Sunday, February 26, 2006

"They've made it at Wembley, they've climbed to the heights..."

How to keep the brain ticking over energetically enough to keep from falling asleep, while shuffling along the numbing North Circular:

* Keep count of the bizarrely-high volume of discarded clothing strewn across the carriageways.
* Wonder whether the full cosmos of leather-related warehouse names has been exhausted on the Companies House register (Leather Land, World Of Leather, Planet Of Leather, Universe Of Leather – what next, Leather Stratosphere? To (Leather) Infinity And Beyond?, Leather Heaven?)
* Ponder just how rueful those whose homes face onto the road must feel about their surroundings – and how long it takes them to squeeze their cars into the traffic each rush-hour morning.

Thankfully, nowadays there is a gleaming new light on the horizon – both figuratively and physically-speaking: the Wembley Arch, 1,929 tons of illuminated steel and 133metres tall, high enough to roll the London Eye underneath (what an intriguing sight that would be…) Until the arch was agonisingly-slowly tilted into 112-degree place, the most engaging view from this Park Royal warehouse-dominated stretch of the A406 was the jarringly joyous Neasden Mosque, appearing for all the world like a bauble-topped, gilt-edged spaceship for another planet entirely.
But now we have the arch bestriding North London, visible from as far afield as the Epsom Downs down in Surrey and such a spectacular, and yet spectacularly simply, symbol as to make you wonder what was all the fuss about those cheaply-hammered, hollow old Twin Towers.
Okay, so the much-heralded new Wembley will not, after all, be ready for this season’s FA Cup Final. And a good thing, too, after the Tottenham fans chorusing ‘Spurs are on their way to Wembley…’ as we took a Third Round 2-0 lead at Leicester proved premature twice over…
Yet for all the mockery, “I told you so…’ crowing and shrugged-shoulder ‘Innit typical…’ bleating in so much of the media after this week’s inevitable announcement, perhaps a little more perspective is needed.
Of course, Wembley architect Sir Norman Foster would be bound to stick up for his scheme, as he does in today’s Observer.
But he’s right:

"I believe that in a matter of months, when Wembley re-opens, the doubters and the cynics will be proved wrong. It will speak for itself and show that those who stuck the knife in were wrong. We have been witnessing the rebirth of an extraordinary venue, a place which will be a symbol of excellence in football, of London, of regeneration, and of British design and creativity. It should be a source of national pride, not criticism.
While everyone working on Wembley is disappointed that its opening has been delayed, there is a bigger picture here. The stadium is going to be around for 70-100 years so it's more important now to get it right for its lifetime than open it for the 2006 FA Cup final."

Just one glance at this dramatic addition to our London skyline can be enough to inspire.
Up close, the spectacle becomes even more momentous – and this on just a workaday wander around Brent, without the chanting, cheering, banner-billowing, siren-tooting, face-painted hordes bearing down Bobby Moore Way in friendly tribal rivalry, a simmering atmosphere of excited glory-dreaming…
Of course, it should have been finished sooner, and less expensively. Thank you Ken Bates, for your exaggerated visions of needless hotel complexes, too-belatedly abandoned after helping the cost soar to three times that of the Stade de France in Paris. Thank you ditherers at the FA, Sport England the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, for the to-ing and fro-ing over the inclusion of an athletics track, inimical to atmosphere at the football games which would earn Wembley’s keep, and ultimately excised in favour of location at the new home of the London 2012 Olympics at Stratford.
And thank you, Multiplex, the Australian contractors who made a killing from the Sydney Olympics, plunged themselves into the red hurling money at their London loss-leader and still managed to embarrassingly fall behind such a high-profile deadline.
Incidentally, while much of the carping this week has complained about the British taxpayer footing an ever-increasing bill, every delayed day will in fact only cost Multiplex and its shareholders, since they were obliged to foot all cost over-runs once construction began. If only the Aussies hadn’t taken back Troy Cooley as bowling coach ahead of next winter’s Ashes, but that’s another story…
Yet Wembley will be worth it, many many times over. I was fortunate enough to take a tour of the site last April, and was able to marvel at the sheer scale, scope and beauty of the prospect, even as bulldozers, cranes and weird jagged shards of metal vied for viewing space with the smart, sharp lines and cavernous curves… the vast open terraces stretching up to the skyline… the first few banks of bright-crimson seats settling in, each one offering more legroom than the old Royal Box and promising an end to the steep old Wembley’s ‘Jack-In-A-Box’ dynamics, when one person craning their neck in a row in front would force everyone up and down, up and down too…
This is what I wrote last April, necessarily tweaking my piece to the photos we had and the new (sadly celebrity-skewed) angle requested – but in the first flush of breathless excitement at the sight, and naively parrot-ing the deadline-busting bluster, I still hope and trust most of the predictions will prove happily true…

