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The Oval

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To an Australian, an “oval” is a playing field adjacent to a school or community hall and that’s used to play and/or train for Australian Rules Football. Aussie Rules is a winter sport but its characteristic four goalposts remain at each end of the oval throughout summer when it might be used for cricket. With the exception of New South Wales and Queensland where rugby found favour, each state has its own league, with Western Australia’s being the Western Australian Football League. Talented schoolkids join junior divisions and work their way up to the under-18s and then the adult league. At least five people in my high-school year went on to play league for Swan Districts, our local team. Peter Sartori was in the Swans’ 1984 Premiership team. I’m not going to describe how Australian Rules football is played, explain its rules, scoring system, or what the players in the images below are doing. This post is about ovals.

The 1990 formation of the Australian Football League was like having a Semi- or Grand Final every weekend and state teams attracted big-name sponsors for the nationally televised matches. The AFL eventually came to dominate both television and conversations, leaving the state football leagues to struggle for spectator revenue.

The one asset the state football clubs still had was their own ovals, and it came to pass that this land steadily increased in value until somebody had the idea of selling some of it off for housing developments such as this next one at Claremont Oval. When the oval is not being used for games or training it becomes a standard amenity space for residents to either look at or use. Having a view of a wide expanse of grass is sufficient in these times when any open space outside a window counts as a view but an oval has intervals of activity that enhance that view whether a match is being played or not.

I’m always interested in new building typologies and this fusion of grandstand and apartment building has the promise of a new one.

With any spectator sport, it’s the higher seats not too far away that offer the best view and so it is with ovals and the residential experience. Ground floor apartments may have some open space between the windows and a public walkway but that’s not the point of putting housing on an oval. This aerial view shows how segments of the land surrounding the oval are being sold for dedicated residential development, leaving only the one portion for grandstands.

An arc of buildings around an open space makes me think of Ricardo Bofill/RBTA’s 1985 Les Eschelles du Baroque in Paris and the town square of Siena. All have communal space as view amenity. A football oval is simply animated by a different kind of activity.

A similar development with the oval as centrepiece is planned for Subiaco Oval not too far away.

Adjacent to Claremont Oval is the Royal Agricultural Showgrounds that, ever since the Friday night speedway ceased, is under-used and under-appreciated apart from the Royal Agricultural Show held in September/October when there is a programme of events including livestock judging, competitive log chopping and sheep dog trials. The rest of the year it reverts to being a regular oval for football with the occasional concert and a bit of show-jumping practice on the side.

If the East Perth Football Club ever needs additional revenue, then I envisage a nice residential development on the north-eastern corner of Leederville Oval. It’s a generic oval used for matches and training and is open to the public for anything else that can be done on a large expanse of grass.

The oval as view amenity for apartments as grandstand is thus a typology finding favour in Australia. Other countries and cultures will generate their own variants. But can it be done better? With these developments, the apartments and the spectator grandstands remain separate and that’s a shame. I imagine this is to simplify the transfer of land as well as legal obligations relating to health and safety in public spaces but a full donut of apartments above spectator seating would be a residential Coliseum and a new building typology specially adapted to these newly-arisen circumstances. For once, I can’t see how anyone loses.

The only similar typology I can think of is the bullring. This next is Barcelona’s Arenas de Barcelona completed 1900. Earth from the centre is piled around the circumference to create low-priced seating, with premium covered seating in the peripheral structure. Exactly the same happens with ovals.

A tulou is a fortified circular communal house found in the southern China province of Fujian. People live in the peripheral structure and in the middle are a shrine, a well, and pens for livestock in times of siege. Much like castles, tulou could function as closed systems for extended periods of time. [c.f. The One Wall House, Machines for Living Longer]

Cricket is played on a field more circular than oval but the WACA (Western Australian Cricket Association) grounds’ proximity to Perth’s city centre makes it a perfect candidate for peripheral residential development. Major cricket matches have mostly decamped to the new Perth Arena [currently named Optus Stadium] on the other side of the river.

People overlook golf courses where the amenity is the landscape but there’s no engagement with the view as golfers are merely part of the landscape. However, other types of sporting venues have potential for development that provides both view and real amenity.

