London 2012 – an ambitious promise
Text: Wainwright, Oliver, London
In the planning of the Olympic Games the main focus was not on the few weeks of sport, but on what is to follow: the regeneration of East London, with the Olympic Park at its nucleus. What has become of the vision of the sustainable Games? A critical look at the current state of affairs and a look forward to 2014, when the fence around the park is to be removed.
London won the bid for the 2012 Olympics on an ambitious promise. Unlike any other Games that had gone before, the UK capital’s pitch was based not on two weeks of sport, but on what would come after.
“Legacy is probably nine-tenths of what this process is about, not just 16 days of Olympic sport,” proclaimed Sebastian Coe, chairman of the bid. And this was not only to appease Londoners, on which the fleeting funfair would be inflicted – it was key to seducing the International Olympic Committee. In its evaluation, the IOC praised the London bid as “a catalyst for the re-development of the Lower Lea Valley, a 200-hectare rehabilitation and regeneration project in East London,” noting with approval that it “would provide long-term benefits for the residents of London, including employment, housing, educational and recreational opportunities.”
The Olympics was thus framed as the miracle cure for the maligned East End, an expedient way to leverage private sector funds for this long-earmarked site. Strategically positioned at the fulcrum of the Thames Gateway Growth Area and the London–Stansted–Cambridge Growth Corridor, the Olympic park would be at the heart of the Lower Lea Valley Mayoral Opportunity Area and the collision of four of the poorest boroughs in the city – moments from Stratford, one of the best-connected transport hubs in the country. The choice of site was a no-brainer.
Topographically, the land in question also proved usefully isolated: severed from its surroundings by a tangle of rivers and canals, deep railway gulleys and roaring A-roads, it was a naturally secure island site. As a result of its isolation, it had always been an overlooked edgeland, home to the kind of uses and communities that accrue beyond the fold in the map. Historically a site of heavy industry and rail lands, it was now a rich patchwork of independent businesses, from scaffolding pole suppliers to smoked salmon producers, newspaper printers to waste recyclers, Chinese food wholesalers to Halal abattoirs. Warehouse churches congregated next to bed makers, news printers next to allotments, travellers’ camps next to bus depots.
What had looked, from arm’s-length, like post-industrial brownfield, was in fact home to this heterogeneous melee of uses. As a result, the London Development Agency had to compensate more than 3,000 businesses and individuals, through a lengthy process of compulsory purchase and relocation, in order to assemble the land required to build the Olympic campus. For those on the wrong side of the fence, this would not be quickly forgotten.
A marriage of convenience
Perhaps more important than any of the factors above in the choice of this site was the existing momentum of a vast private development project. Dating back to the mid-1990s, Stratford City was an ambitious £3 billion plan by developers Chelsfield and Stanhope to transform 73 hectares of the derelict rail lands into a “new metropolitan centre”: 5,000 homes, 500,000sq m of offices and 200,000sq m of retail and leisure, all clustered around the new international station.
Designed by Fletcher Priest, Arup and West 8, it was the biggest planning application London had ever seen. It was of a scale and ambition that would surely never be realised. The Olympic bid – which came along in 2005, just as this masterplan gained outline permission – proved to be a convenient catalyst to actually make it happen, with the demand accelerated by the need for an athletes’ village to house 17,000 athletes and officials. Weaving a landscape of leisure around a new urban hub, the Olympics and Stratford City made a marriage of convenience, each used to justify the viability of the other.
The reality was not quite so simple. Faltering economic confidence led the UK developers to back out, selling up to two Australian giants. Westfield took on the retail and leisure component – choosing to deliver Stratford City’s “town centre” as an inward-facing covered shopping mall – while Lend Lease would act as development manager for the housing, happily leaving financial responsibility with the publicly-funded Olympic Delivery Authority as the credit crunch hit. With these two parts critically separated either side of the gaping international rail cut, and each in the hands of a different private interest, the idea of an integrated “City” was abandoned before it had even begun.
Homes for heroes?
