Feels a bit odd

Home advantage: how the famous old Arsenal stadium became a new London square.

I sat high in the North Stand for one of Arsenal’s last football matches – a patrician dismissal of Everton – at its old Highbury stadium in North London. The vastly bigger and blingier new Emirates Stadium was about to open nearby. What was going to happen to the old place, I asked as we queued for burgers and beer? They’re going to convert it into housing, they said. The pitch is going to become a new London square. Oh sure, I thought. Like that’s ever going to work.

And now here I am, in a new flat high up in a block where the North Stand used to be, looking across the old Highbury pitch. The last Gunners game was played there in May 2006, and the completed development is now officially complete. Instead of the almost extra-terrestrial lushness of the football surface (Arsenal’s groundsman was legendary) I’m looking at what appears at first glance to be market-gardening allotments. At second and subsequent glances, however, it turns out to be a series of different gardens – some wild, some manicured, some high, some low – arranged in a grid pattern with paths and places to sit. It’s all rather Alice Through the Looking Glass, a chessboard landscape. For all that it is indeed a new London Square, 2.5 acres of open space, surrounded by apartments on all four sides. But it still feels like an old-fashioned football ground.

This ultimate conversion job cost more than £150m to build, and it contains 724 apartments. Those apartments are a little bit bigger than the poky developer norm, they are somewhat upmarket with all the usual stuff in them, and there are at least 60 left to buy at prices ranging from £250,000 for a one-bed flat to £1.5m for a three-bed penthouse. More than 60, in fact, depending on how many of the pre-Crunch sales fall through and go back on the market. I saw plenty of evidence of people living there and moving in. I also saw quite a few empty apartments. Property valuations – having fallen by some 10% as the recession took hold – have now recovered and are close to where they were. Arsenal is not officially lowering its asking prices, banking on the strength of its name and the uniqueness of the project. In comparison, two and three-bed homes elsewhere in Highbury go for between half a million and £850,000, depending on location.

Just how do you turn a historic stadium into homes? It would have been comparatively easy to flatten the whole lot and just build the usual rabbit-hutches – probably keeping only the listed 1930s Art Deco façade of the main East Stand (its companion West Stand, hidden behind existing terraced housing, was unlisted, and the newer stands at the north and south (“Clock”) ends were nothing special). But neither Arsenal FC nor their architects, Allies and Morrison, wanted that. The Club borrowed heavily to fund a high-end development, rather than hiving it off. And the chosen architects were no developer hacks, but the same people responsible for the restoration of the beloved Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. The sacred pitch was given to top-notch landscaper Christopher Bradley-Hole, winner of many a Chelsea medal of the non-footballing kind.

Doing things properly is in the club tradition. It started out in 1886 in Woolwich Arsenal – hence the name – and moved here in 1913. The ground was little more than a playing field at first, shoehorned into the working-class terraced streets. The great East and West stands were built in the 1930s under Arsenal’s legendary manager Herbert Chapman – there’s a bronze Epstein bust of him in the foyer, not the kind of memorial afforded to many footie managers of the time. For their day they were the most lavish ever built. So while at North and South ends they just demolished the stands and built apartment blocks to about the same height, on the East and West sides it was a matter of actually converting Chapman’s steel, brick and concrete stands into housing.

This required some sleight of hand. It wasn’t possible to fit flats around the steeply-raked tiers of seating so the stands were gutted behind their facades and all the key historic bits – like the ‘sunburst’ Art Deco steel-framed glazing at the ends of the stands, and the architectural mouldings to the upper seating tiers – were taken away for restoration. Then the blocks of apartments were built, the historic bits went back on, bad later alterations to the main façade were removed, and new metal roofs built to exactly match the look of the original – but with two layers of apartments inside the roofspaces.

It’s been cunningly done. “At 96 metres long by 18 metres wide, the stands were coincidentally about the right dimensions for residential blocks,” says Chris Bearman, the architect who designed it. Standard apartments are four metres wide (some are double-width). What you would imagine as the main visual drawback – that you have vertical glass walls on the fronts of the previously open-fronted stands – in fact works quite well. Bearman explains how they modelled these new facades with industrial-sized steel girders so as to avoid them looking too flat and reflective.

Each stand has seven levels. Below the eaves of each stand you get two levels of two-storey duplexes and one level of single-floor flats. Above the eaves you get two further storeys in the roof, including penthouses. Obviously the flats looking inwards sell at a premium to those facing outwards, though on the upper levels you get some great views out. Meanwhile the more ordinary new blocks at the north and south ends are arranged around sequences of smaller courtyards.

It’s a shame in a way that the apartments don’t preserve some of the tough, painted-concrete character of the old stands. A shame also that the architects couldn’t persuade the club to reinstate the original 1930s colour scheme – which had a lot of green in it, as well as the familiar Arsenal red. But there are compensations. With heating and hot water provided centrally and some useful solar panels up on those huge roofs, fuel bills will be low. And you get underground car parking and a gym with pool beneath the (private) gardens. There’s a crèche, too, and the Arsenal subway station right there. I can see that this makes sense as a place to live in London, even if the football connections mean absolutely nothing to you. Truth to tell, two-thirds of the buyers are investors – one bought a block of 140 homes at the north end – and only one-third owner-occupiers. Though the Arsenal memorabilia in some of the windows proves that some real fans have bought here.

Buildings often change their uses, but seldom as radically as this. It feels just slightly surreal – the Through the Looking Glass gardens add to that vague sense of strangeness. That is good. Also good: absolutely nowhere in those interesting new gardens out on what was once the pitch did I see a single sign saying “no ball games”. Well, they wouldn’t dare, would they?

Words and photos © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, 20th September 2009.


Allies and Morrison, architects: http://www.alliesandmorrison.co.uk
Development website: http://www.highburysquare.com
Arsenal football club history: http://www.arsenal.com/history