It has been suggested that by the time Wembley Stadium had been rebuilt its design was obsolete, aesthetically at least. The conceit is that it was the last of a generation of stadia constructed in the mid-1990s through to the early 2000s that might be said to include grounds such as the Amsterdam Arena (opened in 1996), Stade de France (1998), Cardiff's Millennium Stadium (1999), Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz (2003), and many of the British grounds rebuilt over the same period; for example, the Stadium of Light in Sunderland (1997), Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium (1995), and the redevelopments of Old Trafford and St. James' Park. The supplanting of the original Wembley Stadium (and whether or not its iconic twin towers could be incorporated into any new design) was conceived in the late 1990s, scheduled to begin in the year 2000 – ground was eventually broken in September 2002 – and completed in 2007, by which time it was one of the most expensive projects of its kind.
The economics, politics and general shambles of the whole affair aside, the new Wembley Stadium, with its new iconic arch, appeared to go down rather well. I suspect that those who applauded it didn't bother too much appraising its exterior but were pleased with the scale and uniformity of its interior, which wouldn't look out of place hosting American Football (which it does from time to time). In comparison to its predecessor, the thing is luxuriant.
And what of its exterior? It is inoffensive enough, and from the air the roof imparts a certain fragmentary appeal. The arch, which can be illuminated, seems less of a gimmick now than when it was first proposed as some sort of conciliatory exchange for those famous twin towers. Overlooking the decision to install bright red seats, it is a decent enough stadium, albeit, in an architectural sense, a very predictable one. It presents as a rotunda of glass, steel and plastic, just like any other inner-city edifice.
It was perhaps Munich’s Allianz Arena that underlined the fact that stadium presentation had moved beyond more familiar modes of urban planning. From within, the Allianz Arena doesn’t appear to break any moulds, although the seats are a pleasing shade of grey, which in itself is refreshing. From outside the stadium’s ambition is immediately apparent. Shrouded completely in Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene – a fluorine-based plastic – when illuminated the effect has been compared to that of a paper lantern, or lampshade. You get the feeling the whole structure could at any moment float upward like some benign zeppelin. Moreover, the roof can be scrolled backward in segments to let in light and aerate the interior as required. Wembley’s roof can move about a bit too, but more laterally and with a greater sense of burden.
Wembley’s lack of imagination is not confined to its sense of inertia or its garish seating. The matter is not one merely of materials, or that it could so easily be mistaken for something else; the removal of the twin towers, and the arch in its place, is forgiven. What disappoints is that the design for Wembley Stadium was so obviously derivative from the start. It looked around at what other cities were building and elected to do blandly the same, just on a slightly larger scale.
The Emirates, home to Arsenal FC, doesn’t suffer from the same deficiencies. By embracing its financial limitations, and making a virtue of them, an idea relating to its specific purpose is embraced. Ostensibly, this ground is as conservative as Wembley: oval, the seats are red again, oscillating top tier, plenty of glass and steel. But these constituents have been arranged differently, with more thought. The almost perfectly elliptical perimeter of the building is broken up into alternating sections of glass, then concrete, glass, then concrete. The fashion for cladding has been resisted, nothing is hidden, utility defines it. There are pleasing touches, such as vertical slits cut out in the concrete sections that reveal the stairwells behind them; the glass fronted portions of the building are canted and protrude slightly, overlapping over the joins with the concrete; the underside of the roof is smooth, reflective, and supported by steel trusses painted in white. Overall, the structure is not as cumbersome, more airy, and doesn't impose so evidently upon the surrounding (and less industrial) environment. It conveys that what goes on here is something out in the open. I stare at Wembley Stadium and imagine a thousand office workers sat behind their desks.
And then some clown comes up with this thing called the ‘Arsenalisation Project’, and shabby murals now cover the formerly exposed concrete of the stadium’s façade.