Walking the streets of the athletes’ village today, this compromised, convoluted history is very much in evidence. There is something peculiarly diagrammatic about the place, a sense that comes not only from its coarse, repetitive grain of perimeter blocks, each around 100 x 80m extruded to ten storeys, but from the gestural boulevards that sweep between them. These imposing axes, which stretch up to 30m wide, are aligned with Canary Wharf and the Shard respectively, as if attempting to tie this rootless place into the macro network of grands projets. Compared to the neighbouring fabric of terraced family houses, the plan seems completely out of scale, like a chunk of a high-rise Spanish suburb airlifted into the fine grain of east London.
The build-quality of the blocks is exceedingly high, as it should be for the £1 billion price tag, and the massing is logical. Inspired by Hammarby in Stockholm and Bercy in Paris, each of the 11 plots is organised with a slab to the north, a wing either side, and a series of three “pavilions” to the south, connected by glazed winter gardens. The lower three floors are devoted to “townhouse” maisonettes, whose first floors open on to private back gardens and a shared courtyard to the rear, while apartments are stacked above, each enjoying an unusually large balcony by UK standards. This arrangement allows for front doors on to the pavement, with parking at grade concealed beneath the podium courtyards, going some way towards making proper residential streets.
For speed and ease of programme, the blocks were constructed with a generic concrete-framed “chassis”, to which 17 different architects were then invited to apply a dressing. Fearing a riotous zoo of styles, a strict design code was imposed, leading to a general assimilation of creamy pre-cast panels. From every angle, this “village” thus presents a homogeneous cliff face, a forbidding wall of beige.
A landscape of spectacle
The Olympic Park itself extends to the west and south of the village, a verdant landscape threaded around the River Lea and the smaller Bow Back rivers, with the major venues placed like islands in this undulating parkland.
Major remediation work had to be carried out across the site, following the discovery of high levels of heavy metals and cyanide from past industrial uses, which entailed extensive soil washing and river bed-dredging to create what now looks like a pristine, if rather sterile, riverside landscape. Early ideas of retaining some of the industrial heritage, along the lines of the Latzs’ work in the Ruhr Valley, were soon abandoned due to cost and time – and when it was realised the sheds in question were not quite as picturesque as the rusting coal giants of the Ruhr. Instead, neat patterns of flowers now recall the footprints of buildings long destroyed.
The venues themselves are a mixed bag, the result of continually changing briefs as London struggled to work out quite how temporary it wanted them to be. The best – such as Michael Hopkins’ Velodrome – had a fixed “legacy mode” from the outset. The presence of the much-loved Eastway cycling circuit on the site before the Games, a local institution since 1975, ensured that the Lycra lobby got its way for a permanent world-class venue. The £105 million Velopark includes a BMX track, a 6 km mountain bike trail and a 1 mile road racing circuit – and, of course, the 6,000-seat Velodrome, a curvaceous timber bowl spanned by a slender cable-net roof.
This taught structure – as efficient as the bicycle itself – stands as a lean foil to Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre to the south, which uses 30 times the amount of steel (3,000 tonnes) to cover a similar area. Hadid’s £269 million building was intended as the spectacular centrepiece of the park, a sinuous stingray, rippling with muscular energy. And it is; or rather, it will be – the effect has since been ruined, in Games-mode, by the imposition of two boxy temporary seating stands that engulf the lithe creature with 15,000 extra seats.
The main stadium, designed by Populous (formerly HOK Sport), straddles a similar compromise between permanent and temporary. Originally conceived as the “flat-pack stadium,” to be demounted and shipped off to the next Olympics, its steelwork has been designed for easy disassembly and reuse. Yet, as the budget escalated to £500 million, and hopes were raised of London hosting further international sporting events, it was decided it would make sense to keep the stadium after all – even if this involved costly retrofitting after the Games to make it suitable for football.
In its favour, it is the lightest stadium of its size ever built, its structure stripped back to the bare minimum, with all ancillary facilities housed in temporary pods. It is therefore all the more perverse that right next door a gigantic monument to Lakshmi Mittal’s steel empire has been erected, in the form of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, designed by Anish Kapoor and dubbed the “mutant trombone”. Where the stadium truss is slim and elegant, the Orbit’s twisted tangle of joints, rising to 115m, now stands as a warning to the worst excesses of computer-driven design and manufacture, a grotesque inversion of the other venues’ graceful structural logic – a mockery of the idea of a stripped-back “austerity Olympics”.
