Ask the Architect: John Rhodes of HOK


With extensive experience in arena and stadium design, John Rhodes of HOK explains what drives him, and how the pandemic has forced designers to ‘futureproof’ major facilities

What made you want to become an architect?
I think I have always wanted to be an architect. My life was filled with drawing from an early age and I probably spent an unhealthy amount of my youth building dens, borrowing tools and constructing things. So, coming from a practical family, the balance between art and science that architecture offered seemed a justifiable natural outlet for my creative indulgences. This has served me well as I am still allowed to continue my passion for drawing and creating things while still appearing to have a grown-up job!

What do you like about it most?
The diversity and scale of the problems we face is always invigorating, one day defining an urban plan philosophy on a macro scale, the next solving a tricky thermal bridge connection. The ecliptic range and mix of skills needed means there is always more to learn.

Plus, the linear nature of the process always means the journey is interesting and fresh. A good design solution comes from a good understanding of our clients’ needs.

We sometimes have the opportunity to add beauty and even magic to the world. How many professions allow you to do that?

What is the hardest part of your job now?
The growing contractual squeeze on the profession. We are seeing a worrying trend of unseen third and fourth party collateral warranties being loaded on the design team for matters well outside our scope.

How has the pandemic changed the design approach to sports arenas?
Before the pandemic, sport and entertainment venues were becoming the vanguard of the intersection between the physical and digital world. After the pandemic we now have to transition back from the digital to physical world. New trends such as in venue pre-ordering and grab and go service have now become the norm in day-to-day life, and will have a much larger role to play in stadium hospitality.

Technology will continue to be augmented in our experience. Sports teams will want to create more diverse revenue streams, leveraging their unique position within communities beyond a reliance on match day revenues.

The transition to cashless venues has happened with the pandemic fast tracking some of the technology innovations that are now being seen as the ‘norm.’ Enhanced ventilation, and reduced touch points will be design enhancements that will continue, as we continue to design venues with safety and wellbeing at the core.

Above all, I think we have all missed the communal enjoyment of watching sport and live entertainment together. Once the variants have passed, we will all be keen not to take such live experiences for granted and get back to hanging out with the tribe in wonderfully atmospheric venues.

What do designers need to consider to ‘futureproof’ major sports facilities against the encroachment of digital sources?
Focus on the experience of the event goer, how they can engage authentically with the sporting performance, and fully enjoy that unique experience of watching together and knowing that you were there when history was made.

Do you think genuinely sustainable material approaches are viable for such large structures?
Yes, sustainability has to be at the forefront of innovative design. This is not just the right thing to do, it makes financial long-term sense and is increasingly important to sponsor’s, naming rights partners and the fans themselves.

Sports and live entertainment venues have their own unique sustainability challenges – big spans, large amounts of embodied energy, peaks of usage and complex mobility plans. Any opportunity o address these challenges needs exploration, including innovative use of renewable materials such as CLT (Cross Laminated Txsimber).

We are particularly interested in exploring the sustainability benefits of the deep refurbishment of heritage venues, such as the Avicii Arena in Stockholm. Reusing as much of the existing venue as possible rather than building a new one is a very effective sustainability strategy.

What is your proudest achievement professionally?
Watching Bruce Springsteen open Leeds Arena – which I helped to design – was pretty special, while it was a privilege to be part of the team that helped secure the Dubai World Expo for Dubai.

What is the key innovation in the industry that you would like to see?
I would like to see a more collaborative contractual landscape, a ‘black box thinking’ environment where the industry works closer together to solve some of the big challenges we are facing, such as climate change.

What’s your current favourite material for designing buildings?
Like children, I am not sure it’s appropriate to have a favourite. Albeit with the carbon and sustainable advantages of timber, CLT has real opportunities to fulfil its potential in the next few years, if insurance challenges are resolved.

Do you tend to be more ‘attention to detail’ or ‘big picture’?
Ironically, I like both and in particular flexible strategies rather than singular solutions. It’s often the bit in the middle that I sometimes find others are better equipped to drive.

What do you hope to do more of in 2022?
See more live sport and entertainment, (and keep up the lockdown wild swimming!)

Is diplomacy sometimes an architect’s most important skill?
I agree, as designers we are often used to dealing with varied parameters, such as the natural typography, the solar path, complex briefs, and spatial adjacencies, but in situations where persuasion is our only weapon, the key parameter is often diplomacy (and a great idea).

John Rhodes is design principal and director of sports + entertainment at HOK