Field of dreams

Huddersfield may have a First Division football club but its stadium, yesterday voted Building of the Year, reveals its Premiership aspirations. By Jim White
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There is a mural in the lobby at the Sir Alfred McAlpine Stadium which depicts a young boy asking a man where he is:

"Is this California, Mister?" he says.

"No," the man is replying, "this is Huddersfield."

That is the effect the building has on visitors. The great sweeping roof- lines, known as the "banana tresses" locally, the glistening white toppings, the way it so totally dominates the skyline: it's not what you expect of a sports stadium. It is certainly not what you expect of a sports stadium in Huddersfield. The first assumption is that it belongs somewhere else. Which was the whole point of the design.

"What we wanted to do with this building," says Paul Fletcher, the stadium's chief executive, "was to make a radical design statement. We wanted something that shouted: 'This town has woken up and is going places.' " And where the town has most recently gone is into the record books: the Sir Alfred McAlpine stadium, it was announced yesterday, is the Royal Institute of British Architects' building of the year for 1995. Few would begrudge it.

Thanks to the Taylor Report, there has been unprecedented activity in the building of sports grounds over the past five years. Many football clubs decided that their old place was so past it they would up sticks altogether and start again. Millwall, Chester, Walsall and Middlesbrough all did so. Most of the new stands and grounds, though, were little more than functional: aesthetics was well down the list of priorities.

According to Simon Inglis, author of The Football Grounds of Britain (the new edition of which is published in March), "Club chairmen are interested in how many seats they can get for their money. Advances in technology mean the grounds are much better to sit in and use, they look after the spectators' needs, but they have no purpose beyond that. Huddersfield's did have, and they were prepared to trust the architect to deliver it for them."

According to Inglis the design of a ground reflects the character of the client commissioning it. You can see his point: Middlesbrough's Cellnet Riverside stadium is a metaphor for the ambition of the club; at Manchester United, the vast new north stand is a monument to pile-'em-high money- making; Arsenal's grand and dignified north stand fits entirely into the traditions of a club which prides itself on doing things properly.

Huddersfield's stadium is designed to be a civic statement. And it can only be so, because it was the result of a partnership involving the town's rugby club, football club and council.

"In 1990 the football club was going out of business, the stadium was falling apart," says Paul Fletcher. "So was the rugby club. We got together and realised we both needed new homes and to pay for them we either needed a partner or a Jack Walker. We found it in the local authority." In exchange for opening up the stadium for community events, the authority offered to help top up finances raised by selling the land on which the two clubs' old grounds stood (a DIY superstore now fills the space where Huddersfield Town's Leeds Road once crumbled). An architectural competition was organised, won by the Lobb Partnership, who, by no coincidence at all, are responsible for Highbury's magnificent new stand.

"It would have been easier for us to build a functional 10,000 seater," says Fletcher. "But we wanted to have a civic centre which would act as a focus for the town. Whatever the fortunes of Huddersfield Town, this stadium will be viable." Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium cost a bargain pounds 12m for 30,000 seats. Huddersfield preferred to spend as it went along. The initial pounds 16m bought it only three sides of what is to become a 25,000 seater.

"We will be announcing this week plans for a 10-screen cinema on the site," says Fletcher. "Profits from this will help us in funding the fourth stand, which will include a public swimming pool, dance studio and offices for the local council leisure department. As well, of course, as providing us with the final 5,000 seats. We hope this will be completed by 1996." So the money may not have bought Huddersfield a complete stadium, but it did buy them a magnificent one, and made a statement into the bargain.

"It's the roof that does it," says Andy Mitten, a football enthusiast who made a pilgrimage to the ground the day it hosted its first game. "You get a great view from every seat and all the facilities you expect, but in truth once you're inside, most of the stands are very breeze block. The roof, though, stands out against the backdrop of the moors and makes it look incredible. Wherever you go in the town you just can't take your eyes off it." As persuasive a reason for winning the top building award as any. And proof that what a town really needs to get itself on the map is a great football stadium, not a great football team. Which is just as well in Huddersfield's case.