost everything else. The pitch looked far away. From the outside, it seemed like the architects ran out of material or got their measurements wrong.
I visited the stadium on a cold day in May for the Ural derby between FC Ural and Amkar Perm and the orange seats, visible from Prospekt Lenina, were stark against the blue sky. To the left and right from the press box, one could see the temporary stands reached into the sky. The roof cast a shadow on the middle portion of seats, blocking the view from the press box to some of the upper section.
A quick 10-minute trip through the stadium later and I was scaling the stands, emerging from behind a mass of metal piping. Rows of orange seats disappeared behind me. The pitch faded further away. The imposing roof loomed over my head. When I reached the top, I turned around. The full length of the pitch was visible, unobstructed. The roof, though close overhead, didn't impede the view. Viral pictures did not do it justice. Fans sat around me, quite content with the novelty of it all. Below us, the game continued and Amkar eventually won 2-0.
The Ekaterinburg Arena was designed to be flexible. The city's World Cup organising committee knew that the tournament's requirements differed from local needs. Local side FC Ural only recently became a regular competitor in the Russian Premier League. They don't need all 35,000 seats. Their highest attendances are usually in the low twenty-thousands, reaching a peak of 26,800 when Spartak Moscow visited Ekaterinburg this season. So after the World Cup, the local authorities have the option to deconstruct the temporary stands and reducing the capacity of the stadium to a more sustainable level. Instead of empty seats, Ural will be able to achieve sell-out crowds in big games. There's a determination that this does not become one of the World Cup's many white elephants despite the unorthodox design.
Such architectural innovation is not new to Ekaterinburg. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, amid the first of Josef Stalin's five-year plans, the city was remodelled. Architecture, according to the Soviet planners, could be used to construct a new, socialist way of life. They adopted constructivism, a style of architecture born out of the futurist movement, all cubist blocks overlaid with cylinders and glass. They aimed to push the avant garde into the everyday.
Today, Ekaterinburg is considered a "preserve of constructivism," as Dmitry Kozelev, the Deputy Editor of local news website Znak, told ESPN FC. Tourists from across the former Soviet Union and beyond come to Ekaterinburg, filling out their Instagram feeds with pictures of the buildings. Owen Hatherley, the author of "Landscapes of Communism," wrote to ESPN FC, via email: "I think what makes Ekaterinburg unique is the density of Constructivism. There is a lot in Moscow and other cities but only really in Ekaterinburg do you have a town centre dominated by it. It's not just offices and housing and factories, but Workers Clubs, Factory Kitchens, Palaces of Culture, House-Communes."
In the centre of the city, the buildings dreamed up by Utopian Soviet architects continue to function. The Dinamo Sports Club, a three-building set of sharp blues and whites, is beloved by Ekaterinburg's residents. The first building, a cylinder dissected by a large rectangular block, delves out from the edge of Gorodskoi Prud, or City Pond. Next to it, the columns and arches of the Dinamo stadium spreads out left to right, like an amphitheatre without any curve.
The City Pond has been the central hub of life in Ekaterinburg for generations. The city's main roads run around it. The grandest buildings flank it. On the east bank, modern street culture meets Ekaterinburg's history. On the green roof of a grand, elongated yellow building, a street art installation by Tima Radya, the Russian Banksy, reads "Who are we? Where are we from? Where are we going?"
Ekaterinburg is built around the ideals of Soviet architects, designers and artists. That heritage remains in architecture, in street names, in the large Lenin statue in front of the city's main shopping centre and in the facade around the Ekaterinburg Arena. The city is animated by a bricolage of old and new, of Soviet heritage coexisting with the New Russian future.
Even though it grabbed headlines for its absurd World Cup expansion at either end, Ekaterinburg Stadium's rigidly Soviet exterior and hulking modern sporting arena is a metallic metaphor for the city itself.