What was as popular 2000 years ago as it is today? What looked pretty much the same 2000 years ago as it does today? What is always ready to play host to the continuation of warfare by other means? You've got it. The sports stadium. And under the golden shower of Lottery money and millennium cash, it is certainly living up to its reputation this Christmas.
Take the new World Stadium at Wembley. For months the big questions were smothered in ridiculous detail, like whether to keep the twin towers or move them farther apart, or sell them to the highest bidder. And all the while a scheme of breathtaking audacity was taking shape on the drawing boards of the Anglo-American World Stadium Team, Foster, hok and Lobb. A scheme worthy of Nero himself.
We'll just forget about articulated grandstands and vanishing running tracks, said the wst designers. We'll design the stadium for soccer (the heavy user), then make it just possible for athletes to beg for a new surface of the earth every time they make an Olympic bid.
Somehow this transparent piece of one-upmanship - opaquely described by the minister of culture last July as 'stunning' - almost made it on site. The planning application was in and approval was a dead certainty when suddenly the ministry of culture's minister of sport (a former high- jumper), decided to have some Americans look over the plans - like Bechtel and the Jubilee Line.
Why Americans? Well if there is one thing American architects know about it's sports architecture. Their Mars probes may not have much luck, but their sports stadia are only just petering out after a boom of 30 years, so they are looking to apply what they know to other countries. Ever since the fabulously successful 120,000-seat twin-stadium Harry S Truman Sports Complex in Kansas City they have been on to a winner: the 42,000- seat Jacob's Field, in Cleveland, the first ever downtown ball park; the profit-making convertible Atlanta Olympic Stadium; last year's Phoenix Bank One with its wild opening roof, and the forthcoming New Mile High Stadium for the Denver Broncos. Because of the success of the Harry S Truman complex and the brilliance of the now defunct firm of Kivett & Myers, Kansas City became the world centre for sports architecture. There American architects perfected the spin and image that turned every new stadium into a crowd magnet and a gigantic cash register, finished like Nero's Golden House and stuffed with retail outlets, restaurants, cinemas and entertainments of every description.
But of course there was a downside. One of the things they discovered was that multifunctional arenas were not the way to go. Just as in Europe soccer is the dominant game, so in America it is football. Just as in Europe there might be 20 soccer games for every athletics event, so in America football games outnumber baseball games eight to one. As all the latest American stadiums show, multi-functionality is totally out of fashion. The bottom line says that making one stadium work with articulated seating, removable running tracks and a mobile roof costs significantly more in the long run than building two stadia. If you factor athletics into it - which the Americans don't - then the cost exceeds that of three stadia.
Ever since Ellerbe Becket designed the Manchester arena for the unsuccessful 2000 Olympics bid, United States firms have increasingly become involved in British sports architecture. nbbj, hok, Ellerbe Becket, hntb, all have formed more or less successful joint ventures here. If they are trying to tell us anything it is to drop the 'stunning' idea of multi-functionality and use our short lines of communication and well- established regional identities to create a network instead.