The Mercedes-Benz Stadium is set to open in time for the Atlanta Falcons’ 2017 NFL season, and to host the 2019 Super Bowl. It has been announced that the Savannah College of Art and Design will work with Mercedes-Benz to produce a contemporary art program for the stadium, but the partially complete facility is already sort of stunning. Its construction has dominated skyline views around Atlanta’s downtown for some time now; driving by at the right time of day, you can catch a dramatic sunset, punctuated with silhouetted cranes and reflections of light off the structure’s bare metallic frame.

Twenty years ago this past July, the brand-new Centennial Olympic Stadium opened in Atlanta as the centerpiece to the 1996 Summer Olympics. During the games’ opening ceremonies, Muhammad Ali, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, lit the Olympic flame. Ali’s appearance was a surprise for elated audiences around the world, but his nomination had been controversial. To fans, he was a cultural icon and man of principle; to others, because of his position on Vietnam, he was a draft dodger. A proponent of peace was the best choice for the Olympic Games, whose code of ethics are explained by George Hirthler, the writer behind Atlanta’s successful Olympic bid (among others) and a staunch adherent to the ideals of the original Olympic movement. Any controversy surrounding the late Ali’s affecting appearance in 1996 seems to have evaporated as soon as he touched the Olympic torch to the structure’s strange wick. The cauldron itself, however, remains a point of contention within the conversation about public art and design in Atlanta.

I’m fond of the cauldron: I like its strange bulk and loneliness, and perhaps I like its underdog status, too. Yet the fact that it is such an irritant may be a lingering symptom of the generalized anxiety surrounding major sporting events that is experienced in the cities that host them. In November 2015, we watched in horror as Parisian fans awaited evacuation from the Stade de France—a recent example in a history of violence within and around sporting arenas. Concerns about these crowded venues are equally palpable in the phases of design and execution. Two major stadium projects by the late Zaha Hadid—one in Tokyo, for the 2020 Olympics; and another in Qatar, for the 2022 World Cup—have attracted controversy lately, for different reasons. The tension in Japan is explored here by architectural historian Matthew Mullane, in a report on the aesthetics, politics, and evolution of Tokyo’s Olympic architecture. What is at stake in such projects, it would seem, is a city’s, and often a nation’s, future vision of itself: massive building projects and discrete public art commissions will linger after the event, but what will they say? What will they be when they grow up?

The Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium seems to have bypassed these growing pains. The multi-use facility came out confident and glowing, its high-tech, high-performance architecture populated with what must be the most ambitious, and ambitiously installed, art collection in the world of sports. Sport is an industry that, similar to the business of fashion, is propelled by aspiration—the aspiration of its leaders, its players, and its consumers. Goals, be they social or financial, personal or political, make people anxious, because it is in their uncertain nature that they might go unmet. Goals also make heroes. In the case of NBA player Jeremy Lin, it was technically points, not “goals,” that propelled him to stardom on the basketball court, and artist Andrew Kuo narrates the cultural impact of that ascent. The impact of Muhammad Ali’s goal—to be, famously, the Greatest of All Time—is still playing out in the United States. After Hurricane Katrina, self-taught artist Bruce Davenport Jr. (aka Dapper Bruce LaFitte) took cues from Ali’s tenacity and energy and started making drawings. Then, he started to “make it.”

It was only when I moved back to the States a couple years ago that friends got me watching team sports other than soccer. I’m still learning, but I know why I like them: strip away the commercialism, politics, and anxiety, and you’re left with people in movement together, which is beautiful.

Victoria Camblin