The opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics is barely eighteen months away. And with Hopkins’ Velodrome about to formally open this month, this seems as good a time as any to take stock of progress and see what Europe’s biggest construction site has in store. A recent visit to the Olympic Park reveals a development that after years in captivity is itching to be finally revealed to an expectant outside world. And all in all, the verdict is resoundingly positive.
Populous’s Olympic Stadium is arguably the most high-profile venue and its rooftop floodlights towers are already a recognisable landmark on East London’s skyline. The stadium was never meant to have the spectacular visual impact of Beijing’s lauded equivalent and it shows. It is functional and utilitarian, efficient rather than extravagant, with exposed stairwells and sparse finishes ramming the point the home.
But its scale does impress and LOCOG’s invitation this week for bids to fund the fabric or digital wrap that was initially envisaged but dropped when Osborne swung his axe last October, is encouraging. If the wrap does happen, then the stadium will have a chance to try and capture at least some of the glamour of its Far Eastern predecessor after all.
Less certain is the fate of the stadium after the Games with West Ham and Tottenham football clubs still jostling for ownership. For a Games rightly obsessed with legacy, the debacle exposes serious flaws in the ODAs’ decision making process right at the start of the bid. But it does also reveal the fundamental problem that affects all Olympic Games: how to find viable long-term uses for venues specifically built for sports that are only ever universally popular for two weeks every four years.
Ironically, Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre could well turn out to be one of the biggest architectural disappointments of the Games. The stunning, sumptuous wave-like structure that helped win the bid and ensure at least one superstar venue has now been grievously molested by the two door-stop spectator wings awkwardly rammed into its side. Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe may recently have heaped praise on the venue’s facilities. But through no specific fault of the architect, the overall effect is surreal and utterly ridiculous.
Between the Aquatics Centre and the stadium the distinctive red exoskeleton of Anish Kapoor’s equally controversial ArcelorMittal Orbit structure is already visible several metres above ground. At a symbolic 3 metres taller than St. Paul’s when complete, the jury is still out on what exactly this hulking monolith has planned for the unsuspecting city around it. But it will certainly look diverting on TV and will provide the kind of visual sound-bite specifically designed to divert attention away from the more architecturally cautious approach generally employed throughout the park.
From a distance, the procession of rectangular apartment blocks at the Olympic Village evoke a disturbing whiff of Stalinist uniformity. However, it will not be fair to judge them until they are complete and can be studied at close range. Regardless, the 3000 homes it will provide after the Games will undoubtedly be one of London 2012’s most positive social legacies. As will AHMM’s Chobham Academy, it’s voluptuously curved, ‘Polo’-like form now clearly visible on the edge of the park.
But the architectural star of London 2012 may turn out to be an outsider. Hopkins’ Velodrome is now complete and is staggeringly beautiful. It is a sculpturally elegant, meticulously engineered drum that could well become the Games’ signature iconic venue. If our performance in the cycling categories is as impressive as last time, it may also enjoy the kind of TV exposure that may grant it household familiarity. Watch this space.
Landscaping is where London 2012 may also well and truly come into its own. The first designs for the Olympic Park showed its network of rivers and creeks buried under a blanket of bridges and infrastructure. But it is now clear that the designers have realised that the waterways and natural landscape are an opportunity rather than an obstacle.
The southern reaches of the River Lea, once underused and unloved, (from a municipal perspective at least) are now lined with intricately manicured verges and paths. Contaminated water and land has been cleaned and purified. Around 2000 trees are being planted on the site, the biggest exercise of its kind in London’s history. London 2012 has not just rejuvenated the urban fabric of this part of East London but also its natural landscape.
Finally, Westfield Stratford City, the sprawling retail mega-structure also on the edge of the Park that will be Europe's largest shopping centre, is unlikely to win any architectural awards. But it too is symbolic of the huge urban regeneration and commercial opportunities that the Olympics has unlocked.
And this is the key to why Olympics will eventually be of immense benefit to London: its unique potential to consolidate a collective vision for regeneration. The sheer scale and speed of the transformation of what was once one of the most deprived parts of the country would simply been unthinkable before 2005.
In an ideal world it would not take a single international showpiece event to provoke large-scale urban regeneration that is sorely overdue. But history tells us that were it not for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 we wouldn’t have Wembley Stadium, were it not for the 1951 Festival of Britain we wouldn’t have the South Bank and were it not for the 2000 Millennium Exhibition; we wouldn’t have witnessed the wholesale transformation of the Greenwich Peninsula.
Our Olympics will be very different from Beijing’s. The focus will be less on spectacle and more on legacy. The architecture will be more efficient than exceptional, more versatile than visionary. But if that is the price we have to pay for ensuring long-term economically sustainable urban renewal then so be it.
Those prone to salivating over the superstar designs at Beijing’s Olympics easily forget that they allegedly cost an undisclosed sum in the region of a whopping £25bn to £30bn, up to three times as much as our own. Furthermore, despite the Olympics’ incredible power as a force for good, they have also left a trail of debt and dereliction across the globe stretching from Athens to Montreal. London must avoid this at all costs.
I predict London 2012 will be a resounding success. Inevitable consternation and controversy about VIP IOC lanes and blanket complimentary hospitality for IOC delegates will eventually subside once we realise that what has been built on what was essentially an industrial wasteland is a brand new city.
In any case, when it comes to scandal, the IOC assumes choirboy status when compared to FIFA. Criminally, we didn’t get the 2018 World Cup. But we will be hosting the Greatest Show on Earth which, arguably, is the next best thing. On current evidence, I have every confidence that we’re about to show the world in general (and the two or three FIFA executives with something akin to a conscience in particular) that we’re more than capable of putting on a spectacular show.