Foster makes his last stand and refuses to take Wembley plan back to drawing board

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NORMAN FOSTER has refused to bow to pressure to redesign Wembley Stadium after Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said it would not serve as a venue for a British Olympic bid.

Lord Foster has handed the plans back to the minister without addressing any of the alleged flaws identified in a controversial report commissioned by the Government.

Yesterday Lord Foster responded angrily to criticism that his designs for the new pounds 475m stadium would not provide enough seats for a major athletic event.

The Dome, he said, could be used for an Olympic opening ceremony if the organisers of what would be a once-in-a-generation event were adamant that 80,000 spectators had to be accommodated.

"Look at athletics events on TV and there are all those empty spaces," Lord Foster said.

"If the British Olympics Committee need 80,000 spectators for the opening ceremony of the Olympic games why don't they stage it in the Dome? Or Hyde Park?" The games could then transfer to the new multipurpose stadium, provided as much as pounds 13.5bn was spent on an Olympic village and on warm- up athletic tracks outside the stadium.

"It's a world-class stadium, and a great cause for national celebration. This storm in a teacup is damaging in terms of the national interest. Wembley Stadium will be the envy of so many nations." The words conceal his disappointment at the report drawn up by the US-based Ellerbe Becket, which said the redesign was unsuitable for international athletics.

Lord Foster was appalled at the theatrical way in which Mr Smith responded to the report, which, he says, was full of "totally spurious and unfounded criticism" and compiled without any approach being made to Foster and Partners.

"You have to think very carefully before you go out internationally rubbishing a project, especially when it is this close to being delivered."

Lord Foster insisted that the architectural reputation of his firm and partners, HOK Lobb, had been compromised. He made clear he may consider legal action to defend his firm against the report's criticism. In a signal that the architects may sue, he said: "The architectural reputation of both HOK Lobb and Foster Partners has been put on the line. This report could affect our credibility around the world."

He added that every design requirement had been met and the capacity had been exceeded, with spectator seats for football up to 90,000 and 68,000 for athletics.

Rather than be blamed for scuppering Britain's attempt to host the Olympics in 2012, Lord Foster has made a gesture to Mr Smith by sending him a computerised image to prove that it is possible to squeeze another 12,000 seats in the lower tier around the track, taking it up to 80,000.

But the architect does not regard this as the solution, especially after Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the International Olympic Committee, said that Olympic bidders do not need stadiums with 80,000 spectators for athletics.

Most of the report's criticism was levelled at the way in which Wembley Stadium converts to athletics events.

A vast concrete platform would be erected over the football pitch for the athletics track on the top of it. "You could run a Centurion tank over it," said Lord Foster.

An alternative mooted has been the Stade de France in Paris, where retractable seating can be moved to reveal a permanent athletics track.

This earns Lord Foster's scorn. "That stadium, held up as something to aspire to, is derisory. I have studied the Stade to damned death and it's sight line on the upper tiers are poor. Think of Wembley as a theatre. ... the best seats to the stage, whether athletics or football, want to be close to the action. No spectator has been compromised in our design."

Privately, Lord Foster believes the Ellerbe Becket report will be discredited. In the meantime he rejects all their criticism.

The partial roof coverage over the track which they claim is unfair to athletes is rejected. So is the east-west orientation of the track, which was criticised for blinding athletes. Their criticism of the lack of provision for access for marathons is wrong, since the design has ramp access to the tracks at the north-east corner.

"There is no doubt that you are challenged as a designer in the quest for something that is absolutely brilliant for both athletics and football. It's been an almighty challenge and that is why it is so maddening that we have achieved all of that and that it has been rubbished. The French must love that".

All the more ironic is the fact that the athletic Norman Foster runs eight miles four or five days a week, while he does not support a football club. He is already in training for the Swiss marathon, and spoiling for a good fight.