In a nutshell, watching sport is more interesting and more engaging than watching people going about their business on streets. Even a coveted view across Perth Water is greatly enhanced by some yacht racing. The Perth area has about twenty yacht clubs, but the Royal Perth Yacht Club and the Royal Freshwater Bay Yacht Club are the largest and both have two events most weeks, even through winter.

Between the WACA grounds and Perth Arena is Gloucester Park Trotting Ground although development around Ascot Racecoure or Belmont Park Racecourse just to the north might appeal to more people. However, racecourses for these spectator sports have little to offer residents in the way of real amenity. Residents also have to do without real amenity when public spaces host temporary events. A view of Il Palio makes Siena’s square more interesting. A bit of Formula I makes the streets of Monte-Carlo more intresting. Some bulls running loose brings some vibrance to the streets of Pamplona, as do tomato fights in the town of Buñol, but all these events exist to attract spectators and not to provide for residents. None of them are things you’d care to navigate every day; There’s nothing wrong with such attractor events but the public amenity of streets and the visual amenity of streets never coexist. Residents become spectators distanced from their amenity. Peripheral residential development around ovals achieves a balance.

One inherent problem with oval developments is that they are oval. All apartments would ideally have their living rooms facing north [southern hemisphere, remember] as well as facing the oval. This is why this the development planned for the south side of Claremont Oval makes a point of mentioning the north aspect. “The Terraces” will occupy the southern side of the oval but the depth of the site means that not all apartments will or even can have a north-facing view across the oval. Somebody’s going to miss out on both.

Part of the reason is that the depth of the available land is too great to not make full use of. Plans for the various buildings in the development shows many single-aspect apartments opening off double-loaded corridors. In such configurations, half the apartments are going to miss out on either north sunlight or view.

In the layout of this particular building (at the 3 o’clock position), the four apartments on the bottom side face the oval to the west while four apartments don’t to the east. One apartment has north sunlight and a very oblique and partial view of the oval.

Either of these following two configurations will enable all living rooms to face the oval and all bedrooms to be face the other direction. These two configurations only work for a building no greater than a certain depth, and for equal numbers of studio, 1-bedroom and 2-bedroom apartments.

The reversible apartment doesn’t have this limitation. [c.f. Living on Top of One Another] It doesn’t really matter which side of the apartment the living area is on as the apartment is dual aspect as the only determinant is the position of the staircase/s. One fault [since solved] was that the 3-bedroom apartment had the smallest living area. It is possible to configure apartments of differing sizes and have all living areas dual aspect. It’s simple enough to taper the party walls and go the full Coliseum with all apartments having view and, if they can’t have north sunlight then some varying proportion of east and west.

This is what happens with the following apartment which, in my opinion is the best of what’s on offer at Claremont even though at AUS$1,550,000 it’s not cheap. The deep plan has a central kitchen and dual-aspect living room with entrance from either of the two terraces on the living room floor or via the stair from the car park. This is essentially a terraced house but it’s also a step towards having stacked apartments accessed from a car park and not a corridor. [c.f. Parklife, The Mat Building]

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  • The first I noticed this emerging typology when it comes to European football fields was in the Swedish town of Linköping.

    I haven’t looked at the appartment layouts but I doubt all make good use of the view of the field. Ironically, that doesn’t really matter as the stadium is located far outside out town so that everyone gets some kind of view.

    It reminded me not so much of the Colosseum as of medieval European castles.

    My text about it (in German)

    • says:

      Baseball being essentially a summer sport I don’t suppose those 81 games are evenly distributed throughout the year. Moreover, there’s too much at stake in terms of revenue lost to allow housing too close, as Victor highlighted in his comment. With my post I only considered a view of a sports field (for whatever sport) for the case of residential amenity. I’m not sure architectural employers would see it as an amenity even though anything that mixes up our cities some more is generally a good thing.

  • says:

    A curious story about buildings and grandstands has been taking place in Chicago.

    A row of houses overlooked a sports field and for about a century it was an unofficial watching place. Even then, the black and white pictures depict tall wooden bleachers.
    As the sports club grew more popular, the owners rushed to monetize the roofs by way of erecting capital grandstands.
    Taking place in the US, the story involves a lot of infringement claims, many lawsuits and then gradual buyout of the roofs (or buildings?) by the club itself.


    Commercial website