Tottenham’s new stadium: as magnificent as they say, it’s a home victory for Spurs
Around the pitch and in the stands, the Tottenham Hotspur stadium is both magnificent and intimate, but the jarring exterior is mid-table fodder
The stadium’s bars have beer brewed on site. Photograph: Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images
It was, for a while, all about the cheese room. The new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, it was reported, was to offer its premium customers a selection of specially sourced cheeses, a concept which encapsulated how far the football fan has come from those black-and-white, crackly-voiced days when a gristly pie was all you got, an edible version of the brown balls that were hacked around the Flanders-like mud of those bygone fields – a distillation (conceptually speaking) of the catarrh of a million Capstans.
Which, goes the narrative, was how it should be. In the tribal warfare of football you don’t want the food to be too nice. And what could be more Waitrose, more metropolitan elite, more Highbury and Islington than a range of fermented curds? What could be less likely, except perhaps CO2 foam or a flame-retardant blanket, to put fire in the belly?
Then it vanished. The Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy, announced that there was not and never had been a cheese room in the stadium plans. There was an accompanying shift in the presentation of the stadium. If much of the advance publicity was about the treats for the high-paying customers – a glass-walled “tunnel club” from where you can watch the teams preparing to go on the pitch; a “sky lounge” from where you can view both the game and a sweeping panorama of London – I’m now told, by Christopher Lee, of the project’s architects, Populous, that the priority is to make a “democratic” stadium. By this he means such things as ample concourses where all the paying punters can roam, a “market place” where you can consume multiple different kinds of food and beer brewed on site. The idea of a segregated “corporate level” is, he says, “archaic”. Those people paying more “shouldn’t be in a little bubble”.
The tunnel club and the sky lounge are very much still there, and no one should be under any illusions that the aim is not to maximise revenue at every opportunity, but in Lee’s account “it’s all about experiences”, and everyone is invited to join in.
He makes an analogy with airlines and the intermediate classes they create between economy and business. At the Tottenham Hotspur stadium there are 70 hospitality boxes, compared with the 150 at Arsenal’s 13-year-old Emirates stadium (which, like the former Olympic Stadium, Wembley and a proposed new stand for Fulham, was also designed by the prolific Populous). There are instead “loges” – small-scale, semi-private dining areas that might be hired by families or groups. These are still not cheap, of course, but it’s still better than having the sandwich of deathliness that comes with a corporate zone that rings a stadium.
One might challenge Lee’s concept of democracy, with its emphasis on access to craft beer as a sign of equality. One might question his analogy of the inert interior of an aeroplane with the hopefully energising environment of a sports ground. But to judge by a visit to the first game played at the stadium – an under-18s match against Southampton last Sunday – his design does what he says. The concourses feel generous, with robust but handsome finishes in polished concrete and blue-painted steel. It’s not like the old White Hart Lane, which I knew well, whose bunker-like interiors made spectators feel like the huddled survivors of a nuclear conflagration, scavenging for crisps and tea from the inadequate food counters. Nor is it Wembley, the place where Spurs have spent their exile during the rebuilding of the stadium, whose grey corridors evoke the part-time conference centre that it, in fact, is.
The food and beverage on offer, pitched between gristle pies and White Stilton Gold, is a touch more varied and imaginative than you might expect. While the market place is lively, there are also areas where the invitations to consume are relatively restrained. It avoids, just, feeling like a shopping mall.
All of which is secondary – even now, in an era when matches are “experiences” – to the actual business of playing and watching football. Here the stadium is at its best, attaining the desired combination of magnificence and intimacy, with the stands placed as close as reasonably possible to the edge of the pitch and the upper levels rising at the steepest permitted angle. The kneeroom in front of each seat, which had become pointlessly generous in some recent stadia, is 4cm less than (for example) at the Emirates, which allows for greater compression. The design is helped, too, by advances in the technology of grow lights for the grass, which allow the architects to worry less about getting sunshine inside.
A view of the concourse of the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Photograph: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images
The main talking point is a single bank of 17,500 seats at the south end of the pitch, which as well as presenting an imposing wall of humanity contributes to an asymmetry that gives the bowl character. Around the top level of the stands runs a sinuous horizon, rising in the centre of each stand to accommodate more seats and falling at the corners. This helps to create the feeling that you are in a single space, rather than an assemblage of structures for spectating.
Most important of all is the acoustic, an intangible on which depends much of the success of Spurs’ billion-pound-plus investment, and the first signs are good. The under-18s game, intended to test the stadium’s operations in advance of more serious contests, was limited to a crowd less than half the capacity of 62,062, but those who were there tested the sound with old songs, which bounced nicely around their new home.
The new Tottenham Hotspur stadium is trying to do many things, in catering to its multiple audiences and commercial imperatives while hanging on to what you might call soul. Yet another layer of difficulty is added by the fact that, with the help of a quite amazing mechanism whereby the grass pitch slides away to reveal an artificial layer underneath, it will host American football. What the design doesn’t achieve is to bring all this complexity together into a coherent whole: the exterior, while communicating a generalised sense of oomph and power, is a mess, with wannabe soaring curves grinding against a rectangular grid of cladding panels, and with ideas borrowed from here and there fighting for attention.
My daughter and I used to share a little joke, as the old White Hart Lane hove into view from the train windows. “That’s the most beautiful building in London,” I said. It wasn’t, and the new one isn’t. In its ugliness it is like the outside of almost every stadium in the Premier League, if not the world. And almost none of the Spurs fans delighting in their new home last Sunday, relieved to be there after an opening delayed by six months, cared at all.
On which note I will leave you for a while. I will be taking a sabbatical until September, after which I will return with new energy. Au revoir.