Mes Que un Clubhouse: The NDP in a Post-riot Tottenham

Editor's note: Sadly, the pictures in the post are now lost.

Well, okay. It’s been a week & a half since a peaceful protest outside a police station in Tottenham, North London erupted into violence, rioting, looting, arson, & death. A week & a half since cars were torched and buildings were burned down.

And this:

For one whose sole connection to Tottenham is through its football club, this was a jarring, complicated experience. I had looked at maps of North London, sure, but my understanding of Tottenham as an actual place was cursory at best. No doubt, this experience is informed primarily through my fandom, which happens almost entirely online. I have no physical experience of Spurs as a club; I’ve never been to White Hart Lane, never seen one of our players in person, & only watched matches with one or two other fans, & never in anything like a pub. In this way, Spurs were for me disembodied, unmoored from space (but not from time; the six hour difference drives me batty, so I’m constantly aware of time). Sure, White Hart Lane exists, but I’ve never been there. I couldn’t tell you how it smells, or what the seats are made of. I don’t know which shops I’d pass as I walked to the stadium. I can imagine what would be like to stand with others in the Park Lane, but I’m sure that dream is far from the reality of being there, on match day, next to other Spurs fans, singing songs & watching sport.

The riots in Tottenham were for me an anchoring moment. They reminded me, in very real & sobering ways, that the football club I love is physical, it has presence, & exists in relationship to a community of people. In this case, the community has many members who are deeply marginalized, severely impoverished & decidedly disenfranchised. I knew that Tottenham was a diverse neighborhood, but I hadn’t known before the riots how deeply depressed the area was economically. I think that as an American I carry around this idea of Europe in my head. I think of it as secular, progressive, past many of the societal & economic issues that continue to haunt the United States. In short, I thought of Europe as fixed in all the ways America was broken. However, as I became more fully immersed in the culture of the club, I began to understand Europe – & more specifically, England – differently. I became aware of (& deeply embarrassed by) the racist Adebayor chants, the homophobic Sol Campbell songs, the violence & discontent that circled & at times entered White Hart Lane like mist.

The riots of August 6-10 brought home to me a brokenness in England, made manifest in Tottenham & other depressed areas of London, Manchester, Liverpool &c. I cannot claim to fully understand the roots of such unrest. Such understanding, I’m sure, would take not only time ( i.e. lots & lots of reading, discussions, thinking), but also place. By this I mean I could never really be equipped to talk about London unless I was there, & there in a meaningful way, invested in the community, walking its streets, eating its food, drinking its water.

My impulse is to try to understand, but time & space are against me. For real understanding of the socioeconomic, political & cultural roots of this occurrence you & I will have to look elsewhere. But that doesn’t stop me from thinking about the riots. & because my way into Tottenham was through Spurs, the club inevitably informs my thinking.

Three days before the riots began, Ryan Rosenblatt wrote this article about potential groundbreaking occurring around White Hart Lane for a new home for Tottenham Hotspur. We know, of course, that stadium plans have been at the forefront of much discussion (read here: weeping & gnashing of teeth) amongst the Spurs faithful. Want a consistent presence in the Champions League? Get a new stadium. Can’t pay the kinds of wages needed to attract marquee signings to the club? Get a new stadium. Gigantic line of people waiting to get season tickets? Get a new friggin’ stadium already. These conversations are only complicated by Daniel Levy’s pursuit of the Olympic Stadium in Stratford. Spurs supporters asked hard questions about what it might mean to move a club called Tottenham Hotspur out of Tottenham. Protest sites like We are N17 sprang into being. Club statements about financial viability & the difficulties of building in Tottenham were released. We were forced to think about West Ham (/shudder). We had to think about the possibility of Spurs beyond Tottenham, which, for those fans who have never been to Tottenham much less lived there, carried additional difficulties.

