Soweto Striker

PROJECT Nike Football Training Centre, Soweto, South Africa
DESIGNERS RUFproject with DesignSpaceAfrica
TEXT Guy Trangos
PHOTOS Julian Abrams unless otherwise noted

In late 2009, the global sportswear brand Nike embarked on an ambitious six-month project to rebuild a functional but dilapidated iconic football club in Soweto, Johannesburg. In order to complete the project with a very tight deadline–the start of the 2010 FIFA World Cup–Nike employed the design skill of Canada-based RUFproject and its principal Sean Pearson, who had worked previously for Nike as a brand design director. A local professional team led by project management company SIP, supported by South African architecture firm DesignSpaceAfrica, was instrumental in implementing the project. 

The Nike Football Training Centre was realized at a landmark moment for South Africa. The nation was on the cusp of hosting one of the world’s biggest sporting events. In the lead-up to the World Cup, South Africans rallied together in an unusual show of unity. Buildings were wrapped in South African flags and almost every car on the road was adorned with some form of national insignia. Enormous public transport infrastructure projects were being completed, tickets sold and vuvuzela-blowing skills sharpened. Football–soccer to North Americans–is South Africa’s leading sport in terms of supporter numbers and players, and nowhere heaved with more activity than Soweto, the country’s football capital and the site of the Soccer City Stadium that would form the nucleus of the Cup.

The World Cup was much more than a festival of sport for South Africa. Organizers and residents saw the event as marking South Africa’s achievements 16 years into democracy. Johannesburg identified an opportunity to spark investment in Soweto and better unite it to the city’s urban centre. This would begin to correct entrenched socio-spatial inequalities that resulted from decades of segregation-based urban policy.

A key component of apartheid planning, inspired by rapid global suburbanization in the 1950s, was the creation of white suburbs and black townships. Both low-density models were easy to roll out across Johannesburg’s peripheral grassy plains, instilling an anti-urban culture of one-house-one-plot that still permeates today. The growth of these two typologies eased control and segregation. Freeways, mine dumps, industrial belts and railway lines were designed to form significant physical barriers between the largely white suburbs with their commercial centres, and the black townships, enforcing damaging social, cultural and linguistic divides. 

The apartheid planning of Soweto, South Africa’s largest township to the southwest of downtown Johannesburg, was guided by policies of underdevelopment. Soweto was deliberately established without any true economic centres, few public and social amenities, and very limited transportation connectivity to urban zones. Apartheid segregation took its toll on generations of black South Africans, entrenching communities in decades of poverty and dependency. The area became well-known as a site of uprising and protest against the nationalist government. Religion, sport and traditional culture became outlets for residents to in turn live, reflect on, escape and challenge their circumstances. 

Soweto today feels remarkably different than the depressed, pre-democracy township. An improved Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, a new minibus taxi interchange, the iconic Soccer City Stadium, a new theatre, and a gleaming university campus contrast with the compressed social-housing units and informal fabric of old. Despite essential public and private investment, however, parts of Soweto remain impoverished and without access to opportunity.

Most of the latest development has centred around Soweto’s main thoroughfare, Old Potchefstroom Road. Here, the discreet yet iconic Nike Football Training Centre stands within a few hundred metres of a new glass-domed shopping mall. Nike chose Soweto for its game-changing facility because it identified an opportunity to empower the township through football and social development. A run-down administration building, change room and public washroom previously occupied the site, while two dust patches with significant drainage issues served as playing fields. Nike took their brief much further than simply improving these facilities. During conceptual development, the architect and Nike’s local and international offices imagined a multi-faceted community sports centre premised on innovation and motivation, equal to or better than developed-world counterparts. The final built project remains true to this vision. 

Initial concepts for the building were centred on the user experience. The journey a young footballer would take from the street through the centre and onto the field became the primary organizational device, with clear spatial thresholds marked by inspirational quotes and imagery. The building’s users–currently some 20,000 young club members and social footballers from the surrounding community–are clearly the focus of the building, and their sporting and personal development directly informed the design of the centre. “We determined early on that the facility should have at its heart the spirit, passion and vibrancy of Soweto,” notes lead designer Pearson. “Most importantly, it should be a modern, inspirational facility that contributes to current and future footballers in Soweto.”

The notion of inspiration was central to Nike’s approach, and is front and centre in the building. Upon entering the timber-screened clubhouse, visitors are immediately confronted with carefully curated football icons and memorabilia: signed jerseys and balls, plaster casts of famous footballers’ feet, photomontages, and posters describing top techniques. A large room for team strategy discussions sits next to a football jersey-printing facility, and a series of computers has been set up to advance players’ skills through simulation and technique-improving software. 

