Grounds for Concern

Originally published in The Nightwatchman, issue 4, Winter 2013.

If, as Nevile Cardus wrote in 1930, “cricket is a game which must always be less than its true self if it is taken…out of the weather of our English summer”, then what are we to make of The Oval as it stands, wet and empty, on a cold November morning? The cynic, or the Englishman, might point out that the wet and the cold are both integral parts of the summer sport in this country, just as likely in August as they are in November. And, indeed, the fourth day of the Ashes test match here was a total washout, with the match ultimately ending in a draw despite Michael Clarke’s aggressive double declaration. I was there on the opening day, when Shane Watson made the most of a close LBW escape and some nervy bowling from Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan to post a big and belligerent hundred.

But it feels an age away now, as water drips slow and sad from concrete overhead to soggy concrete underfoot. As an art critic by trade, I’m used to visiting museums and galleries when they’re closed to the general public. No hordes of schoolchildren, no frazzled parents, no tired tourists: just a white-walled calm, and the time to stand and look and think. It’s quite a privilege. But a cricket ground, on the other hand, becomes a kind of ghost, or theatre of ghosts – an empty arena reverberating around with the silence of past events, glories, players, public.

And yet, this emptiness and the absence of cricket starts to focus the attention on the ground itself. Back in August I barely noticed the new main entrance and forecourt designed by ADAM Architects and constructed at a cost of some £2 million. Perhaps that’s why, until recently, at least, the aesthetics of cricket grounds have been largely overlooked. Unless they’ve been dragged there by a passionate parent or partner, those who visit cricket grounds are, by and large, interested in the cricket. Architecture comes a distant second to action.

In some senses this is a shame, for there is much to be learned form the aesthetics of the cricket ground. From the postcard-perfect thatched pavilion of Bridgetown, perched atop a slope in Devon, to the $100 million, 25,000-seater Dubai Sports City stadium where the ICC has its purpose-built offices: cricket always takes place within a context – political, economic, architectural, aesthetic. On the one hand is the dewy-eyed nostalgia epitomised by Cardus – a cricket of cucumber sandwiches and country squires, honest yeomen and thatched roofs. On the other, the globe-trotting Twenty20 professional, the city-state franchise, and the glass and statement steel of the corporate stadium. Have ADAM successfully navigated this dichotomy, or merely fudged the issue? We shall see.

 

 

Unlike, say, cathedrals, cricket grounds are always shifting. Even Lord’s. In fact, Lord’s was noticeably quick to embrace the controversial benefits of the big name architect, when the Jan Kaplicky-designed media centre opened amid great fanfare in 1994. Like a space-age blow-heater facing off against the red brick of the pavilion, the state-of-the-art building was perhaps the first piece of cricket architecture to attract global attention. Upon its unveiling, there was notable controversy, but time softens even the sternest of cynics, especially where architecture is concerned. The press themselves were quick to praise the structure for its fantastic views, the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded Kaplicky the Sterling Prize, and the media centre has slowly settled into its venerable position atop the home of cricket.

Lord’s was by no means the first example of innovative architectural intervention, but it arguably marked the beginning of a spate of ground redevelopments across England. Part of this drive towards modernity has come on account of the changing nature of the way international cricket is now allocated. In the wake of the 2005 Ashes, and advised by accountants Deloitte Touche, the ECB encouraged the counties to compete against each other for the financial boon of hosting international cricket. Then came the credit crunch, and suddenly counties were up against the wall: by 2010, a second Deloitte report identified a scarcely believable £91 million of debt shared amongst the Test match grounds. Hampshire, Glamorgan, Kent and Yorkshire all came within inches of financial disaster.

Following an injection of £1 million “soft loan” per county from the ECB in 2013, the focus now is on sustainable business models and diversifying revenue streams. These shifting financial priorities are evident in the grounds themselves. As well as bidding against each other for international cricket, clubs are working to ensure their own survival. Will Alsop’s characteristically batty new pavilion at Headingley Carnegie, for example, was unveiled in 2010 as a joint venture between Yorkshire County Cricket Club and Leeds Metropolitan University. Over 850 students per day are expected to use the facilities, studying courses such as tourism, hospitality, and events management.

Writing in Architecture Today, David Morley identified the architect’s first priority as making Headingley “a fitting backdrop for television viewers”. It’s a telling example of the lack of respect shown to the public who pay to attend matches at these new grounds, and reminiscent in some ways of the disdain shown for the public by urban planners in non-places like Canary Wharf and Dubai. Leeds Metropolitan’s director of estates Sue Holmes has naturally described Alsop’s unwieldy edifice as “iconic” – the default adjective of the myopic planner, blinded by the light of the contemporary starchitect.

Across the Pennines, September 2012 saw Lancashire unveil their very own piece of statement architecture. The Point – bold, bright and very, very red – was designed by BDP and built by Morgan Ashurst at a cost of over £12 million. What’s interesting here is that The Point is not even really a stand: it’s a 1,000 seat conference centre, one of the largest in the north of England, plopped on top of another stand. Largely ignored until the Third Test of the 2013 Ashes (when England clung on for a rain-affected draw), The Point is jointly aimed at the corporate cash cow and the television brand-boost. The spectators are simply overshadowed, both literally and metaphorically.

Of course, that’s not how those involved see it. As Gavin Elliot, chairman of BDP, told The Independent’s Stephen Brenkley: “We didn’t want to do a poor man’s version of Lord’s with white tents on the top of every building, and perpetuate that romantic notion of cricket on the village green, complete with cycling vicars and warm beer.”

 

 

The opposition that Elliot identifies here between the modern international cricket ground and the apparently old-fashioned image of the village green is insightful. At the same time as this kind of large-scale development, with every cricket ground becoming its own little slice of Dubai, has come a slowly renewing interest in the idiosyncrasies of the smaller-scale: boarding schools and private grounds, clubs, communities and council-funded recreation grounds.

