diamond geezer

 Sunday, February 24, 2008

Highbury revisited

East Stand, HighburyNever go back. Never return to a much-loved place to see what it looks like now, not if you value your memories. Because you know what you'll find. Crumbling perfection, decaying reality, and misplaced priorities. And so it is with Arsenal's old Highbury Stadium. Two seasons ago this was the red and white home of football, and now it's a building site with residential aspirations. I went back. Mistake.

What's happened to the East Stand? This used to be a pristine Art Deco masterpiece, with an imposing white facade and bold red detail. And yes it's still standing, the shell of the building at least, but now looking pretty sorry for itself photos. All the glass in the windows has been removed, there's scaffolding propping up one end, and the paintwork has a distinctly weatherbeaten look. A series of big rectangular holes has been punched through the wall, presumably to house joists that will support the new apartments to be packed inside. A hundred yard stretch of pavement outside has been fenced off, and a small red sign on the main entrance door bears the single word "SOLD". It's as if institutional rigor mortis has set in, and it's rather sad.

East Stand, HighburyAnd where's the Clock End gone? There used to be a stand on the south edge of the stadium, and now there's isn't. It's been completely demolished to make way for a mighty apartment block of steel and glass. It's not even an impressive block, not in any way, just the perfect 21st century way to cram as many house-buyers as possible into a confined space. Same up at the other end, where the North Stand used to be. All gone, and a series of characterless cuboids being erected in its place. It's amazing how much acreage the developers have found on which to build within the confines of the old Highbury site, leaving only the old pitch as a central garden feature. Purchase one of the 711 apartments around "Highbury Square" and you're buying little more than a living space on the site of eradicated history.

Emirates StadiumAcross the railway at Ashburton Grove, the new Emirates Stadium gleams in a way that Highbury never did. Like many a modern mega-stadium it has the appearance of a giant glass bowl surrounded by a windswept concrete plaza, severed from the surrounding streets to make crowd control a little easier. On non-match days the footbridges and walkways are merely a cut-through for the occasional passer-by, or red-striped Gooner families trying to locate the club shop, or a few kids kicking a football around photos. This is no longer the heart of the community, this is a tacked-on fortress.

And even here, around Arsenal's new football focus, the emphasis is on residential cramming. A string of new apartment blocks has sprung up above the railway cutting, bringing glee and delight to the face of many an N5 estate agent. To the north, squeezed in between pincered railway tracks, stands the 11-storey Ashburton Triangle development. This grey and red rollercoaster-style design is Europe's largest zinc-clad building, and houses 249 affordable apartments for key workers. No chance of any Arsenal players living here, but more than a few keen supporters have already moved in. A glowering concierge guards the entrance, and doubled-up security doors keep out all but the most persistent undesirables. It's a bit of a rabbit warren inside, and no expense has been spent on decorating the internal corridors. But select your flat carefully and the view from the balcony is really rather impressive photosphotos. Maybe those new Highbury flats in the distance won't be quite so awful after all.

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