THIS is the Wembley Stadium VIP suite which has cost David Beckham £2million.
Well, okay, so it still needs a lick of paint or two.
In fact, work has only just begun on what will be the new Wembley's best seats in the house.
But Metro was given a sneak viewing - before even Beckham or Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who has paid £4million for two of the same.
Spurs and England goalkeeper Paul Robinson is the only player to don hard hat and explore the half-built stadium so far.
The 160 executive boxes will ultimately boast giant TV screens, air conditioning, drinks cabinets and fridges - with willing waiters and waitresses on hand to top up drinks.
Each suite costs between £60,000 and £210,000 a year and can hold between eight and 20 people.
Most sold out within days of going on sale two years ago - but Beckham was recently allowed to sign up a spare for a ten-year stay.
The fact the boxes are now being built suggests Project Wembley is entering its final phase.
As long as there are bulldozers on the pitch, it remains far from over - but with a record 2,000 workers now on-site, they are getting there.
Wembley's owners insist they are on track to finish the stadium by late next January.
The 133-metre-high arch has been adorning London's skyline for the past six months.
Now contractors have begun constructing the movable roof which will be supported by the arch.
The first 4,000 seats have also been fitted, offering as much legroom as the Royal Box - only another 86,000 to go, at a rate of 3,600 per week.
The turf is being grown at a secret location in the north of England and will only be laid as the final icing on the cake.
But architect Huw Thomas, who has been working on Wembley for ten years, said: 'Now we're getting walls and corridors put up, it's really starting to feel more like a stadium.'
Next season's FA Cup Final will be the new stadium's official opening.
But the owners must hold a series of smaller warm-ups first - including an unusual open day for 2,000 North Londoners living nearby.
They will be invited to spend the day testing the seats, tasting the catering and flushing the toilets.
And the new Wembley's 2,500 toilets will set a world record for a stadium - a very English boast for the newly-restored home of English football.
But the entire edifice relies on input from across the globe - including German and French construction teams.
'Even in the most far-flung island, you could well find someone who's photocopied a plan for us,' said Mr Thomas.
Scottish and Welsh flags flutter from the gantries alongside English and Union flags.
And a piece of Irish history is embedded in the foundations.
U2's sound engineer Jim Griffiths visited to advise on acoustics - and sneakily buried one of The Edge's plectrums and Bono's pair of sunglasses.
Slanted surfaces will keep the crowd's noise spreading through the stadium, rather than bouncing out into the atmosphere - making the 'Wembley Roar' louder than ever before.

At last summer’s Confederations Cup in Germany, intended as pre-World Cup showcase for that country’s impressive new stadiums, Greece’s German coach Otto Rehhagel misread the script somewhat when asked for his opinion on the new venues. Rather than gushing glib PR-speak about them all, he shrugged and muttered a complaint about new stadiums which all seem to have “come off the same architect’s computer programme�. Similar could be said about the impressive yet somehow antiseptic likes of Reading’s Madejski, Sunderland’s Stadium Of Light, Stoke’s Britannia, Southampton’s St Mary’s, and their English clones.
Yet Wembley should – must - will have that special… I dunno... Wembley-ness.

As Sir Norman says, after an inevitable attempt to crowbar in namechecks for his other London commissions:

"In an age where too many football grounds have become anonymous, it's great that you won't confuse being at Wembley with being anywhere else."

Bring it on – whenever ‘it’ may be…

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