Part Brutal angles and exposed concrete undercarriage, part Modernist sweeping curves and cylinders, La Scala del Calcio (or San Siro) is a structure as complex and contradictory as life itself. At times, it’s all steel beams and exposed roof work. Meshed rolled steel and powerful floodlighting, washing over the senses in a myriad of sturdy civil engineering features. Supporting beams in cantilever designs, laid bare and creating voids in a manner which looks driven more by cost saving desires than it does to create visually pleasing design, completely foregoing aesthetic concerns.
But then, the eye moves and it readjusts. It notices the beauty of 11 soft cylindrical access ramps. Each one mimicking and adding to the original sweeping ramps used to access the second tier which was installed onto the original construction. Each of the relatively new, tightly spiraled cylinders leads to an additional third tier of seating. Added to maximise capacity in time for Italia '90 along with the beautifully ugly roof.
The roof over the head of the spectators is intricate and precise. Each and every part is well thought out and deliberately placed. Not a single piece of steel was wasted by architects Ragazzi and Hoffer, and their engineer, Finzi; the team who designed it. The result must have been a major influence on Herzog & de Meuron when they devised the bird’s nest style design for the 2008 Olympic stadium in Beijing. It also influenced many of the writer’s stadium developments on the PlayStation game LMA Manager as a child. It’s a pure, brutal (small ‘b’) poke in the eye and it looks like it doesn’t care how it looks in the slightest. This is, of course, the shortest route to looking good.
This was probably justified for the same reason that the roofing and ceiling systems in supermarkets is so minimalistic and industrial - your eyes are looking down at the products on the shelves as opposed to up at an attractive, decorated ceiling. In a supermarket, it’s all wires, heating vents, hanging fluorescent lights and a single skin envelope to keep shoppers dry. It serves its purpose and nothing else.
The San Siro pitch is the supermarket shelf and the players are the products hoping to please you. Supporters should not have time to gaze longingly at a beautiful roof above their heads when attending a football match, so its purpose is purely functionary.
If an architect is to be allowed some freedom to capture the imagination of people who look at his or her stadium, it is most beneficial to impress those who approach their stadium on foot. And that is where the San Siro takes a turn for the hypnotic.
I have sympathy for stadium architects in this regard. We are concerned massively with the appearance of our homes. We spend time choosing wallpapers and go through however-many tester paint pots. People deliberate over complimentary cushions and throws, lamps. The colour of sound systems and DVD players and whatever other accessories. All in order make the inside of their homes look nice.
But what provides pleasure from a football stadium is the results on the pitch as opposed to how it looks. A beautiful stadium counts for absolutely nothing when your team is bottom of the league.
Yet, it is something to be fondly proud of when your team is playing well. It’s quite the paradox stadium architects are up against. Particularly if you consider that a shiny new stadium, which fans are initially impressed with, often end up being a yoke around the neck of the club trying to meet loan repayments whilst they tumble down the leagues. All of a sudden, albeit tacitly, the architect bears the burden of resentment attached to a half-new, most probably half-empty stadium, which only serves to remind die-hard fans of simpler times.
I’ve dissected the elements of the stadium. But, together, every aspect of one of the most recognisable stadiums in the world simply work. They should clash and look like separate parts of one unfinished mess. Yet they don’t. That’s because the stadium we know as San Siro is symbolic of life itself.
And that’s what the San Siro embodies for me. A time spent with Dad, led on the living room floor drawing football kits and made-up stadiums, whilst he watched the racing and read the paper sat in his chair. Then squeezing in next to him to watch Football Italia when the, what I thought said, “GOOOOOAL LAZIO!” credits rolled.
Italian football has always remained a far off and romanticised idea since then. And the San Siro is the poster boy image.
It might not have the archetypal running track that was so typical of many Italian stadiums. But the image of those curved staircases, bare concrete, steel beams and boxed in seating areas just screams Serie A.
The way the fans rushed to the front of the grilled area at pitch level behind the goals. The way that, as attendances dwindled, whole sections of the stadium stood empty, whilst other blocks were crammed full of ultras with their flags, banners and bombs. Stories of fans controlling their own turnstiles, defecating on fans below them. The politics and the sporadic, playground style football violence. It was all attractive as a young child, but not understood why until later on in adulthood.
And the weather. The weather was always wet. And cold. The proper Ronaldo, gloved and in blue and black stripes, a cut above the opposition, only being brought down to their level by waterlogged sections of the pitch. Zidane, in long sleeved, black and white stripes, being described as majestic by commentators and Dad. When your team is languishing in the middle of England’s third tier, but you’re told by reliable sources that they used to be at the top of the English game and got a famous win in Naples; Football Italia seemed like a touchable dream.
Slow passages of play and lulls in the atmosphere were perfect for falling into a Sunday afternoon doze. The TV volume down low and the fire keeping you warm. It was as comforting as days on an open terrace in North West England were chilling. Sitting on the crash barrier to get a better view or struggling to keep your eyes open in your dad’s armchair - football is at the core of a special relationship between a father and his son. That was the '90s, when the money was in the Italian game; now, there might be Italian counterparts looking back at the EPL and forming their own memories.
Onto the '00s. AC Milan was the go-to team during many a misspent fifth year school evening playing Pro Evo with a friend. All those greats in one XI - Nesta, Gattuso, Maldini, Cafu, Inzaghi, Shevchenko and Kaká - made choosing any other team simply a waste of time. Then La Rossoneri’s home shirt was the first Italian shirt bought for the catwalk parade that is after-work 5-a-side.
And the San Siro, La Scala del Calcio, is symbolic of all those memories. It is Italian football in a single image. And it’s all those deposits in the memory bank of a football fan, friend and son. Ask any football fan with at least a fleeting knowledge of the Italian game, and the San Siro will be the stadium they can identify most easily. And that applies all over the world. Whilst the two sides of Milan may not be the dominating forces in Italian or European competition of late, their stadium is still powerful enough to evoke recognition, awe and memories.
Paul is an IBWM Editor and you can follow him @dpmortimer.