Last week, Wembley stadium opened its doors to the public to win over those who would be the Arch’s stiffest opposition – local residents and fans of the old twin towers. We went along to watch the project engineers rack up some PR points
Every so often, a building comes along that captures the public imagination. For London residents, the Swiss Re tower and the London Eye are so much a part of everyday life that they are now known simply as the Gherkin and the Wheel respectively. With the most recent phase of the new Wembley stadium, a new name is set to become commonplace: the Arch.
Wembley’s arch, which soars 133m into the north-west London air, is an instant classic. But judging by a quick straw poll of folks queuing to get into the Wembley site open day last weekend, most of the general public don’t have a clue what it does. Various theories, all wrong, abounded about the structure and its purpose. It wasn’t supposed to be tilted, said one. It wasn’t bigger than the London Eye, asserted another. One man even thought the arch worked like a pram hood, opening and closing as required.
The Open Site system is the antidote to all this hot air. Last Saturday, staff from Connell Mott MacDonald, Wembley’s structural engineer, worked in relays to give lectures every hour from 9am to 4pm to explain the project’s progress. Such was the demand, that there was standing room only in the 30-seat lecture theatre.
Open Site proves that somewhere in the construction industry forward-thinking people have twigged that half the battle in a successful project lies in winning over the public. The 45-minute presentation wasn’t very flash, and there was little in the way of real access to the site, but the talk was helpful without being too technical. The fact that Jim Bell, Connell Mott MacDonald engineer, and his team not only chose to give up their weekends for no extra pay, but were happy to do so, suggested to visitors that the Wembley stadium is something to get excited about. Good PR all round.
I think the new design is fantastic. It's beautiful - like a diamond bracelet
Open Site was set up two years ago by two engineers, Paolo Silva and Roger McLaughlin, who had tired of the constant stream of uninformed press reports about their profession. With the support of the Association of Consulting Engineers, they got in touch with Open House, the architectural education charity that throws open the doors of 500 buildings across the capital every year.
Most of the people who turned up on the day either lived locally or came because they thought the arch looked cool, not because they had a deep-seated passion for structural engineering. David Landau is typical of the Open Site visitor. Landau, 31, lives nearby and turned up because it represented his first chance to find out about the biggest talking point in the area: “The first time I saw the arch after it had gone up it took my breath away: I actually said ‘wow’ out loud.”
Without Open Site, the Wembley design team risked alienating veterans like Neil Evans, 57, who had a genuine reverence for the old twin towers and the glory days they were host to. Instead, many of the older visitors now back the new design. “I think the new design is fantastic,” says Evans. “It’s beautiful – like a diamond bracelet.”
David Reynolds, 67, and his wife Carol, 59, also live in the area and support the project. “We’re local people born and bred – my father was at the first game at the old stadium in 1923,” says. David. “But it’s the right time for a change – it’s a design for the 21st century. Today’s been really useful: a lot of people know about the arch but they don’t all know what it’s there for.”
We live in Harrow so obviously we've been following progress at Wembley
Brian Jowers, with his nephews Daniel and Joe Hicks
Brian Jowers, 38, came along with his two nephews Daniel and Joe Hicks, 10 and 8 respectively, because it provided a different kind of day out. “We live in Harrow so obviously we’ve been following the progress at Wembley,” he said.
Daniel and Joe managed to sit through most of Bell’s presentation, coming out with several oohs and aahs as the engineers played the computerised graphic of the arch taking shape. “That’s wicked!” shouted Daniel as the arch rose higher on the screen. However he was having none of Bell’s assertion that you could roll the London Eye beneath the arch. “The Wheel’s much bigger,” he said, defiantly.
The presentation packed a fair amount of data into 45 minutes. The new stadium actually covers far more area than the old one, almost twice as much again. The old twin towers had to be pulled down because they would have ended up in the middle of the new pitch. The arch, it transpired, needs to be tilted at 68° from horizontal to take the strain of holding up the roof.
The day suggested to Rebecca Machin and her daughter Katherine that the new design would outshine the old ground. “Everyone harps on about the old twin towers but I always thought they looked a bit plasticky when you were walking up from the station,” she says. “And the old Wembley used to have hardly any women’s toilets: you used to have to queue for hours. This design is more our era.” In fact stadium will have 2618 toilets – apparently more than any other building in the world.
Open Site has probably done more for the good name of our new national stadium than any number of champagne-fuelled parties attended by Tony Blair and David Beckham. Paolo Silva wants Open Site to grow into a brand, with a broader umbrella of activities including schools and university-oriented trips. If last weekend is anything to go by, he’s probably on to a winner.