x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Courtly modern

As the roof closes for the first time, the two architects lean out of their seats to grasp each other's hands.

Wimbledon moves into the 21st century as Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, Tim Henman and Kim Clijsters leave after their exhibition mixed doubles match to mark the launch of he new retractable roof over the Centre Court last month.
Wimbledon moves into the 21st century as Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, Tim Henman and Kim Clijsters leave after their exhibition mixed doubles match to mark the launch of he new retractable roof over the Centre Court last month.

As the roof closes for the first time, the two architects lean out of their seats to grasp each other's hands. Hardly anybody on Wimbledon's Centre Court knows who these men are. Yet Bill Augustyn and Dale Jennins have just effected the biggest change in the history of this court: they have given it a roof. "This has been very emotional for us all," admits Augustyn, a neat gray-haired man who is a principal of the architectural firm Populous.

The Wimbledon Championships start on Monday, and for the first time since the world's oldest tennis tournament began in 1877, the biggest matches will be spared the rain. Centre Court's new retractable roof is more than just an architectural detail. The years that Augustyn and Jennins spent developing it were an inquiry into the meaning of Wimbledon - a quest for the essence of the tournament, and how to preserve it. This is a story not just of tennis, but of English traditions.

I met Augustyn and Jennins at a buffet lunch beside Centre Court one Sunday in May. That afternoon the new, roofed court was to be unveiled with three exhibition matches featuring Andre Agassi and his wife Steffi Graf, Tim Henman and Kim Clijsters. The crowd around the buffet was posh -members of the All England Club, sponsors, a minor British royal - and the mood jolly. Augustyn and Jennins are less posh than most of the other lunch guests, and less exuberant. They know their roof will work. But they cannot know whether the crowd will accept it. Centre Court is an English institution, and you mess with English institutions at your peril.

The court's first architect in 1922 appears to have been a stage-Englishman, right down to his name. Captain Stanley Peach "was also an adventurer, doctor and surveyor who specialised in building power stations", according to the Wimbledon brochure celebrating the new roof. In addition, Peach advised on the building of London theatres, and shot birds. His shooting expertise apparently helped him construct the court's renowned sightlines. Every seat was within 49 yards from the middle of the court. "No sportsman with average eyesight has the slightest difficulty in distinguishing birds at this distance," explained a contemporary memo, "and, therefore, the general public should be able to see all the niceties of the game."

Peach created a court with emotional intensity. Rod Sheard, senior principal of Populous and perhaps the world's foremost stadium architect, says: "I think it's probably the most intense sporting arena in the world. The focus is very much on that piece of almost iridescent green in the middle of this dark bowl. The roof slopes down and gives you this almost postbox view." Peach's creation worked so well that it became a terrible challenge for later architects. The court grew into an English icon. It helped turn Wimbledon into a metaphor for an ancient pastoral England. When Jennins and Augustyn began working at Wimbledon about a decade ago, they were told that the model of "The Championships" was tennis as played in an English country garden. Wimbledon's perfect lawns, royal visitors, the lines from Rudyard Kipling's "If" inscribed over the entrance to Centre Court, and the famous strawberries and cream evoke something out of a Merchant & Ivory film set circa 1913. "It's supposed to be a garden party, isn't it?" sums up Augustyn.

And perversely, the rain was part of the party. Every host of an English garden party worries about the rain. If it's sunny on the day, guests will chirp to each other, "They're so lucky with the weather!" If it rains, people improvise their fun. Rain at Wimbledon was an English tradition. The spectators liked talking about it. They liked the very British announcements over the tannoy: "I suggest a cup of tea and a bun, and then we should be able to resume play after that." They liked displaying British "Blitz spirit" in the face of adversity. In fact, they might have missed the rain if it wasn't there.

