Empire Pool, now Wembley Arena
Empire Way, Middlesex, London, UK
Sir Owen Williams
1933 - 1934
photo Owen Williams archive, part of Amey plc
Owen Williams acted as both engineer and architect for the Empire Pool building, now known as Wembley Arena. It was used as the venue for the aquatic events of the 1948 Olympic Games and the pool it housed was the largest in the world at the time of construction.
The building is sited opposite what was the main entrance to the original Wembley Stadium (1921-24), now demolished, which had also been engineered by Williams (architect Maxwell Ayrton of Simpson & Ayrton). Williams had worked with Ayrton on the buildings for the British Empire Exhibition (1924), which covered the wider Wembley site area and included the stadium. The pool was constructed on the site of the Exhibition's large artificial lake.
For the design of the Empire Pool, Williams took full advantage of being both architect and engineer. His design expressed the structure of the concrete building, as opposed to using concrete as a substitute for masonry, which is what he had been obliged to do for the stadium.
At the centre of the building was the pool, 60.1m long by 18.3m wide. The brief called for a flexible building that could be used for both major swimming events, such as the 1934 Empire Games (now the Commonwealth Games) as well as other uses such as ice skating, tournaments and music events, for which it is now very well known.
The pool was flanked by raised, terraced seating galleries catering for 4,000 spectators. Areas below the seating were planned to a strict grid, accommodating stairwells, fire exits, etc. The roof covers the seating as well as the pool in one large span of some 72m. This is achieved in reinforced in situ concrete using three-pin portal frames in structural bays of 6.7m.
Internally, the tapering portal frames are expressed as shallow ribs. The main part of their bulk is expressed on the outside of the building, a technique that allows the structure to appear from the inside to be quite slender, especially at the top of the roof. Rooflights between the frames over the pool area provided good daylighting — a feature of all Williams’ buildings.
The building's defining feature are the vertical rectangular concrete fins on the long elevations. The weight of these fins holds the portal frames in place, counterbalancing them. This technique was later used by Williams to great effect in the BOAC Maintenance HQ building at Heathrow Airport (1950-1955).
The concrete fins also give increased structural depth at the portal haunches, helping to resist the bending moment, which is at a maximum at that point in the frames. It has since been argued that the counterbalancing effect is only marginal but the fins provide a dramatic effect nonetheless.
Two storey rectangular flat-roofed buildings are located at each end of the pool enclosure. They too feature concrete fins to their elevations, as do the glazed ends of the main pool building (now in-filled). They are effectively over-sized glazing mullions and help pull the design of the complex together.
At the four corners of the main the building sit square concrete slender towers, much the same height as fins on the side elevations. Each supports a water tank, looking somewhat precarious and top-heavy. They make a battlement-like roofline, expressive of Williams’ uncompromising approach, strict in accordance with the material being used — reinforced concrete. What a contrast the Empire Pool was to the carefully proportioned formality of the original Wembley Stadium that once sat opposite.
The Empire Pool was renamed Wembley Arena in 1978 when it became possibly the most well known indoor music venue in the country. From that date it seated 12,000. In April 2006, the Arena was relaunched after refurbishment works.
Architect: Sir Owen Williams