Rare indeed is the stadium with a true global resonance. These are names that are packed with history and that have become representative of an entire nation; they are also crucibles for sporting and musical triumph. Top of the list, unquestionably, is Wembley Stadium.
Wembley marks its 100th anniversary this year and its enduring appeal illustrates how a venue can evolve without losing any of its iconic power. It was originally designed to host the British Empire Exhibition in 1924 but was completed ahead of schedule, meaning it could host the first FA Cup final in April 1923 (highly symbolic given football had been played on the site since the 1880s).
On opening it, King George V termed it the “hallowed turf” (a phrase that is still used today) and its legacy and mythology has snowballed ever since. England won the World Cup there in 1966 and it has hosted innumerable other legendary matches (indeed, Pelé was to refer to it as the “cathedral of football”). Its place in musical history was cemented in 1985 when it hosted the UK leg of Live Aid.
Every major footballer wants to play there, and every major music act wants to perform there.
Venues cannot coast on their history, however. They must adapt to changing needs and new use cases, drawing in new generations of spectators, and Wembley is no exception.
The challenge in designing a new Wembley was in balancing a deep respect for its rich history while ensuring it would remain a preeminent sporting and live music location long into the future.
Plans for the new stadium began being scoped out in 1999, with the goal of increasing its capacity from 82,000 to 90,000. The consortium of architects and contractors working on the new Wembley included Populous (then known as HOK Sports Venue Event).
Richard Breslin, Senior Principal and Director at Populous, worked on the Wembley project, having previously been involved in a range of major stadium projects in his home country of Australia as well as globally.
“This is a venue that transcends bricks and mortar,” he says of the weight of history on their collective shoulders as the project took shape. “Wembley is steeped in history; a place that is synonymous with English football and is incredibly emotive for so many people globally. Our biggest challenge when starting on this project in 1999 was how to build a structure that captured all those feelings.”
The twin towers of the original stadium had become so deeply representative of the venue that they were a key part of its logo for many years. Unfortunately, they had to be demolished during the upgrade as they would have stood in the middle of what became an expanded site.
“They were sat where the Royal Box is now in the current stadium,” says Breslin. “We were quite disappointed and upset when we realized we could not find a way to incorporate the towers.”
These two iconic fixtures were, however, replaced by what was to quickly become a new iconic fixture — the 133-metre arch which is the largest single-span roof support in the world. It is now a visual shorthand for the new Wembley.
“We did not set out to design the arch as a replacement for the towers,” explains Breslin. “It actually came about as a practical solution to a very specific problem. The stadium site is very constrained, and it was difficult to find a way to support the vast roof.”
The original plan was to replace the two towers with four masts, but the architectural concept evolved through several iterations to become the arch that now stands over Wembley like a halo.
The teams working on the redesign included experts who had previously worked on Stadium Australia for the Sydney Olympics in 2000, which had two long-span arches to support the roof structure for the east and west stands. From twin towers to four masts, to twin arches to a single arch is how the trajectory of the design concept moved. This was all born out of necessity.
FA Cup Final, Wembley Stadium, London, 1929. The 1929 FA Cup Final in progress between Bolton Wanderers and Portsmouth. Bolton won 2-0 in a match attended by 92,576 spectators. Artist Aerofilms. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)“The load path follows the direction of the arches, part vertical and part lateral given the relatively low arc of the arch,” says Breslin of the Stadium Australia design. “This wasn’t possible for Wembley, as a similar design would have seen the load imposed on neighbors’ land. Instead, a single arch was conceived which would support the weight of the north roof and two thirds of the south and force the load down into the ground on the Wembley site.”
The arch now dominates the stadium as well as the skyline in the area for miles around, making it an important and easily identifiable landmark.
“It is incredibly efficient, and the beauty is in its simplicity,” notes Breslin. “Its form is pure and elegant. It looked great on paper – you can draw the stadium’s outline in two strokes of the pen – and that made it attractive from both an architectural and a branding perspective.”
The big question facing the design team was: would it work? It was being built concurrently with the stadium but, due to its size, it had to be built flat on the stadium site itself, then raised into position.
Adaptability is key, with the venue having to work for a multitude of different sporting events as well as entertainment shows.
“One of the lesser-known facts about the new Wembley is that it can be configured for athletics,” says Breslin. “A raised platform can be built which sits six or seven metres above the pitch with a track and field.”
The seating structure ensures excellent sightlines wherever the audiences are seated. “The seating is designed as a single bowl, which gives every spectator an unobstructed view of the stage or pitch, as well as increasing the intensity of the atmosphere,” notes Breslin. “Retractable panels in the roof allow light and air onto the pitch, maintaining the quality of that hallowed turf.”
Investment in state-of-the-art audio technology means that Wembley Stadium has world-beating sound, most obviously displayed when hosting music concerts. This includes the first rotatable loudspeaker system suspended from wire ropes in a UK stadium.
“The seating, designed as a single bowl, enhances the intensity of the atmosphere and provides an immersive experience for concertgoers,” says Breslin. “The stadium was the first music venue in the UK to provide sensory rooms for neurodivergent guests, ensuring a safe and comfortable environment for all attendees. It also offers British Sign Language interpretation as a guaranteed service at every live concert.”
There was obviously concern that a location with so much history and symbolism would lose that when being rebuilt, but the team involved have reimagined the structure for the future. In so doing, they have given it a whole new symbolic power for new generations of sports and music fans. It serves as a locus for them to gather and celebrate as whole new memories are forged.
“At Populous we say we focus on drawing people together,” concludes Breslin. “To this day, when I am flying into London along the Thames corridor, I still get a thrill when I look out of the window and capture a glimpse of Wembley and its beautiful arch.”