& so here we are, post-riot & pre-regeneration. Even as buildings were still smoldering, certain Stadium groups were on the offensive, suggesting that a new home for THFC could be a key component to the regenerative project. Those suggestions were poorly timed, & I don’t have the background in public policy to know whether the economic impact of a new stadium would really help the citizens of Tottenham, or whether it would only serve to displace the residents of the area by driving up the cost of living. (It’s my understanding that gentrification was what happened in LoDo when Coors Field was built.) Levy et al. argue the former in the Regional Growth Fund application submitted on July 1st:

The NDP represents a multi-million pound private sector-led regeneration scheme for North Tottenham, one of the most deprived parts of Britain – in an area where 40% of children live in households claiming benefits and a ward (Northumberland Park) where 71.6% claim employment and support allowance (national average 1.5%). The area is heavily dependent on the public sector.

Chairman Daniel Levy said, "The NDP plans represent sport-led regeneration, anchored by our proposed new stadium. It would directly create thousands of new, private sector jobs, attract millions of pounds of additional expenditure in the local economy and lever further private sector investment into the area. As importantly, it would also protect the hundreds of current Club jobs, its existing economic impact and the valuable work of the Club's charitable Foundation in the local communities, by enabling us to stay in our current location."

I can't comment on the likelihood of Levy’s economic predictions coming to pass. Instead, I want to look at the NDP in light not only of the claims made in the club’s application for public finds, but of the stadium itself.

The design of the stadium is by no means revolutionary, or even all that interesting. That’s one reason why it sucks. Of course I understand that, as with all decisions at the club, money is an issue, & that inspiration is both risky & costly. But honestly, this stadium looks like a whitewashed version of the Emirates. That alone merits a trip back to the drawing board. The design’s greatest flaw, though, is not its bland architectural choices or cookie-cutter profile, but its standing in relationship to its surroundings. If we believe Spurs’ rhetoric regarding the need for regeneration of one of London’s poorest areas then we have to admit that none of those ideas are made manifest in the design of the stadium itself. (Really, I'm not sure I see any ideas at work here, but I digress…)

If you’ll look at the street-level image shown above, you’ll notice two damning truths, one leading to the other:

  1. The shape & materials chosen for the stadium set it in stark contrast to the surrounding neighborhood. Instead of including the High Road or the selected buildings left standing, the NDP stands at a cold remove, a glowering, high-gloss Dutch oven towering over the modest brick structures in the rest of the neighborhood.
  2. Because of these decisions, the building is decidedly separate from the community it purports to embrace. In both implicit & explicit ways the stadium draws a strong line between those who are allowed in, & those who will have to remain outside. By & large, only people with the means (i.e. disposable income) can cross that line.

& herein lies the problem. While I can’t speak with absolutely certainty about the causes of the riots that ripped Tottenham apart, I would bet my house that a major contributing factor was a prevailing feeling of disenfranchisement. Money, education & opportunity must have seen so far off, so inaccessible that rioting & looting became a natural (though by no means excusable) expression in the face of all that exclusion. Law & order are necessary, but arrests & prosecution are not long-term solutions for a community that must feel worlds apart from its neighbors in terms of socioeconomic, educational & cultural opportunity.

To be sure, a redesign of the NDP will not solve for these divides, either. But it can be more intentional in the gestures it makes. Spurs’ new home can open its arms to the alienated, so that the stadium includes & indeed embraces its neighbors; as it stands now, however, the stadium is guilty of turning a cold (& all too familiar) shoulder to them.

So what are the alternatives? Well, in the American vein, baseball has been most successful in building inclusive structures, ones that incorporate their surroundings instead of shunning them. (Camden Yards & Target Field, I’m looking at you.) But my favorite example is a actually a Portuguese football stadium: the Estadio Municipal de Braga.

Last March an independent jury, supported by the Hyatt Foundation, awarded the 2011 Pritzker Prize – considered by many the Nobel of architecture – to Eduardo Souto de Moura. Both NPR & the New York Times noted that the Portuguese architect was relatively unknown in the United States. & both NPR & the New York Times chose to introduce Moura to their American audiences, not with pictures of skyscrapers, museums, homes or public buildings (though Moura’s portfolio includes impressive examples of all of these) but with the Estadio Municipal de Braga (or Estadia AXA), the home of FC Braga & perhaps the most sublime soccer stadium in the world.

