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Wembley Stadium (1924), site of
Wembley, London, UK
Wembley Stadium (1924), site of
associated engineer
Sir Owen Williams
date  1921 - 1924
era  Modern  |  category  Stadium/Arena/Pool  |  reference  TQ192857
photo  Owen Williams archive, part of Amey plc
The original Wembley Stadium (now demolished) was one of several concrete structures built for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924, an event intended to boost national confidence after the losses of World War I (1914-18).
Initially named the Empire Stadium, the Wembley Stadium known and loved from 1924-2000 as the home of English football was designed by architect Simpson & Ayrton with engineer Owen Williams (1890-1969). The concrete structure became the national stadium and its twin towers a national icon.
All the buildings for the Exhibition were constructed between 1921-1924. However, the stadium was built in just 300 days. Of the buildings to which Williams contributed, the Palace of Industry is the only one that remains.
The sporting history of the site dates back to the 1880s, when Wembley Park Leisure Grounds provided football and cricket pitches and a running track. In 1889, Sir Edwin Watkin, chairman of the Metropolitan Railway, decided to build an attraction there and link it to London by rail.
He attempted to build a rival to the Eiffel Tower, some 350m high. However, when construction reached 61m, the tower's foundations failed and the project was abandoned. The remains became known as Watkin's Folly and were demolised in 1907, leaving the 87 hectare site free. Planning for the British Empire Exhibition started soon after the end of WW1.
Concrete was chosen as the stadium's building material for speed of construction and to demonstrate the modernity of British engineering. Owen Williams was selected as engineer for his expertise with it. He had worked with US-based companies promoting ferro (or reinforced) concrete.
For this project, Williams acted as structural engineer for architect Maxwell Ayrton. His own design freedom was restricted as Ayrton was intent on using the qualities of concrete construction in a certain way. Ayrton was a classicist, embracing formality, symmetry and carefully applied proportion — all design traits historically associated with masonry-built structures. He applied these to designing with the new material.
The overall form of the stadium was generated straightforwardly by enclosing a running track — two straights linked by semi-circular ends. The importance of the front 'winning' straight was reflected in the formal arrangement of the main façade, with its twin towers flanking the main entrance.
For the interior, Williams drew on US stadium structures. The earth scooped out from the central area was used to support the lower terraces, while the upper terraces were made from a combination of radially-positioned precast and in situ concrete members on a steel framework, spanning from the earth mounds to the external walls.
The design as a whole was somewhat incongruous. It combined the discipline of reinforced concrete with a rather inappropriate architectural style that included piers, columns, parapets and arched openings — some structural, some merely decorative. For example, structurally unnecessary hollow columns decorated the front wall at centres of 4m and 5.2m. These shells measured 1.8m by 600mm and 1.2m by 600mm, with walls 76-100mm thick. Every third column contained a real column support, 406mm by 915mm in section.
The twin towers were made from 76mm thick concrete shells, reinforced by shallow, curved ribs tied by cross members at their bases. The supporting walls were 100mm thick, stiffened by piers and buttressed by four turrets.
The strength of the structural design was tested in a practical way, firstly by using densely-packed groups of volunteers, who stood in the tiers and stamped their feet and swayed, and secondly when the 1923 Cup Final attracted an estimated crowd of 200,000 — nearly twice the number the engineering design called for.
In 1948, London hosted the Olympic Games and Wembley Stadium was the centrepiece venue. The Olympic Way (now called Wembley Way) was added as the approach route for the Olympic torch bearers. In 1955, the distinctive pylons were added that supported the floodlights, and in 1963 the original roof was extended to cover the front rows of seating.
After hosting many memorable events during its 77 years, the original Wembley Stadium closed in 2000 and was demolished to make way for the present one, which opened in 2007.
Although it attracted good press at the time, Wembley Stadium is now regarded as William's least successful collaboration with an architect for, uncharacteristically for a design in which he had a hand, the proportions and style of the building did not reflect the material from which it was built.
Williams, then 34 years old, was knighted for his work on the British Empire Exhibition buildings.
Architect: Maxwell Ayrton of Simpson & Ayrton
Resident engineer: Hugh Iorys Hughes
Contractor: Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons
Research: ND, LG
bibliography
www.wembleystadium.com
reference sources   OW
Location

Wembley Stadium (1924), site of