Fisht Stadium in Sochi, Russia

The design team behind Sochi’s Fisht Olympic Stadium is now fighting to keep the roof on the iconic building, which plays host to Russia’s opening and closing ceremonies for the 2014 Winter Games.

Damon Lavelle, principal for the London-based office of Populous which designed the $779-million facility, said he plans to petition the Russian government to leave the stadium’s unique roof structure in place. While the original plan was to eventually remove the roof after the games and create an open-air stadium, Lavelle is imploring Russian President Vladimir Putin to not deconstruct what Lavelle is calling “the largest theatrical venue in the world.”

“It would be a real shame to spend tens of millions of dollars dismantling a space that is truly capable of year-round business,” said Lavelle. “There are endless possibilities for concerts and events. It’s only restricted by the imagination of the producer.”

The original design for Fisht stadium did not include a rooftop.

When Populous was first awarded the contract to build the 45,000-capacity venue, Russian officials had asked for an outdoor stadium that would also play host to World Cup matches and Russian soccer.  The original plan was to give the stadium a horseshoe design, with its back to the sea and its skyline opening up to the mountains.

But sometime in 2011, Opening and Closing Ceremonies Producer Konstantin Ernst and President Putin decided they wanted a much more extravagant, larger production and asked Lavelle and his team to include a roof in their design of the stadium.

A roof would allow Russian officials to project images onto the ceiling of the venue. It would also allow for enormous rigging opportunities and, most importantly, it would allow for a completely climate-controlled environment, free from the whims of Mother Nature.

As Lavelle put it, “the decision was made to go big, very late into the process,” and Lavelle said his team worked around the clock, 24 hours a day to make large structural redesigns to the facility, procure over 8,000 additional tons of steel for the roof and erect the enormous structure atop the stadium.

The roof is made with a translucent polycarbonate material that allows ceremony producers to project onto the surface at night, while letting UV light from the sun in during daylight hours. The result is a giant projection screen that protects inhabitants from the elements, while allowing enough sunlight in for a functioning indoor grass pitch.

Lavelle said the roofed building could play host to the largest theatrical performances ever staged — the highest point in the stadium is nearly 250 feet from the ground, while a massive rigging array would allow objects to fly 1,000 feet from end to end. 

Only a handful of existing production companies would be able to sustain an ongoing performance at a 45,000-person stadium. Cirque du Soleil has an office in Russia, although the theatrical group has never staged a performance in Sochi, explained Ticket Sales Director Eric Valley.

“It’s a really big stadium, and we don’t currently have a production that would fit there,” he said. Cirque’s touring arena show Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour has already made a run through Russia, although there’s always the possibility that a new show could be built specifically for the venue.

“But if they pulled the roof off the stadium, that would kill the possibility we would go there,” Valley said, noting that Cirque du Soleil does not build or tour outdoor shows.

While the fate of the roof has yet to be finalized, it will stay in place for a number of upcoming events, including the Paralympics, which run March 7-16. The facility will also play host to the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Although it hasn’t been done before, Lavelle said, “I don’t think there is any real issue hosting the World Cup in an indoor stadium,” later adding, “Hundreds of people have worked tirelessly to build this impressive roof structure, and it would be terrible to see it dismantled and taken away.”

Interviewed for this article: Damon Lavelle, +44 (0) 208 874 7666; Eric Valley, (514) 723-7646