Can this really be Huddersfield?: The football club has fallen a division or two since its triumphs of the Twenties, but its new stadium is in the highest league, says Simon Inglis

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A fter the sun-baked, celebratory joy of this summer's World Cup in the United States, this Saturday's Second Division match between Huddersfield Town and Wycombe Wanderers promises a more homely experience: fallen northern giants - triple champions in the Twenties, they will tell you - play upstart southerners. Dark Satanic Mills meet Silicon Valley. But as the away team arrives in the Colne Valley, they will be confronted by a thoroughly unfamiliar sight: looming between the last chimney stacks and sandstone terraces of west Yorkshire, a startling steel and concrete palace of sport.

Were it not for the nearby council estate and gasometer, the pounds 16m, 20,000- seat, all-new Kirklees stadium might be anywhere but England. Quite simply, we do not build exciting modern stadia in this country, and certainly not in places like Huddersfield. If we build a stadium at all, we call for heritage-style reconstituted stonework to greet us at the gates.

At Huddersfield, however, the architects Rod Sheard and Derek Wilson of the Lobb Partnership and the structural engineers YRM Anthony Hunt Associates have sold a once stuffy northern football club a dream of progress on the back of radical design. This heroic structure will alarm the the Keep Britain Olde lobby who expect new buildings to fit politely into the grain of existing towns, even though towns like Huddersfield have been host to many a savage building, from mills to gasometers, which we now say we cherish.

This stadium, however, is a celebration of sport and as brave as they have ever come in England. Where one might expect matter-of-fact straight lines, voluptuous curves make the stadium's presence immediately felt on the Huddersfield skyline and hillscape. And inside, there are seats throughout where once there would have been standing room only in unprotected terraces.

The designers have clearly enjoyed themselves. Supporting the stadium's distinctive blue roof arches are white tubular steel trusses, triangular in section but banana-shaped in elevation, like a curved Toblerone bar. Visible from vantage points all around the town, they taper down to each corner of the stadium, to rest on concrete supports. These supports are formed by four cigar-shaped legs and single mast floodlights rise from their centres like mechanical giraffes.

Because the overall effect is novel, playful even, it is easy to overlook the simplicity of the design. It is a completely new type of stadium, developed four years ago by Lobb and YRM Anthony Hunt as a theoretical model called 'A stadium for the Nineties'. Its basic plan is a rectangular playing area placed within a circle. This creates stands around the playing area shaped like orange segments, high and deep in the centre, low and shallow at the ends, bringing all spectators within 90 metres of the centre spot (regarded as the ideal maximum distance for viewing) but retaining the intimacy prized by British sports fans.

By wrapping the roofs over these irregular stands in a gentle arch, spectators are more likely to stay dry in wet weather than if a flat roof were floated above the highest central point - and this curving roof reveals the structure of the stadium to those inside and outside. This structural display is all the more telling at Kirklees because one side of the stadium is carved into the side of Kilner Bank, a steep embankment whose wooded slopes provide a verdant backdrop to the white steelwork of the new structure. Looking down at the blue roofs from Kilner Bank, it is as if one had stumbled across a hidden rocket silo straight out of Thunderbirds.

On the opposite side, along the banks of the River Colne, the stadium's main entrance maintains this capacity to shock. Glazed blockwork in sapphire blue lines the curving facade, with windows framed in yellow. In time this side will be landscaped to provide a scenic approach. For the time being, however, like the fourth undeveloped side of the stadium, this stage of the scheme must wait for commercial considerations. A small hotel, concert stage, multiplex cinema, bowling alley, health club and 'theme' pub are among the options for the fourth side, to join the golf-driving range almost completed at the far end of the 50-acre site. This is to be a seven-day-a-week stadium.

That Huddersfield Town, with its previously dowdy image, has so far been the only club to embrace the 'Stadium for the Nineties' is remarkable. So, too, is the faith of Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council, which invested pounds 2m in the scheme and now owns 40 per cent of the stadium development company. The football club owns a similar interest, having sold its original, 86-year-old ground across the road for pounds 5m. The remaining 20 per cent holding belongs to the local rugby league club.

As a tripartite arrangement alone between football, rugby and the local council, the stadium deal is pioneering. But the development team has also managed to attract an unprecedented level of sponsorship - pounds 7m so far, before a single ball has been kicked on the laser-levelled pitch.

Paul Fletcher, chief executive of the football club and the stadium development company, himself a former player, is convinced that the sheer impact of the design has helped to stimulate interest from sponsors - one of which, the construction company responsible for the stadium, Alfred McAlpine, has just signed a pounds 2m 10-year sponsorship deal with Kirklees. As part of the package the stadium is to be known as the Alfred McAlpine Stadium.

The stadium sets a new standard of design for British sports stadia. It is meant to set a precedent, too. The design is readily repeatable and there are plenty of British towns which might commission a replay.

(Photographs omitted)