Underneath The Archie
For the many things that British football has exported across the world – naked greed, hooliganism, you know the sort of thing – but some of them, just some of them, have been worthwhile. The league system is an British invention, as is international football. One of the less celebrated exports, however comes in the field of stadium design. Even now, the “British” model of placing the crowd as near as possible to the action, with four stands on each side of the ground is treated as the preferred option for clubs worldwide, creating as it does an intimate atmosphere that is much sought after. Anyone that has watched a match at, say, the Stadio Delle Alpi will be more than aware of the negative that a running track can have on a match. Within the realm of British stadium design, one name stands head and shoulders above the rest. He is the man that, practically single-handedly gave us the look and feel of the pre-Taylor Report British football stadium – Archibald Leitch.
The list of clubs that were serviced by Leitch is staggering. He was either the chief architect behind or responsible for construction of one part of thirty-five stadia in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, including Old Trafford, White Hart Lane, Celtic Park, Ibrox, Anfield, Cardiff Arms Park, Highbury, Stamford Bridge, Twickenham and Villa Park. The biggest irony of his work is that, while he is now starting to be recognised as the architectural genius that he undoubtedly was, he started his career as an engineer rather than as an architect, and his primary influence was always function over form. It’s as if his most visually striking works, such as the now-demolished Trinity Road Stand at Villa Park and the South Stand at Ibrox (the facade of which is now a listed building, and rightly so) were the accidental by-products of a desire to build the biggest, safest and most cost-effective stadia that he could.
His career could easily have ended as soon as it began. In 1899, he won the first job for his own company on the redevelopment of Ibrox, and a year later built his first grandstand in England, at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane. In 1902, however, disaster struck. Ibrox had been chosen for the annual international match between Scotland and England, and it was a major test for the newly-built stadium. As was customary at the time, the vast terraces behind the goals were made of wood and supported by a steel frame. Before the match, it was apparent that there were problems with the joists, and five minutes before half-time, a section of the terrace collapsed completely, killing twenty-five people and injuring over five hundred. With no system of public enquiries for such an occurrence in Scotland at the time, Leitch escaped blame for the incident, with the blame being pinned on Alexander McDougall, who had supplied the timber for the terrace. He, it was claimed, had supplied sub-standard timber for the construction, but after a lengthy court trial, he was foun not guilty of “culpable homicide”, leaving Leitch’s reputation in the balance.
His response to this event was the patented Leitch crush barrier, which would become a ubiquitous feature of the British football stadium from 1906 until the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. Although they had a fundamental design flaw which contributed to what happened at Hillsborough (the metal tubes used could rust from the inside, leaving no visible signs of external deterioration), they were a critical safety development for the time. Compacted cinder, wooden and mud terraces made way for concrete (although this took decades to become universal) and, for the first time, serious consideration was given to health and safety within British football stadia. Leitch was hired by Middlesbrough to build a grandstand in 1903, and his reputaton survived Ibrox.
It was in the field of grandstand design that Leitch found his true niche. The East Stand at White Hart Lane is a classic design. Note the ironwork on the top tier (at other clubs, this was often a criss-crossed design) and the large, distinctive gable in the middle of the roof. What is automatically noticeable about his designs is that, although the majority of them clearly follow a pattern, they retain a sense of individuality about them. Whilst some of his designs were less successful – the multi-span roof, seen here on the right in this old picture of Wolves’ Molineux, was hideously expensive to maintain and was only used at a couple of grounds – his designs became the template for practically all large football stadia in Britain. It’s difficult to see the rash of concrete and steel monstrosities that have sprung up over the last two decades being remembered with such affection in a century or so’s time.