When Richard Breslin caught his first glimpse of Eden Park he was horrified. It was from the centre of the hallowed pitch, giving him a 360 degree view of his surrounds.
"I'd built this mental image of a mythical, almost spiritual, place," he said. "As an Australian, Eden Park, as it is for many other sports nuts, is the home of the All Blacks. It's genuinely internationally famous - up there with the best.
"So I was flabbergasted when I first saw it. It looked like a pizza with all the stands representing a topping: a slice of pepperoni here and meat lover's there."
Breslin, as a principal of HOK Sport Architecture, had on the morning of his visit to Eden Park been a guest of the Ministry of Economic Development. They'd been handed the task of assessing the merits of an Eden Park upgrade versus the feasibility of an Auckland waterfront national stadium. Breslin's views, among others, were sought.
It was, in his opinion, a fine old mess.
His previous gig was working on Wembley Stadium in London.
"I spent eight years on that job and it started much the same way," he said. "I walked in and was absolutely heart- broken.
"I'd built this image in my head after watching so many FA Cup finals in the middle of the night as a child growing up in Australia that bore no resemblance to the physical reality."
Wembley was torn down and rebuilt during a prolonged and troubled project, infamously including a massive budget blowout.
If ever a project was going to fail it was Wembley. But after all the angst, it is, with its signature arch, now one of the marquee sporting stadiums in the world.
Fixing Eden Park's litany of woes should be comparatively simple. But it may turn out to be Breslin's toughest gig yet.
The venue has to be transformed into a 60,000-seater stadium that's pleasing on the eye, accessible, neighbour friendly; all for the bargain basement price of $240 million, which is, by international standards, chicken feed. And it all has to be completed by late 2010.
It sounds like a bad April Fool's Day joke but Kiwis are not laughing.
Just as well then that Breslin has a sense of humour.
"Considering I have a five-month-old baby boy, I sleep pretty well at night," he says.
"This project might sound like a tall order, but believe me we have actually been involved in far worse."
HOK has a bit of a reputation for negotiating its way out of the tightest of spots; Arsenal's new home ground in North London, Emirates Stadium, being a case in point.
"The site was wedged in between two train lines - one a major link to the north of England. There was a major arterial road cutting across the bottom of the park and a waste transfer centre at the other end. There were dozens of businesses to accommodate and severe height restrictions. But we got it done in very difficult circumstances and people love it.
"Eden Park has its challenges and I understand why people are concerned. Even I have been a little surprised at how emotional everyone has been. I have worked on these stadiums including in places like Portugal where we had fans at Benfica's new stadium lining up outside to watch every truck of concrete go into the ground.
"Rest assured we know how important this project is. It will be done on time and it will look great."
But worry we will even though the facts, which have been clouded by an outpouring of emotion, indicate Breslin is on the money.
Most of the resource consent concerns have now been alleviated.
An earlier incarnation of the design was signed off by the Environment Court in April.
If the new design stays within these agreed parameters that's one very big tick taken care of. Then there's the money.
The government has already stumped up $190m, Eden Park Trust Board $12m, the New Zealand Rugby Union $10m and Auckland Regional Council $10m each. That leaves a balance of about $18m.
Auckland City Council is yet to come to the party and several funding options including charitable trust donations and private sector support will make up the rest.
The wrecking ball has been hired and arrives in August. Breslin is confident that when the finished product is unveiled in 2010 his peers in the world of architecture will be impressed. And so will we.
The inspiration for the design was Auckland's volcanic cones. "The concrete innards are covered with a transparent material called ETFE which represents an sort of ephemeral mist, or cloud. The ground will have a good solid core and with a milky, cloudy, misty feeling too and it has these fern motifs as well which look fantastic.
"I guess people want to know whether they will be able to access the ground, be comfortable when they find their seat, have a good view and be able to get a beer and go to the toilet.
"The new Eden Park design will tick all those boxes and look simple yet elegant."
Another feature of the new park is its massive transport hub. Unlike the existing shambles, fans will be able to disembark at any dropoff point, enter the nearest gate and still be able to get to their seat because the interior of the ground will be interconnected by a giant walkway. Not being able to do so now is a major source of frustration for fans but the primary concern is the ground's accessibility.
No amount of fancy lighting can gloss over the venue's underlying problem - its location in the middle of a residential area.
Getting to Eden Park has been an unpleasant experience. The solution is better public transport; and then convincing people to use it, instead of expecting to park outside the front gate.
A user-friendly venue could be the catalyst for an attitude change. Overseas visitors more accustomed to taking the train or bus to venues will look to do so during the Rugby World Cup in 2011.
Tournament organisers believe many fans will walk, which, believe it or not, takes about 35-40 minutes from the city; only marginally longer than a journey by foot from Cathedral Square to AMI Stadium in Christchurch. A paved route with drinking stations on the way will be set up in much the same way as it was from metro stations to Stade de France in Paris.
The holy grail at the end of the pub crawl will be Eden Park. And Breslin hopes he'll be the toast of the tournament when fans take their seats and take in the view.
"There's no doubt a new waterfront stadium would have been great but Eden Park can be transformed into a world-class venue. Soon enough people will be pleasantly surprised, even proud of the ground," said Breslin.
Perhaps even flabbergasted.
- © Fairfax NZ News