In his report for NPR, Edward Lifton suggests that "what sets [Moura] apart is how he incorporates local history, context & landscape into his work." The Estadio Municipal is built into a quarry on Monte Castro overlooking the city of Braga; lacking the stands behind the goals seen in most traditional European stadia, Estadio Municipal opens out on its southeast (downslope) side to an unobstructed view of the city it serves, & to the other, a rocky quarry wall buttressed by gentle grassy slopes overlooks the northwest goal. Pointing again to Moura’s keen sensitivity to landscape, place & history, Terrence Riley, former architecture curator for the MOMA, says Moura "took great care to site the building, so that those who could not afford to…buy a ticket could climb up on the rocky slopes around the stadium" to watch Braga’s matches. (Riley notes that granting free access to the less fortunate, who might not otherwise have the opportunity to watch their beloved club, is a tradition in Portuguese footballing culture; I've been unable to discover whether or not anyone actually takes advantage of the free hillside seating in Braga.)

It’s worth noting that the values that guided Moura’s design created not only an egalitarian building but a stunningly beautiful one as well. Moura used the stone blasted from the mountainside during excavation, mixing the local granite with concrete to create a structure that not only embraces the mountain on which it stands but contains the DNA of the locale in its very bones.

Moura’s buildings are known for their simple geometry & clean lines (traits common in Portuguese architecture, Lifton claims) & yet, for all its modesty, the Estadio Municipal reveals more & more of its character , even to someone whose never actually seen the building in person. Straight angles along the back sides of the stands give way to gentle curves at the rooftops, as the cables that connect the two tiers bow gracefully over the pitch. The stadium does not encroach upon the landscape or sequester the field from the outside; rather, both the natural & socioeconomic landscapes of Braga are included. The mountains, as well as all those who live on & around it, are encouraged to look in.

Now let’s be clear: Estadio Municipal is not a solution to disenfranchisement. In fact, to provide open seating on a grassy slope overlooking the pitch is to acknowledge that there are marginalized people in the first place, that some cannot afford the price of admission. (Indeed, the slope is a margin, right?) This doesn’t gloss over the problem or even attempt to alleviate it; rather, the slope looking down on Estadio Municipal intentionally invites those who may not have the means to purchase a ticket, but want to watch the match anyway. Moura's architectural response to marginalization is by no means perfect, but at the very least it seems a step in the right direction.

The Tottenham riots are thick with lessons. One lesson that stands out clear as day is this: Place matters. In spite of our increased presence in & reliance upon digital space, the physical surroundings that embrace or imprison us still hold sway over our imaginations. Why else would people risk their well-being destroying those very places? (Or protecting them, for that matter…)

Before August 6, the fact that Tottenham’s new stadium design lacked inspiration seemed merely unfortunate. The riots have cast new light on the design; now, instead of uninspired work, the NDP feels like another gesture of exclusion. That Tottenham Hotspur must make money off the new stadium is clear; but might the NDP do more to open itself to the community it claims to serve? Can the building itself participate actively in the regeneration of North London instead of turning its cold steel back to it?

The title of this piece is "Mes Que un Clubhouse," which, beyond being a mediocre play on Barcelona’s motto, is meant to ask what role, if any, a football club – & more specifically, that club’s stadium – can play in its community. Through their Charitable Foundation, Supporter’s Trust, as well as the individual actions of players & coaches alike, Tottenham Hotspur has reached out to its community in powerful, meaningful ways. In their daily work, these programs will make surely play an active role in the regeneration of the area, & more importantly, in the lives of the people who live there. What if in its design the NDP embodied the philosophy of compassion, goodwill & inclusiveness that marks its programs & players? What would our home ground look like then?

Anyone can write a FanPost, and we encourage you to do so! FanPosts are the voice of the Cartilage Free Captain readership. But before you write one: Lurk! Comment! Talk with your fellow members and get to know the site.