The north, east and west façades of the steel-framed clubhouse are clad in a uniform timber screen, which dramatically breaks step towards the northwest corner, slanting at 45 degrees. This graphically strong shift provides the framework to support a series of aluminum angle segments, arranged to spell SOWETO. The screen shields the interior from harsh sunlight while defending its large glass windows from misdirected balls. A rectilinear opening in the wood screen, protected by a graphic filigree of woven chain-link fencing, provides a clear view of the facility’s two FIFA-accredited artificial turfs, as well as training fields packed with young footballers stretching, running laps, dribbling through cones and shooting at the goals.

For the local young footballer, the facility allows for an effortless flow between entrance, change rooms and the fields. Most athletes bypass the main clubhouse building, which is reserved mainly for event days, and head straight to the green change-room block, passing through an intricately crafted security fence. Designed by Johannesburg-based artist Kronk, the fence’s live-action frieze of a footballer flying through the air creates an atmosphere of anticipation. Inside, small change rooms are each themed after a different Nike-sponsored club. Here, halftime tactics and fulltime festivities (or frustrations) take place in the presence of insignia from some of the best teams in South Africa and the world.

Leaving the change rooms, young players descend an outdoor ramp that carves its way under the main clubhouse and angles directly at the field. The successful re-creation of a stadium tunnel complete with the words ”No Excuses” at the threshold of the exit ensures a high-energy sprint onto the field, as footballers launc
h into the full view of spectators–cheering from the clubhouse, the stands, and from the other side of the see-through boundary fence. 

Along with the tunnel, an array of field-side services are positioned under the main clubhouse. These include a gym, a medical suite and a bowling-alley-style shoe exchange for those without suitable footwear. The centre also hosts not-for-profit organization Grassroots Soccer, whose programs include access to voluntary HIV/AIDS testing in conjunction with health and education support functions. Such services hint at the vital social role the centre plays within the community.

Achieving this degree of iconic simplicity and contextual responsiveness is not an easy task for an international team with a very tight deadline. A flexible approach to working on the project allowed fluid collaboration between the architects in Western Canada, Nike’s global brand design team in the Netherlands and the on-site team in South Africa. Pearson describes how the time differences offered a 24-hour working day. “We would brief in at night, and wake up in the morning to see the response from the local teams in South Africa–and then comment at night,” he recalls. “As such, the project could move at a pace that would normally not be possible.”

It is perhaps the multiple authors, influences and outcomes of this fast-track project that produced a nuanced building as connected to its surrounding community as it is to Nike’s global network. Soweto could have easily been saddled with a slick acontextual form, an overtly self-referential and bland historic pastiche, or a brashly branded Nike palace. Instead, the building negotiates these influences, and in so doing is calmly iconic, plugged into the surrounding sprawling residential fabric of Soweto, and rooted in society. 

Possibilities for a single building to correct the wrongs of an almost half-century of apartheid planning are limited. However, well-intentioned, considered and critical design has the ability to realign both cities and communities. Through designing a building that aims to uplift society in addition to training footballers, the centre becomes a community icon. Through designing a high-tech structure in an underdeveloped neighbourhood, the centre is seen as a community asset. Finally, through designing a partnership between the building’s users, Nike and the Johannesburg City Council and football associations, the facility’s future is secured. 

Here, small-scale architecture produces maximum impact by building on key relationships and socially minded decisions. The accretion of similar–if not necessarily sports-based–projects in Soweto may catalyze a far greater revitalization of the entire area. International architects, organizations and governments might take note of this success story, seeking to collaborate more with their South African counterparts and thus take part in positively and sensitively shaping the slowly changing post-apartheid landscape. CA 

Guy Trangos is a researcher at the Gauteng City-Region Observatory, a partnership of the University of Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand, Gauteng provincial government, and organized local government. As a professional architect with a degree in City Design and Social Sciences from the LSE, he writes and researches on both architecture and urbanism.

Client Nike Inc.
Design Team Sean Pearson (RUF), Luyanda Mpahlwa (DesignSpaceAfrica), Andy Walker (Nike)
Project Management Lynette Mollet (Nike South Africa) and SIP Project Managers Ltd.
Structural AKI Consulting Engineers
Mechanical/Electrical Spoormaker & Partners
Interiors RUFproject and Nike Global Football Brand Design
Contractor Rainbow Construction
Interior Contractor Umdasch Shop-Concept Ltd.
Graphics Grid Worldwide Branding & Design
Area 1,300 m2 (main building); 54,000 m2 (site)
Budget $10 M
Completion June 2010