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Stadium Architect, Derek Wilson

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


"Fans have to be able to say, I know where that is, I recognise that stadium. Or there's my football club. I belong to that."
If, like me, you are one of those poor souls who delights at the mere glimpse of floodlights on the horizon, try driving along the M61 motorway in north west England. Set back from the road is an extraordinary sight - the 25,000 seat Reebok Stadium, home to Bolton Wanderers. Like a giant cat's cradle of white steel, with diamond shape floodlights angled over the bowl, the structure is unlike any traditional football ground. And yet its function is immediately recognisable.
Similarly, drive through the otherwise unremarkable Yorkshire town of Huddersfield, when suddenly, between the distant hills and old mill chimneys, a blast of blue and white announces your approach to the McAlpine Stadium.
Stadium architect Derek Wilson, 37, had a hand in both award-winning designs. As a schoolboy and young Burnley fan, he recalls, he used to draw compulsively; sketches of his beloved Turf Moor (Burnley's home since 1883), but also, oddly he admits, maps of Africa.
Obsessed by outline and detail, he followed the path to architecture via three main subjects: art, maths and geography. These fed his love for creativity, precision and spatial awareness. In later school years he would even 'bunk off' lessons to work in a local architectural practice.
Stadium architecture, however, does not enjoy a high profile, as Derek discovered when studying architecture in Leeds, in 1985. For one project he decided to draw up new designs for the city's football venue, Elland Road. On seeing the drawings the examiner announced haughtily, 'Football stadiums are not architecture. I'm failing you!'
If Derek needed any more motivation, four years later, when he started work with the Lobb Partnership in London (now part of HOK Sport, the world's largest firm of stadium and arena designers), the disaster at Hillsborough occurred. Like many fans he wept when he saw the needless carnage. But now he was in a position to help make sure it never happened again. The McAlpine Stadium, opened in 1994, was widely acclaimed as the first of a new generation of football grounds; safe, of course, but also inspirational in appearance.
Since those pioneering days, apart from Bolton (opened 1997), Derek has also been part of the design teams working on Stadium Australia (venue for the 2000 Olympics), Croke Park (Dublin), various race courses in England and Malaysia (where he spent a year working on the Selangor racecourse), and most recently, on new stadiums for Arsenal and Everton.
'Never did I dream that one day I'd be designing stadiums. But I'm sure I bring different skills to it simply because I am first and foremost a supporter.'
Above all, he stresses, stadiums must have a unique identity. 'Fans have to be able to say, I know where that is, I recognise that stadium. Or there's my football club. I belong to that.' Alas Derek missed out on the commission he most wanted; the redesign of Turf Moor. But that has not stopped him dreaming, or sketching, or casting his eye around the ground during a lull in the action and thinking to himself, 'Now then, what would look good there…?'


Simon Inglis, September 2001

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