Some may call me a killjoy, well probably most people would, yet I have absolutely no hesistation about being perturbed about Norman Foster’s design for the new Wembley stadium. As this excellent audio slideshow from the BBC shows us, Foster began with a perfectly wonderful functionalist device – a series of masts to hold up the roof from above in order to avoid visual obstructions from pillars below – and then made the limp intellectual leap from practical masterstroke to egotistical icon-making by joining up the struts of the masts to form an arch. This is an arch which has already been commandeered as Wembley’s new identity but which forms no genuinely practical use, as far as I can see. The iconic features of the original 1930s stadium were of course the twin concrete towers at the main entrance, evoking the Byzantine and pseudo-classical influences that so informed the work of Britain’s master of colonial architecture, Edwin Lutyens. I’m the first to admit that these towers served no practical use, either; aside from their internal stair their external form and decoration were surely conceived principally as a visual signifier for the whole stadium development.
Nevertheless, the unnecessary demolition of the towers in 2003 represented the self-conscious putting-away of a well-established icon in favour of a new idea. With this idea in the hands of Norman Foster, a committed modernist with an impeccable record of beautiful buildings forged from high-tech solutions, one might have expected something less overt in the finished product. The subtext for Foster’s design must have been an overwhelming desire to replace the visual familiarity of the old stadium with a new iconography. So, we are given an instant icon, we are even told it is an icon. The new arch may well be an innovative structure, but it’s philosophically lazy and raises questions about the selfish and wasteful desire to destroy in its totality the heritage of the old stadium. This is a building in thrall to the concept of the makeover and is squarely part of that culture of newness at all costs which globalised capitalism has fashioned in its own image. I only hope that football fans attending the first match at the new stadium grant at least some thought for the memory of the towers now lost forever as they gawp at the wonder of their new icon.