Q&A with Alessandro Zoppini and Ryan Sickman
Editorial Team in Design For Sports, Sports

Alessandro Zoppini (left) and Ryan Sickman (right). Image © Gensler

Gensler recently announced two new strategic hires who will further strengthen its growing global sports practice: Alessandro Zoppini, based in Gensler’s London office, and Ryan Sickman, based in Gensler’s Washington, D.C. office. Each brings extensive expertise in sports architecture, having worked on a myriad of project types ranging from collegiate athletics facilities to Olympic venues. GenslerOn’s editorial team interviewed Alessandro and Ryan about how Gensler Sports is expanding the practice across the globe.

What cultivated your love for sports and, subsequently, sports design?

AZ: My family’s love for sports goes back two generations. My great uncle was the Italian Football Association’s General Secretary, and my father was a coach for an Italian swimming team in Rome in 1960. Following this, he graduated from architecture school and started designing aquatic centres in Italy, so you could say my passion for sports and design is in my DNA.

I’ve always had a natural fascination for architecture and buildings. When I was a kid I would go to my father’s office and look around the drawing boards, tracing paper, ink, etc. These initial experiences drove me to lead sports projects at Arup Associates and Renzo Piano as soon as I left school.

RS: My love for sports has been a part of my life ever since I was 3 years old. I started soccer (or, as Alessandro would call it, futbol) at the age of 3 and continued playing it at the highest level well into my 20s. As it pertains to sports design, I thought for a long time that it originated with a meeting I had with Tim Curley, the former Penn State Athletic Director, who introduced me to some fellow Penn State alumni who showed me how I could translate my education to staying in sports for my life. However, recently I found out that my passion for it started long before that. As I was moving to D.C. from Kansas City I was going through old pictures of my trips to Europe as a kid. I found an inordinate amount of pictures of stadiums and even one of the plans for the future Manchester City Stadium from 1992. I’ve been on this path longer than even I realized.

What was the primary motivator for joining Gensler Sports?

AZ: Having designed venues for three different Olympic Games at my independent practice, I found that it was extremely important to think globally and act with an appreciation for local presence and culture. I wanted to grow further professionally, and in this sense Gensler’s global presence and culture was an ideal fit. Also, the fact that many major sport venues are now part of larger multifunctional developments has led to a shift in market needs. Sports clients are looking for practices that meet not just their architectural needs, but also their mixed use, retail, interiors and brand requirements. Gensler’s unique multi-disciplinary approach to design puts the firm’s practitioners in a key position to meet these needs.

RS: For me it was an opportunity to be a part of a practice area that is still in its infancy, but is growing into something truly special. We have an opportunity to change the sports facility design paradigm. I also think that our tremendous design talent will bring to this industry something that has been lacking: a truly unique design sense that isn’t pressured by other existing facilities.

How do your particular expertise in sports architecture change the game for Gensler Sports and the sports architecture industry?

AZ: I believe the global sport venue market is dominated by many examples of functional buildings with poor architecture and beautiful buildings that don't fulfill their functional purpose. For me, sport venue design should be organically integrated technically, as well as culturally, with the venue’s surroundings, while feeding off the local community’s needs. Technical expertise should be a given nowadays; what I believe is important is a cultural input.

We need to design to meet current needs and anticipate future developments, so that we can build for the future as much as for the present. Designing for the people who use these facilities is fundamental to this process. Sport venues should improve lives, be a joy to use, be financially viable and create value, while minimizing environmental impact and optimizing energy efficiency. If we succeed, we’ll be able to merge current and future demands for stadiums into what our work should really be about: creating functionally viable, iconic venues.

RS: As a former player, I have experienced the facilities we design in a different way than many designers and architects have. Take a training facility, for example. I used them every day, so when we are talking to a client about what a design idea can mean to the lives of their athletes it’s coming from a different perspective. I’m also not an architect, but rather an engineer educated in construction management. While I can sketch and bring design ideas to the table, I can also understand where our contractor partners are coming from and how they may interpret either our drawings or a situation on a particular project.

