TAKING the train out of King's Cross, a new landmark emerges on your left as you whizz through the suburbs of north London. Rising clear of the rooftops a quarter of a mile away is a cream-coloured facade, with the words '1993 North Bank Stand' picked out in red. The stand is part of Highbury, home of Arsenal Football Club, current holders of both the FA and League Cups.
The first match to be played in front of spectators seated in the new stand is on Saturday. Unusually, many people - even those with no interest in football - have taken an interest in the design of Arsenal's pounds 20m stand, thanks to the vociferous protests of local residents about the height and bulk of the initial scheme. A traditional city ground, Highbury is surrounded by small- scale Victorian and Edwardian housing.
The all-seater North Bank Stand replaces a large standing terrace, of the kind that Premiership and First Division football clubs have had to demolish or rebuild since the publication of the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. But it is more than a functional response to new legislation. It is a well designed structure offering obstruction-free views of the pitch. It also makes intelligent visual reference to Highbury's existing East and West stands, two of the finest examples of grandstand architecture of their period in Britain. The East Stand is the more impressive, an imposing Art Deco structure that calls to mind the great suburban cinemas of the Thirties.
Most British stadiums are less sophisticated. Typically, they are a disparate collection of stands and outbuildings of different periods, materials and styles. Where a stand of some architectural merit exists, it is unlikely to be part of an integral design. At Highbury, not only do the East and West Stands match, but the materials of the surrounding terraced houses are echoed in the yellow London brickwork of the main facade.
At Old Trafford, home of Manchester United, construction of a fully integrated stadium began in 1963. Thirty years later, with the first of the Taylor Report's all- seater deadlines imminent (Premiership and First Division clubs must comply by the start of the 1994-95 season), construction has finally finished, making Old Trafford the first fully phased football ground development since Wembley Stadium.
The redevelopment of the famous Stretford End brings to an end a process that began with the construction of one of the most advanced cantilever roofs of its day, now a continuous feature around the stadium. The new section includes a translucent covering over nearly half the entire roof area. In recent seasons the Manchester United pitch has been notorious for its sparse growth of grass, caused, it is suspected, by a lack of light and air filtering through to the pitch.
The entire development has been designed by the same firm of architects, known today as the Atherden Fuller Partnership. Bob Fuller, a partner with the firm, describes the development as a 'complete bowl', as opposed to a series of separate stands. This 'Continental model' is unusual in Britain; Wembley is the only other stadium of this type in the country.
In complete contrast, Millwall's all-new stadium in south-east London was built in just 15 months, start to finish. The 'New Den', as it is now called, has been built on a tight site, surrounded by light industrial units, in the 'V' where two railway lines separate.
The old 'Den', the club's former home a quarter of a mile away, was a particularly desolate and threatening place, bereft of amenities. So, inevitably, much attention has been focused on the New Den's extensive facilities, its 58 refreshment kiosks, its 80 television monitors around the concourse, the spectacularly good, unobstructed views of the pitch and, most of all, its alleged 350 toilets.
For the relatively small sum of pounds 15m (not much more than Gianluigi Lentini, the world's most expensive player cost Milan in a transfer from Torino last year), Millwall has been able to buy a completely modern stadium, with a capacity of 20,000. Designed by the Miller Partnership, the stadium conforms with all the safety regulations and will, the club hopes, be attractive as a venue for promoters to stage events other than football.
What the club has not been able to buy is style. Architecturally, there is nothing new about the New Den. The stands are conventional two-deck cantilevers in concrete block and shaped metal. A fan deposited without warning in one of the concourses would find nothing unfamiliar in his or her surroundings. There are the standard, utilitarian concrete block walls, the concrete floors, the harsh lighting. And the main entrance is an undistinguished set of glass doors, with a desk behind and, beyond that, a narrow stair leading up to the offices - a long way from the 'marble halls' of Highbury.
The fact is that Arsenal is in a different league, and not just on the pitch. Ever since the days of the Twenties and Thirties under the pioneering manager Herbert Chapman, the club has had a reputation for innovation. This reputation is continued in the new North Bank Stand.
It begins in the interior, circulation areas where the Lobb Partnership has attempted to move away from conventional football ground design. The main, ground floor concourse will come as a surprise to supporters used to the claustrophobic gloom of Highbury's old terraces. The concourse is bright, multi-surfaced and colour co-ordinated, with uplighters and a wavy, perforated ceiling. Halfway along it is an oval opening in the ceiling through which those on the galleried floor above can look down on the crowds below.
The concourse boasts video arcades, bars, confectionary counters, souvenir shops and fast-food outlets. It has a betting shop and television monitors so that roaming fans can keep an eye on the game.
The place is most like an airport concourse or shopping mall, an effect which, according to Rod Sheard, the architect in charge of its design, is deliberate. 'The idea is that people shouldn't feel as if they're in the bowels of some bloody great grandstand,' he says. 'The problem with most stadium design is the structure is so overpowering. Here we're trying to avoid the tunnel effect.'
But why should it matter that the place looks like a stadium, if that is what it is? The answer is that Arsenal, through Sheard and Paul Henry, the architect in charge of the interiors, are attempting to influence the way supporters relate to football. They want people to have a drink, to browse through the shop, to place a bet. If they have children, they want them to spend half an hour in the video arcade. During the week, they want them to visit the Arsenal museum on the first floor. 'The deep-seated reason,' says Sheard, 'is to get people here as early as possible and get them to stay on after. We want to offer services that are at least the equivalent of, if not better than, the local pubs and other amenities.'
In other words, they want to persuade supporters, notorious for their conservatism, to change the habits of a lifetime. They hope to see football become family entertainment. This is architecture as social engineering - and the idea, of course, is to remove the threat from attending football and give spectators the chance to spend more money.
This revolution in attitudes extends to the stand's structure. 'We've tried to break the mould of what stands are meant to look like,' says Sheard. Uniquely, for a British football ground, there is something light, almost frail-looking, about the immense, propped cantilever upper tier and roof of the North Bank Stand. At the same time, the ground's Thirties heritage is acknowledged in the full-height, curved-glass stair towers at either end of the stand.
So how will spectators react to the unfamiliar image of themselves that this stand promotes? 'Most buildings look bulky and robust unless you take care to make them otherwise,' says Sheard. 'We like people to come along and say, 'What makes that stand up?' ' When the new season starts on Saturday, everyone at Arsenal will be hoping the fans don't take it into their heads to put that question to the test.
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