The All England Club is only five minutes' drive from Populous's office in south west London. For Augustyn and Jennins, Wimbledon became almost their home from home. Augustyn says: "We revamped the members' private area, and they were so pleased, they said, 'We'll give you another job.' That was the office, turnstile and museum building. Then they said, 'What do you think we can do with Centre Court? Will you help us with the redevelopment?'"

By then, in the 21st century, rain delays had become more of a problem for Wimbledon. Broadcasters around the world paid fortunes for the TV rights, and grumbled about the impromptu five-hour gaps that kept appearing in their schedules. Even English garden parties had taken to erecting tents in case of rain. But many in the All England Club couldn't bear the thought of a roof. They worried it would ruin the atmosphere. It would be like moving a garden party into a modern hotel lobby.

Populous made a first proposal for a roof and enlarged Centre Court , but Wimbledon felt it was too grand. Wimbledon didn't want a huge Centre Court. As Augustyn recalls it, the club told the architects: "What we want is a roof that doesn't appear to be there." This was an eloquent phrasing of an age-old British dilemma. Ancient British institutions - the royal family, Eton, Parliament - have survived for centuries not by resisting change, but by quietly updating themselves when necessary. That's how Britain became a modern globalised economy while retaining many features that a time-travelling returnee from medieval England would instantly recognise. Now Wimbledon had to perform the same trick: change and yet remain the same. Augustyn, Jennins and their colleagues spent large chunks of their careers designing the court. The "light studies" alone - working out how much light was needed on court - took two years. The air conditioning had to be just right. The roof could not throw big shadows. Every year, construction had to stop for The Championships. So instead of building the roof onsite, the constructors built a partial mock-up of it outside Sheffield. Once that had been got right, it was merely a matter of reassembling it at Wimbledon. The All England Club has not revealed the cost. That would be vulgar.

On the afternoon of the unveiling, the roof is merely the guest of honour. Almost everything else on Centre Court has been touched up too. When spectators arrive carrying their usual cushions, Jennins wants to call out: "The seats are padded now, you know." Finally everyone sits down. I am between Augustyn and Jennins. Sheard is directly across court from us, in the Royal Box. It is a classic windy, chilly English spring afternoon - or as Henman jokes, "a lovely warm sunny day". On court the announcer, Sue Barker, tells us: "The thought of a Wimbledon wash-out on Centre Court is now a fading memory." Augustyn murmurs: "Oh, yes."

Then, as the young men of the band, Blake, sing a classical accompaniment, the folding roof begins to close for real for the first time. The closing probably seems agonisingly slow to Augustyn and Jennins, but it takes only seven minutes, less than promised. Above our heads now is a semi-opaque fabric, through which we can see the sky. Beneath the fabric are a few white roof supports. The crowd applauds. The two architects clasp hands knowing they have created an instant English landmark.

Suddenly everything on court is different, and yet everything is much the same. Augustyn comments: "It doesn't actually change the look, does it?" He says the court still feels as it did in the days when he used to watch Wimbledon on TV. The intensity of Peach's design remains, and so the eye is still drawn not to the roof but the patch of green below. As Sheard had said of the roof that morning: "It's very light, it's delicate, it's elegant I suppose, as you'd expect from Wimbledon, but it doesn't crave your attention, it's just there and it's doing its job."

Indeed, once the crowd has finished clapping, and Henman et al begin playing, within a few minutes everyone has forgotten the radical innovation, just as Britons quickly forgot about earlier radical innovations, like the televising of Parliament or the opening of Buckingham Palace to the public. We barely notice we are now inside. Augustyn says: "I think in time it will just be second nature, to be honest."

On court after the tennis, Henman and Agassi praise the architects, who sit unnoticed in their seats trying not to blush. But when Boris Becker, himself an architect's son, bounds out of the stands to proclaim that "the architect did an amazing job", Augustyn cannot help himself. He beams. A century from now, everyone will assume that Centre Court always had a roof, and nobody will remember who built it. This has been a very British revolution.

skuper@thenational.ae