One of the architects leading the Old Trafford redevelopment plans has pledged to help turn the stadium into a “cutting edge, state-of-the-art” venue with fans at its heart.
The ambitious Old Trafford redesign is in its early stages, with Populous and Legends International having been appointed by Manchester United last month to look at options to give the stadium a much-needed overhaul.
Boosting capacity and expanding the stadium are two of the options on the table along with extensive redevelopment and interestingly much of Populous’ recent work has been about finding creative ways to transform established stadiums that come with design challenges.
The firm designed Fulham’s new Riverside Stand and were the architects behind the impressive Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Speaking exclusively to i, Populous MD Christopher Lee said the redevelopment would be “fan-centric”.
He said: “It’s a massive privilege and I’m honoured personally and as a practice to be involved with such a great club and looking at what the future holds for Old Trafford.
“It’s one of the four mythical stadiums in the world. Along with the Maracanas of this world – well Old Trafford is right up there. To be able to look at a future and a transformation of one of the greatest stadiums in the world into a cutting edge, state-of-the-art stadium that will keep the fans and club for the next decades to come is a massive privilege and a huge weight of responsibility too.
“In many ways the fans are as much our clients as the ownership. They’re the ones we have to keep happy. Almost the greatest thing that happened in my career was the opening night at Spurs and I was sat next to a guy who’d been going for 50 years and said ‘It’s like coming home, isn’t it?’
“For me I thought ‘Wow, that’s what I want to create’. I want people to feel it’s their home and something special.
“When you consider iconic stadiums like Old Trafford, being able to redevelop them and continue that legacy is a huge, huge honour.”
Lee set out Populous’ vision and the principles underscoring their work in a extensive interview with i. He also said the future of fan experience might incorporate supporters watching games globally with those inside the stadium.
‘A lot of stadiums focus too much on the corporates’
Where others see problems, Lee sees potential. The architect has helped design more than 30 arenas across the world including the magnificent Tottenham Hotspur stadium, the Emirates and Fulham’s breathtaking new Riverside Stand.
Those were projects that needed to combine a towering ambition for a world class stadium with the practical need to operate in spaces with design challenges. How do you extend a huge stand fit for a Premier League club on the River Thames, for example?
“It’s a challenge but such an exciting one,” Lee tells i. “There was a move in the 1950s and 60s, especially in America, to move these stadiums out of town. They were seen as bad neighbours but they’re absolutely not.
“Football clubs in the UK are privately owned enterprises but emotionally and spiritually owned by us in the community. So the stadium needs to reflect that and I think that means being in the centre of the community and finding solutions.”
Arguably his firm’s next project is one of his most challenging – giving Old Trafford a long overdue refit to drag it into the 21st century. It is one that he is excited about and views as a “huge privilege”.
Going on past experience of Populous projects, Manchester United fans can expect to see a vast improvement in their matchday experience. Populous incorporated the largest bar in the UK – the Marketplace – as part of the Spurs stadium.
Venues need to “work hard for the community” seven days a week, Lee says. World class food, drink and meeting areas have been part of their designs.
“A lot of stadiums focus too much on the corporates, the guys and girls walking on carpets, but even the cheapest Premier League season ticket is a massive investment so I think we need to think of all our fans, from the cheapest to the most expensive seat.”
The Tottenham stadium rebuild was an eight-year project, overseen by “incredibly demanding” Daniel Levy. 3am phone calls between the pair were not unknown as they pored over the smallest details.
The level of oversight that went into the plans was remarkable. Long hours, for example, went into how to create the perfect atmosphere.
“Spurs was the first time we genuinely approached a seating bowl like we would a concert venue,” Lee explains.
“We have acousticians in house and they literally sit side by side with the guys designing the seating bowls to say ‘How do we create an incredible atmosphere?’
“Atmosphere is sort of undefined, isn’t it? It’s somewhere between hardcore science and acoustics. The South Side was all about creating an incredible home end – steep, single tier seating with reference to the great historic Kops. We conceived it as a great, giant speaker on one end. How can we get those songs and chanting so they don’t break down, so they can get really quick reverberation times. Noise builds noise, the louder it gets the noisier it gets.
“Also the fantastic banter between away fans and home fans is so important to a stadium. We do not want to be hiding away fans in the top tier where you can’t see them. I love having them part of the whole atmosphere.”
They are currently working with the club and fan groups on the Old Trafford plans. Populous’ first port of call, Lee says, is always to try and gain an understanding of what the club is about.
“It’s about trying to understand what the club is about, what the supporters are about, what the location is, what the site is, what the community wants to try and create stuff that is super site specific,” he says.
“I kind of like to think of it as like some kind of alchemy, of taking base metals and making something that is really special, that resonates with our fans and gives back to the community and becomes the physical manifestation of our football clubs. Shirts, players, logos change but the stadium’s a representation of what the club is about.”
Lee believes the next step for stadium development could be through the metaverse – VR headsets that take the user into a virtual recreation of the stadium.
“If you think about Old Trafford as a great case in point, we get a million-ish people coming through the doors a year into the actual stadium,” he says.
“There’s 900 million people across the world who profess to be United fans in Bangalore, Brisbane and all over the place. How can you integrate those people into a live audience? It’s fascinating.”