The crazy plan to build a non-leaning Tower of Pisa in…Wembley


London’s had its fair share of crazy building plans – usually dreamt up by eccentric architects who’d spent a few too many late nights supping whiskey at the drawing board.

Some of them have come to fruition but others – mercifully – stay safe inside people’s heads.

One of these plans was to build a huge stone tower, just like the famous one in the Italian town of Pisa, in the not quite Italianate surroundings of …well…Wembley.

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A drawing of Albert Brunel’s design for the non-leaning tower of Pisa…

The plan was dreamed up by one Albert Brunel – no relation of Isambard Kingdom Brunel or his son Marc.

In 1889 he came up with the bizarre scheme for a tower of solid granite that would weigh 200,000 tonnes and cost more than a stonking £1,000,000.

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It would have been a massive 358-metre visitor attraction right in the heart of Wembley Park.

Of course the Italian tower of Pisa leans significantly to one side and numerous amounts of time and effort have been spent trying to stop it falling down. One has to hope that Brunel’s plan was for a straight tower!

Certainly his drawings for the tower appear not to have a lean!

So why did Brunel bother to spend time and money on this you may ask?

Well, it was all part of a scheme marketed by railway entrepreneur Sir Edward Watkin.

Watkin had been the man who embarked on an ambitious project to build a channel tunnel in the 1880s, but the tunnels kept filling with water and it was abandoned. That tells you something about how successful the Wembley Tower would be.

He wanted to drum up business for the railways by building a huge amusement park in Wembley with lakes and waterfalls – and a tower of course – so he could charge people for their train tickets for the pleasure of visiting.

His tower would rival and even surpass the massive Eiffel Tower being constructed at the same time in Paris.

Passengers would travel by train to Wembley Park station on the newly built Metropolitan Line. In fact the railway built the station especially for the attraction.

In the spiffing sportsmanly spirit on the 19th Century, a design contest was held in 1890, and a total of 68 designs were submitted.

Wembley Park Tower known as Watkin’s Folly under construction. Built by the Metropolitan Tower Co under the directorship of Sir Edward Watkin to rival the Eiffel Tower, building stopped in August 1894 and the first platform at 155ft above ground level, opened on May 18 1896. (Photo by London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One of the more exotic proposals submitted included the £1m tower inspired by the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The absolutely crazy plan including a parachute that could hold four people in case they might need to get down in a hurry!

But this wasn’t even the most crazy idea.

Another design included a half-scale model of the Great Pyramid of Giza which would be a “colony of aerial vegetarians, who would grow their own food in hanging gardens”. Another had a spiral railway going up the sides…

Unfortunately – or fortunately – the tower of Pisa idea did not win. Neither did the pyramid for that matter.

Instead the design for an eight-legged 1,200-foot (366 m) metal tower – 45.8 metres taller than the Eiffel Tower – of course it had to be – was proposed by a group of architects from London.

The foundations were laid in 1892 and Wembley Park was laid out as a lovely visitor attraction with its lakes and gardens.

A view over the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Park, London, 1924. On the left is the Australia pavilion. The Canadian National Railways building is on the right and the bandstand is at centre. (Photo by Alfred Hind Robinson/A. H. Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The first stage of the tower was built but soon the company began to run into financial problems and the legs kept collapsing. It had to be scaled back and then scrapped altogether as teh company behind it faced liquidation.

So London’s plan to build an Eiffel Tower even better than the French never came to fruition – well how could it!

But Wembley Park proved an extremely popular visitor destination getting thousands of visitors each year. People could do football, cricket, cycling, rowing, athletics and, in winter, ice skating on the frozen lake.

The one section of the tower that had been completed was opened to visitors for a while but was later deemed unsafe and eventually demolished in the early 1900s.

But the park went on to host the British Empire Exhibition of 1925 with exhibits from all across the globe and a huge new stadium that in time would go on to become Wembley Stadium.

When the stadium was rebuilt in 1903, the foundations for the Wembley Tower were rediscovered.

We all know what Wembley and the surrounding area has gone on to become, so although the Tower of Pisa idea seems crazy the spirit of it to put Wembley on the map has lived on.





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