Behind AAMI Park: chatting with the architects

Ahead of AAMI Park’s 10th anniversary celebrations, we were lucky enough to sit down for a chat (video, of course!) with COX Architecture’s Patrick Ness and Jonathan Gardiner, who are partners at the firm behind AAMI Park’s design. 

Tell us a bit about yourself.  

Jonathan: I was the Project Director for AAMI Park, on behalf of COX Architecture, and Patrick was the Design Director of the project. COX Architecture have been a very well-known public design firm for some decades, in Melbourne and in Australia, and our role was as a lead design agency for the entire project. 

We oversaw everything from concept design through to the design support during construction. There were a lot of people involved and it’s still regarded as a very major project in our studio.  

What was the inspiration behind AAMI Park and its look and structure? 

Patrick: The whole sports precinct has been a place of great innovation and experimentation right from Peter Mcintyre’s original Olympic Pool through to AAMI Park. Every one of those buildings has been about being innovative and I think for Melbourne - it’s been a very important thing to realise that every time something new happens there, it’s pushed the boundaries. 

Our practice approach is to be innovative in structure and to do more with less - the roof design was highly innovative at its time, using some 30% less steel than any other sporting stadium with the same dimensions at the time.  

We also thought a lot about the fans and the players. AAMI Park is an events platform, and a big part of going to AAMI Park isn’t just seeing an event but having a lasting memory of it. I think the richer, more layered and more thoughtful the design is, the more atmospheric it is - and the deeper and more prolonged those memories are for people.  

Patrick Ness and Jonathan Gardiner

Working on AAMI Park was a massive project – what days stood out to you while you were working on it? 

Jonathan: For me, the first time the construction company Grocon brought one of the frames to site and put it into position was a fabulous moment, because while we’d talked about the scale of AAMI Park, I think a lot of people hadn’t understood it until this point. It was a very, very exciting time! 

Patrick: I have four. The first was when John [Jonathan] and I went to see the then Premier, we were initially given five minutes of his time to pitch the project, but left one and a half hours later. This said to us we were doing something that really touched something in government, which was memorable.  

Next, when the roof frame went up as a complete stadium and after they removed the props, the roof stood, showing how dramatic the structure was in its entirety.  

The third was when they turned the lights on for the first time, we saw it twinkling there in the background as almost an art piece and it was beautiful.  

Lastly, coming in from South Melbourne and seeing the city and then suddenly the stadium... I don’t think John or I ever really anticipated the presence it would have. That was really memorable for me.  

Jonathan: I’ll add one – before AAMI Park opened, we held a commissioning event to make sure everything worked. We held games of touch rugby with everyone involved in the job – we played a round-robin on the pitch, and it was quite moving for us. It was also revealing to see how people you’ve worked with for years behave on a pitch! 

That’s amazing – we've touched on the fact that AAMI Park is a significant feature on Melbourne’s skyline, what would you say is its best feature? 

Patrick: I think it’s the intimacy you feel inside it, it feels like you could almost reach out and touch what’s going on there, and I think that’s what brings people to it. Equally, it’s very dramatic and very Melbourne in its sculptural and structural approach. It’s super light and inventive, and I think that’s its key feature and its legacy will be that we didn’t waste anything. 

Jonathan: I think it's still the sense of anticipation as you move towards it before an event, I think it’s such an iconic piece to walk towards, and to know that you’re going in there. It’s actually remarkably quite soft on the inside, with the domes on the outside, but when you come through the grass, the pitch is centerstage, it dominates the experience, which is exactly what we intended to do.  

Patrick: Jonathan and I travelled the world and looked a lot of stadiums before this, and we really wanted to ensure the building worked to celebrate each event and create a stadium that invited people in to participate.  

Do you think it’s that quality that sets AAMI Park from other stadiums? 

Patrick: It’s no different to a human relationship. If you put care, attention and respect into it, you get more out of the relationship and I think the building is exactly that. There’s been care and thoughtfulness in it from everybody, from the people that built it to the engineers to the government to ourselves and I think that ends up being the great legacy, it resonates with people more as a result of that.  

What would you say is the most memorable concert or game you’ve attended at AAMI Park? 

Jonathan: My favourite game really was the FFA final – it was a packed house and it was exciting. It’s like designing a race car and finally seeing it hit top speed, it was just fabulous because you could feel the adrenaline run around the ground.  

Patrick: I’m the same, because it was a packed house, we really got to see it with heart-in-mouth looking and watching it happen. The lead up too, seeing people coming down from the city in groups, making their way to the ground to see that final - it was magnificent.