Gensler Sports hub offices currently reside in Los Angeles, Dallas, Washington, D.C. and London. How does having strength in these key markets help extend sports expertise to other Gensler offices regionally, nationally and internationally?

AZ: Since sport architecture is a very specialized sector it is very important for a global practice to present on a hyperlocal level. The possibility to have a hub that can easily provide support to other regional offices is certainly a unique resource and an advantage.

RS: In the U.S., having these centers of excellence spread across the country provides us the unique ability to swiftly and efficiently service our clients, on the collegiate front in particular. And now having a hub office in D.C., we are going to be able to service 75 percent of the colleges and universities that reside in this quadrant of the country in a moment’s notice. The collaboration and cohesion that I’ve already experienced in my first few months here demonstrates the inherent value in sharing knowledge, resources and time from one office to another. This collaborative culture and approach will eventually put us in the driver’s seat for sports architecture for the next 30 years.

On the international front, extending our presence outside of the U.S. is going to expand our footprint and reputation worldwide. London is an obvious first choice as a center of excellence for sports architecture as there are already multiple companies with base operations in the market, and developing and nurturing talent there will be easier. As a defacto hub for international sport in Europe, London can also be a springboard for work in India, Africa and Asia. Tap L.A. on the Asian and Australian front and utilize D.C. and Dallas on the Latin America front and we are now truly global. This is not going to happen overnight, but with significant project wins both on the collegiate front in the U.S. and internationally, we will increase momentum.

Which global trend(s) impacting sports facility design are you most interested in challenging and/or affecting?

AZ: People’s needs are changing, as well as sports and events. Sport venues need to be able to embrace architectural, sport and social trends into their spaces and evolve in its typology. There are aspirations from clients to go beyond the formulas they have been given so far and look for new ideas to attract people and sponsors.

Advance technologies and communications instruments are enhancements to include in our projects to create quality and new experiences. I strongly believe and support the need for a close working relationship with the client and the future users. Hopefully architects will be able to intercept future trends.

In the near future we will need to conceive of new types of venues that will reflect such trends: We will see more stadia and arenas that can transform (and not simply adapt) to multiple uses and functions. The inevitability of a greater focus on and acceptance of sustainable features at sports stadia should facilitate smarter ideas for venue usage beyond game day. This will allow us to design stadia that can use resources efficiently and bring greater benefits to the surrounding community and city.

RS: For me it’s the fan experience, the social differences in not only generational groups, but in different locals as well. Often, the notion of authenticity gets lost in the translation about the place and the people to the design. It becomes a unique design, but isn’t tailored to the people. We need to tailor not only the design of the building, but also the experiences within the building to the people who the building will be serving.

Is there a particular project type that you believe Gensler Sports should be focusing on now that you are here? How will your leadership on the team help to grow into these sorts of projects?

AZ: More than a specific type of building, I believe Gensler should focus on what our clients are looking for and respond with innovative solutions. Certainly my experience in Olympic Games and large events could enhance the already strong Gensler Sports experience…

RS: My immediate challenge is to get us into the collegiate market at major institutions where we haven’t had a real presence yet. The more facility types our staff can work on, the more diverse the building types are, and the more agile and robust their knowledge base will become. Professional clients will come and go as the markets dictate, but there will always be a constant flow of collegiate projects across the U.S. There are simply more teams and more sports offering more opportunities there.

I will push our teams to create good buildings that are cost effective, efficient and quality architecture. This is where I believe we have the opportunity to show the sports world that these buildings can be beautiful and don’t have to be rudimentary in nature. We will do good work that we and our clients can be proud of and we will create buildings that foster better athletes and experiences for all who use them.

Article originally appeared on architecture and design (http://www.gensleron.com/).
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