A Great Estate for the East End?
It is important to question quite how far the vision for London 2012 has remained true to the original premise of a light, provisional, flat-pack Games, coupled with a lasting legacy for east London. The bid made the argument for the Olympics as a catalyst for city-making, a means of providing a permanent urban infrastructure with only a transient overlay for the two week sporting circus. Conceived with a budget of £2.4 billion, the project has since mushroomed to around £11 billion, less than 2% of which has come from the private sector, and many of the stadia are now set to stay – vast venues for which there is uncertain demand.
Questions also remain about the nature of the community that will develop here and the arrival of the promised 11,000 new homes. The 3,000 units of the athletes’ village, which cost £1 billion of public money to build, have now been sold off to a private consortium, led by the Qatari royal family, for only £557 million. Half of the flats will be classed as affordable, but the definition of “affordable housing” has recently been altered by the coalition government to mean up to 80% of market rent – putting the homes far out of reach of most residents of the Olympic boroughs.
Interestingly, since the athletes village was designed – the perimeter-block form of which was to provide the model for the rest of the park’s legacy neighbourhoods – the masterplan has been radically rethought. Both in response to the less confident economic climate and the need for more low-rise family housing than blocks of 1-2 bed flats, the forthcoming legacy plots draw inspiration from London’s traditional grain of terraces, mews streets and squares. The outline plans for Chobham Manor, the first legacy neighbourhood to be developed from 2013 to the north of the athletes’ village, already look much more promising than the glassy towers proposed at the height of the boom.
The London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) was formed in April 2012 to take responsibility for delivering this legacy vision. Based on the model of the Thatcherite Docklands Development Corporation of the 1980s, which oversaw the creation of Canary Wharf, the body will act as landowner, plan-maker and planning authority, as well as having compulsory purchase powers. Crucially, its redline boundary extends beyond the park, to cover a wider area including Hackney Wick and Fish Island to the west, Pudding Mill and Sugarhouse Lanes to the south, as well as parts of the Stratford and Leyton to the east and north.
Many of these areas have already suffered from Olympic-fuelled speculative development, with clusters of steroidal tower blocks lining Stratford High Street, Ikea’s Landprop development arm demolishing historic warehouses on Sugarhouse Lane, and gated enclaves sprouting in Hackney Wick. Through a series of “Olympic fringe” masterplans, the LLDC hopes to strengthen what remains of the former characters of these surrounding neighbourhoods, with the ambition that they will inform the nature of legacy development within the park – rather than the other way around.
Key to this plan of pollination is a strategy for temporary uses after the Games. Due to the remediation works of the “transformation phase”, in which temporary venues are removed and the land made good, the Olympic fences will not come down until spring 2014. From then on there will be sprawling acres of vacant development plots lying empty for much the next decades. To avoid a similar situation to that on the Greenwich Peninsular – where the Millennium Dome was intended to propagate a new mixed-use city quarter that never appeared – there are plans to “activate” these dormant swathes with interim activities. Local cultural entrepreneurs – as well as large corporate investors – will be invited to propose temporary projects, seeding the tabula rasa with kernels of life. If successful, it could mimic the evolutionary model of Amsterdam’s northern docklands, the uses informing the nature of the permanent plan. If not, it might merely provide an expedient stop-gap, a form of cheerful window-dressing before top-down development arrives.
The LLDC has frequently compared its constitution to that of London’s benign great estates, such as Grosvenor and Cadogan, of which the city’s West End is made. What this favourable comparison fails to assert is that these very models of public, urbane life were originally built as exclusive, gated enclaves in the eighteenth century, fenced off and patrolled by private security forces. Critics have speculated that the future of the Olympic site will be the latter, with plots sold off piecemeal to the highest bidder, the park a private space run by private companies. As the Olympic legacy evolves over the next thirty years, driven by this new all-powerful development corporation, let us hope they will not be proved right.