Prepare to mourn for Wembley's twin towers

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The Independent Online
IT'S NOT looking good for the twin towers. As Sir Norman Foster and Partners put the finishing touches to their design for a new National Stadium on the Wembley site, the signs are that English football's most famous symbols will suffer terminal relegation when the plans are announced in July.

Three years ago Foster's initial plans for Wembley's redevelopment appeared to have accommodated the past within the future - "The scheme makes a special feature of Wembley's famous twin towers, which will form an impressive new gateway into the stadium environment through which most spectators will pass as they walk up Olympic Way."

Now, however, Sir Owen Williams' art nouveau creations of 1922 cower together like maiden aunts in a condemned house.

The problem - clearly not fully addressed in the 1996 outline design proposals - is that the twin towers, like the stadium itself, are an artful deception. The impression one gains at Wembley of heavy masonry is an illusion created by the use of v-shaped pieces of wood as retaining batons when the original ferro-concrete was poured in.

Thus the whole of Wembley is a single structure, and the towers, which merely house stairwells, are a particularly fragile part of the whole edifice - without a back, 20 feet off the ground at their base, and, in places, only an inch thick. Think of meringues. Now think of broken meringues. That, most likely, is what the towers would look like if they were moved.

Not everybody believes this analysis. An engineering firm which has previously managed to move lighthouses, if not mountains, has approached the body now responsible for building and running the new stadium - Wembley National Stadium Limited - and offered its services. Wembley National Stadium Limited, chaired by Chelsea's Ken Bates and owned by the Football Association, has responded by pointing out the difference between shifting a solid, free-standing structure and shifting meringues. But, hey, if they want to propose something, they are free to do so...

The bottom line is that the towers, which would be dwarfed by the proposed hi-tech 90,000-seater stadium, would cost around pounds 20m to keep in one form or other. And Wembley National Stadium Limited's view is that such money would be better spent on spectator facilities. Foster's new brief did not include accommodating the towers - he was merely charged with "exploring the issue".

The final decision will rest with Brent Council and English Heritage, who have listed the stadium upon which work began 77 years ago. In this case, however, listing means "You Can Knock It Down But You'd Better Put Something Good In Its Place."

So that appears to be that for the twin towers - "just a couple of add- ons," as the Minister for Sport described them recently with customary circumspection.

I wonder, though, if sentiment will be so easily assuaged among the rank and file of England's football supporters? Can you put a price on history, even if it is pounds 20m?

John Betjeman, for one, would not have approved.

In his classic 1973 television programme, Metro-land, Betjeman addressed the camera from the Wembley pitch and ruminated on "London's failed Eiffel Tower," which had stood, half-built and under-financed, on the same spot before being pulled down in 1907. He recalled, too, the excitements and exotica of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, to which he was taken by his father. "Oh bygone Wembley," he lamented. "Where's the pleasure now? The temples stare, the empire passes by. This was the grandest Palace of them all."

Were he still with us he would lament once more at the imminent disappearance of structures that have established their place in the English collective consciousness. As you near the stadium through a wasteland of warehouses, glimpsing the towers is like a first sight of the sea on holiday.

One preservation campaign has already been proposed. Hugh Dykes, a Liberal Democrat European candidate for London, is intent on setting up a hotline for fans to air their views on the twin towers, and said he would be applying to the European Commission for a grant towards their retention.

Can it be long before one of the tabloids initiates a Save Our Towers campaign? There is still time, as no demolition will take place until next year's Charity Shield.

One thing, however, is certain. The towers will not remain where they are. Because if they did, according to a Wembley National Stadium Limited spokesman, they would be slap-bang in the middle of the newly sited pitch. "Short of painting them red and writing Adams and Keown on their backs there is no way we could hide them," he said.

If all else fails, it might be worth a shot...