In the summer of 2012, at the same time as the Olympics, English Heritage published a special ‘Sporting Heritage’ issue of their Conservation bulletin, in which architectural historian Lynn Pearson points out how little attention has been paid to cricket’s architectural heritage. “There are fewer than 30 listed cricket pavilions in England,” she notes. The two oldest are at Sevenoaks Vine in Kent, and the striking Green Pavilion at Rugby School both dating from the 1850s.

Pearson acknowledges what we all know; namely, that the quaint, preferably thatched, wooden pavilion is still the archetypal structure of village cricket. She cites the pavilion at Sir Paul Getty’s Wormsley Park in Buckinghamshire as the apotheosis of this particular taste. As Mike Selvey has commented in The Guardian: “It took an American to create something quintessentially English.” And there is arguably something of the stage set about the whole place.

But Pearson also points out that “the reality of cricket’s architectural history is more complex and hitherto little discussed”. The aesthetics of cricket itself have been dissected ad infinitum (the David Gower cover drive; the Dennis Lillee run-up) but less has been written about the structures within which it takes place. Pearson stresses that, whilst the majority of pavilion design is relatively unimaginative, “not all resemble picturesque cottages”. She seems particularly interested in some of the Modernist structures of the 1960s, arguing that “their long, low lines [are] ideally suited to providing ample accommodation for spectators and especially players watching the game.

Jesmond Cricket Ground, with its distinctive two-tier Modernist pavilion, is singled out for praise, whilst elsewhere, Ian Johnson charts the fascinating history of the pavilion at Wolvertown Town Cricket Club, just on the northern edge of Milton Keynes. By the early 1970s, the original pavilion (built in 1901) was rotting at the foundations, so the club approached the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, who offered them the services of one Pierre Botschi. Botschi, who went on to work for Richard Rogers, designed what has to be the strangest cricket pavilion I’ve ever seen. Made almost entirely of fibreglass, a nightmare to heat, and with no entrance onto the cricket pitch, the building became known as The Pineapple. That is, until just eight years later, when it was replaced by a monumentally bland brick affair and the fibreglass shell was sold to a chicken farmer near Yeovil.

 

 
Such imaginative approaches to cricket architecture are not confined to the past. Perhaps the most obvious example of this increasing interest around the relationship between cricket and architecture has come from a collaborative project taking place right now in the Lake District. Seeking to replace their existing decrepit pavilion, Coniston Cricket Club have teamed up with the community-run village hall (Coniston Institute) and pioneering local arts institution, Grizedale Arts. The budget for the new development is £100,000 and, like similar initiatives at the country’s largest grounds, the brief stipulates that the winning architects must “create a multi-use space able to generate its own income”.

Originally founded as the Grizedale Society by the Forestry Commission in 1968, Grizedale Arts assumed its current role as residency and commissioning agency following its move to Lawson Park hill farm (once owned by John Ruskin) in 2007. Supported by the Arts Council and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Grizedale are amongst the leading lights in the current art world focus on non-London practices and a reconfiguration in the way we think about the environment. As such, their involvement in the cricket pavilion project is intriguing, although it has to be said that the three shortlisted schemes – by Larissa Johnsons, Ullmayersylvester Architects, and THE SCHTIP collective – are all fairly uninspiring.

More successful has been the New Martyr’s Pavilion at St Edward’s School in north Oxford, designed by the master of Minimalism, John Pawson and unveiled in 2010. Characteristically clean in form and line, the building’s focus is on materials, the long, low structure given warmth and character through the use of natural marble flooring and external oak cladding. In 2010, Pawson’s pavilion won the Oxford Preservation Trust award for best new building.

Other pavilion designs of note include Acanthus LW’s design for Stone cricket club near Dartford (at a cost of £860,000 paid for by the local council) and the renovated and extended Langham Pavilion at Alastair Cook’s alma mater, Bedford School. The England captain himself opened the pavilion, for which MK40 architects have provided appropriately tasteful additions to the existing structures. It’s all a far cry from the gently rotting pavilion where I’ve changed into my whites most Sundays for the past fourteen years…

 

 
In some ways, MK40’s historically sensitive approach is not dissimilar to that adopted at The Oval. By opting for the solid classical appeal of ADAM Architects, a well-publicised favourite of Prince Charles (who, incidentally, owns the land on which The Oval stands), Surrey are arguably looking to have their cake and eat it. In a sense it succeeds, as the new portico provides a much more formal entrance than the previous muddle of turnstiles and concessions without doing anything too outlandish in terms of statement architecture. In contrast to the more obviously modern OCS stand, the red brick and Bath stone will doubtlessly age well and blend with the existing pavilion structure. But the result lacks the elegance of some of the firm’s other projects, whilst certain features – stone urns, feathered column capitals and bricked up niches – teeter towards pastiche.

English Heritage’s Gemma Abercrombie has written that “the relationship between sporting sites and their surroundings is a key element of their atmosphere and character” and, wondering alone around the rest of The Oval, it’s hard to disagree. Inside the ground are the usual pictures of past players – Pat Pocock and Alec Bedser, Bobby Abel in starched dress shirt, Alec Stewart in his reinforced batting gloves. Elsewhere, a team of bureaucrats have hired the long room, where an electric chandelier gleams cold yellow. Outside, a loan champagne glass stands on the stone window ledge. The pitch itself is reseeding – bright green and sodden. Two strips of concrete – like slim gravestones – are propped against a gate. The groundsman shelters in his hut.

Beyond the stands, views of schools and solid brick housing estates; The Vauxhall Tower; The Shard; the famous gasworks. Through them, a glimpse of The Eye. And then the rain begins again.