Glittering vision sets jewel in sporting crown

Jonathan Glancey looks at the plans for a showpiece Wembley stadium
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When In-ger-land next play Germany at Wem-ber-lee (as Britain's famous national stadium is known locally), the game may well take place in the world's most advanced stadium. But, what will the crowd make of a super-sophisticated new building designed by Sir Norman Foster, where action replays can be had from the back of the comfortable seat in front, where a retractable, translucent roof keeps off the rain and where the urinals refuse to overflow in the time-honoured tradition?

Tradition is one of the key factors that will make of break Foster and Partners' radical redesign for Wembley Stadium. After all, Wembley has been at the heart of British sport and mass entertainment since it opened for the FA Cup Final in 1923.

In fact the 120,000-capacity stadium (later reduced to 100,000) was built as the showpiece of the British Empire Exhibition of 1924-25. As host to the Olympic Games in 1948 and the World Cup of 1966 when England beat Germany, this twentieth century Colosseum became a symbol of all that was best in British and world sport.

Yet, although we are fond of the idea of Wembley, the actual stadium building is remarkably dull. All anyone remembers, aside from general shabbiness are the twin, dalek-like towers, that brood over surrounding metroland.

Foster's plans to demolish the existing building, turn the site through 90 degrees so that the stadium will line up on a north-south rather than the existing east-west axis, and to resite the concrete daleks to form a heroic new gateway to the new stadium, are unquestionably dramatic. They are bound to be controversial and doubtless conservation bodies will argue in favour of the preservation of the old stadium, a living part of our imperial heritage.

The great strength of the Foster proposal, however, is that it ties the new stadium into what promises to be a glamorous and fully-fledged urban landscape. Empire Way - the pedestrian link that leads to the stadium from Wembley Park station - will become a handsome avenue, lined with trees, shops and cafes. It will open out into a vast pedestrian square which will allow the 80,000-capacity crowds to disperse in an enjoyable and relaxed fashion. At present, those going to Wembley are treated little better than cattle.

Five levels of underground parking and a revamped Wembley Stadium station (with direct connections to Heathrow, central London, Paris and Brussels) are part and parcel of an all-embracing plan for the 283-acre site that promises to transform the old sports centre into the most ambitious and certainly the best connected of its sort anywhere in the world.

"The plan works on many levels", says Sir Norman. "Most importantly, it brings the stadium into the civic realm. In doing so, it will also break down the male dominance of sport at Wembley. Of course, some people aren't going to like that, but experience elsewhere in the world, in Italy, for example and in the US in particular, show that a civilised stadium is an immensely popular stadium. And highly successful financially."

The new stadium will have walls formed in part of giant video screens, so that events on the pitch inside can be broadcast to an even bigger audience.

"Of course, it's going to be a bit of a shock, at first", says Sir Norman, "but new stadia often are - think of the Colosseum in ancient Rome or the new stadium at Bari by Renzo Piano. But, if we're going to get this stadium built, we have to start detail design almost immediately. We need a clear two years for construction, so design time is of the essence."

Next time round, German fans will arrive at Wembley Stadium station by Eurostar train and enjoy what promises, conservationists and Lottery funds willing, one of the finest civic sports stadiums in the world. Sir Norman and his team have offered us a glittering vision of a sporting British future.

Sadly, though, if it gets the go-ahead, even he cannot guarantee a crowd of the future a victory for Ing-ger-land at Wem-ber-lee.