Before there was Populous, Ellerbe Becket/AECOM and Heery International, there was Archibald Leitch. The self-described “Consulting Engineer and Factory Architect”, Leitch began his career designing factory buildings in his hometown of Glasgow, Scotland. He would take the industrial, bare-bones aesthetic of factory construction on to design 29 stadiums in Scotland and England and had his hand in as many as 51 over a career spanning forty years from 1899-1939. The prolific, Glasgow-born, Scottish engineer designed the original Stamford Bridge (Chelsea), Old Trafford (Manchester United) and White Hart Lane (Tottenham) and his designs for Ibrox (Glasgow Rangers), Craven Cottage (Fulham) and Goodison Park (Everton) are largely still standing today. As illustrated in Simon Inglis’ wonderful book, Engineering Archie: Archibald Leitch – Football Ground Designer, Leitch’s contributions to football ground design are still being felt today – in short, he set the standard.
One of Leitch’s legacies is his standardization of the terrace. Prior to Leitch, football fans in the UK watched the action standing atop sloped surfaces made of either grass, dirt or whatever natural material was available on a given site. The image of a dangerous, overcrowded, lawless terrace was even greater during 19th-century Britain. Archibald Leitch’s work upgraded and modernized the terrace by introducing concrete steps at fixed dimensions, designated aisles and – most famously – fixed steel barriers. The terrace configuration developed by Leitch lasted the better part of the 20th century, until the Green Report outlawed terraces in 1994 in favor of all-seater stadiums. That these terraces lasted in roughly the same state, for as long as they did, is a true testament to Leitch and the effectiveness of his design.
Another feature of the Leitch stadium is the grandstand. Before Leitch, stadiums were essentially temporary structures made of either wood or steel. As football grew in popularity toward the end of the 19th century, this ephemerality was not sufficient to withstand the stress placed on the structures by increasingly large crowds. In 1905, London County Council (LCC) brought a case against Fulham Football Club protesting this shift from temporary structures to permanent buildings. In Engineering Archie, Simon Inglis recounts Leitch’s statement as an expert witness in the case, where he testified that Fulham stand and its associated roof were structures and not buildings and thus only required approval from the local borough and not from the LCC. Leitch went on to redesign the stand in question dubbed the Johnny Haynes Stand it is still in existence at Craven Cottage today.
The Main Stand at Liverpool Football Club’s new Anfield Stadium built in 1906 was Leitch’s first stand built from reinforced concrete, a new material at the time that boasted not only great elastic and compressive strength but incredible durability. Using the Hennebique technique, whereby singular elements such as column and beam are built as one unit, the Main Stand and its facing brick wall are still part of Anfield today. Leitch stadiums were nothing if not permanent.
Another feature of the Leitch grandstand is the roof pediment. The often triangular, but at Anfield curved, pediment was placed at the center of the roof, aligning with the centerline of the pitch below. The pediment, which often carries the club name and badge, caps off the permanent grandstands and establishes them as not just temporary structures, but permanent buildings.
The final identifying feature of the Leitch grandstand is the cross bracing at the edge of the upper deck. Practical in design, the cross steel members carry the tensile load from the upper deck, while the curved vertical elements support the handrail above. The steel truss of Leitch’s grandstands became a feature of his stadiums and is still visible at some grounds, such as Goodison Park, despite the proliferation of advertising and video boards which threaten to cover them entirely.
The stadiums of Archibald Leitch are solid and efficient buildings with the occasional elegant feature sprinkled in. They don’t represent groundbreaking design, and other early-20th century stadiums like those of Pier Luigi Nervi in Italy were more experimental in their form and use of material. What is remarkable about Leitch’s work, however, in addition to its sheer quantity, is the standard which it set. Leitch built big, complicated buildings at a time when money was short and sport was growing fast. He developed a method of construction and standardization, a kit-of-parts that could be applied to each project. With an efficiency of material and ease of construction, Leitch stadiums were the standard-bearer by which stadiums are still being designed and measured against today. Much like today when a few architects design the world’s stadiums, Leitch held a grip on the design of a generation of stadiums and was succeeded by his son for twenty years after his death in 1939.
I have visited Leitch stadiums before, including the fantastic Craven Cottage and the renovated White Hart Lane, but this Christmas I will go to Fratton Park for the first time, home to Portsmouth Football Club and, having learned more about the legend of Archibald Leitch, I can’t wait.