The Olympic Park for the 2012 London Olympic Games
I am just back from a crazy, wonderful 36 hours in London this past Tuesday and Wednesday.
I had seen the site of this project in every stage of its existence: I went with my friend Ricky Burdett, who was in charge of planning during part of the plan’s development, to see the area in its raw original state; I saw it with Ricky after the high-tension power lines and their 52 pylons (up to 65m in height) that had crisscrossed the site were removed and buried in tunnels, the polluted ground had been detoxified, and the earth had been moved to create the topography for the site. And this was my chance to see it now that it was taking its intended form for the Olympics. Ricky and Andy Altman, Chief Executive of the Olympic Park Legacy Company, led six of us on an exciting tour of the Olympic Park.
The Olympic Park is shaping up extremely well. The original plan for the site by Alejandro Zaera-Polo (who, with his wife, Farshid Moussavi, headed the oddly-named firm, Foreign Office Architects), which was done before the bid was won by London, has essentially been maintained in the actual execution of the site. The plan organized the venues for the Olympics along the north-south axis of the River Lea, making cleverly landscaped green space on both banks of this narrow river into the living heart of the site. From an urban planning point of view, the site was designed to use the improvements to what was formerly the polluted post-industrial wasteland of the Lea Valley to unite and revitalize the poor, run-down East London neighborhoods on either side of it—the largely poor white boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets to the West, and the predominantly non-white poor immigrant boroughs of Newham (with one of the lowest proportions of ethnically “white British” in the country, less than 1/3) and Waltham Forest to the East. The plan is intended to “stitch together” these neighborhoods which were deeply divided by geographic and social barriers and to attempt to bring jobs and better living conditions in order ultimately to reconnected whole region.
The conception looks like it is going to work rather well. The overall organization seems sound, and the central green space seems quite effective and beautiful. (Much of the landscape architecture was done by marvelous experts like George Hargreaves and John Hopkins; and we saw a quite brilliant section of the river landscape which was done by the former which was particularly great.) The biggest question is whether the financial result will be as good as hoped for: many of the structures have all along been intended to remain as wonderful community resources, but others need to find owners that will serve to bring jobs and business activity to the area— something that is crucial to the success of the Olympics’ legacy, both as a financial matter and in terms of the ultimate health of the region; and, as yet, it is not clear how many firm tenants that have been secured for some of the essential buildings. Judging from the way things look, I suspect that the future linkage of the western bits of the project into the existing communities is going to be successful, while the integration of the eastern side of the site with the Borough of Newham will remain extremely difficult to accomplish—largely because of the rail lines and major controlled access highways that create profoundly difficult physical boundaries to bridge.
Here is the layout of the plan as it is being constructed (the north-south axis is displayed horizontally, with north to the left):
The venues themselves look quite good. Although it is a bit reminiscent of a vast, hovering potato chip (or “crisp,” as the locals would have it) the London Velopark (for bicycle racing) is completely gorgeous:
This graceful, smoothly curving form houses one of the venues that will become a permanent part of the legacy park—a center for cycling and racing for the city and the local community.
London Aquatics Centre, one of the other structures that will remain as a public facility in the Legacy Park, is also amazing—and much more successful than I had imaged it would be. This indoor facility has two 50m swimming pools and a 25m diving pool. It was designed by Pritzker Prize winner Zaha Hadid in 2004, before London won the bid. She created an organic, vital, arched central form—purposely evocative of a porpoise in motion, to evoke the aquatic nature of what will take place within. It is a quite beautiful form, even if it is more than mildly reminiscent of a more moderate version of Eero Saarinen’s Ingalls Rink at Yale University. It seems almost weightless, even though in actuality it is an enormously heavy, steel roof.
During the Games the venue will have a capacity of 17,500, provided be the lightly constructed side wings that with accommodate the seating.
After the Games, the two temporary seating wings will be removed, reducing the capacity to 2,500 (with an additional 1000 seats available for major events). Hadid pointedly emphasized the temporariness of the side wings in the form and materials she used for their construction.
The Olympic Stadium looks quite good, as well. As a unique 80,000-seat stadium, it will be the centerpiece for the 2012 Games, hosting the opening and closing ceremonies and the athletics events.
Originally it had been designed to be broken down to a considerably smaller stadium after the Games; but that plan has been revised, and it will now be kept at its full capacity, with the hope that it will become the home to a major football team in the future. It is a simple structure, but actually very graceful and powerful in that simplicity.
There are a couple of clever, totally disposable, venues that are essentially frames covered in plastic that work quite well. The most successful is the Basketball Arena, the largest temporary venue built for any Games:
And, a similar temporary structure, albeit not as attractive, is the Water Polo Arena:
The very worst thing at the Olympic Park is the Orbit, a rather ridiculous, 115m (377 ft) high, sculptural tower designed by Anish Kapoor (whose work I usually like very much) and Cecil Balmond—which, sadly, is likely to become the iconic image for the London Olympics. It is now official entitled the ArcelorMittal Orbit, since that company has contributed £16 million of its £19.1 million cost. The Orbit functions as an observation tower, containing indoor viewing platforms on two levels, with each level having the capacity for 150 people. Accorrding to the Greater London Authority, the observation platform offers "unparalleled views of the entire 250 acres of the Olympic Park and London's skyline." It is expected to handle 700 visitor per hour; the entrance fee will be £15 for adults and £7 for children. It is suggested that visitors take the lift to the top and descend the 455-step staircase.
It is dreadfully bad, looking like some weird cross between an airport control tower and an amusement park rollercoaster. I am told that it is being referred to as “the twisted testicle.” Unfortunately, the Orbit will tower over all the other structures in the Park (by comparison, the Olympic Stadium is only 59m high).
In a way, it will provide a point visual reference and orientation that is otherwise sorely lacking on the site; unfortunately, it will do it in a tasteless way. As Britain largest piece of “public art,” it is not very artistic.
The Olympic Village, designed to house the athletes at the Olympics, will have 3,300 apartments, with 17,320 beds, and will provide each athlete with 16m² floor space. Each apartment will have a TV, internet access, and a private courtyard. There will be dining hall that will cater for 5,500 athletes at a time. The style of the buildings is generally acceptable, and the facilities will be basically comfortable:
Nevertheless, the sheer massiveness and density of the Village buildings seems rather oppressive from the outside. There are, however, ample interior spaces, which should make the development more livable. The first three floors of each building are designed as maisonettes, each with its own entrance to the street, which should serve to enhance the vitality of the urban street life—especially after the Village is converted after the games into residences.