It may have been a rocky road but London 2012 has given the world a taste of UK construction’s quality. Now it’s time to make good on the legacy the Games has left us with
The athlete’s tale is familiar: early promise followed by years of hard graft, failure followed by a measure of success then a final momentous effort that results in gold and tears of joy.
And so it was for London’s Olympic project. London’s bid to win the Games at Singapore in 2005 showed inspirational promise. I’d just been elected president of the RIBA and as I watched Lord Coe and Tony Blair’s bid I thought, “this looks like a winner - it’s going to be great”.
The children in the bid video and Nelson Mandela’s endorsement of London probably won it for us, but the Zaha Hadid pool and the Foreign Office Architect’s stadium looked fantastic and futuristic, like something from the 21st century.
The RIBA did have a locus on the Games: to hold the government and the ODA’s feet to the fire to ensure we got architecture that was a credit to the nation
My RIBA colleagues were abuzz with excitement. “Let’s have an Olympic committee,” they said. “What for?” said I, “it’s going to be fine.” Nevertheless, I decided to go and see Jack Lemley, the formidable US-trained architect turned constructor who chaired the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA). He greeted me and said the RIBA president had a “locus” on the Games. That, at least, was welcoming.
However, he also made clear the he was £1bn short, the Games had to open on time and if they didn’t look great that was tough (or words to that effect). He was pretty straightforward, and I realised that winning the Games was one thing, carrying them out well was going to be another.
Indeed, the RIBA did have a locus on the Games: it was going to be holding the government and the ODA’s feet to the fire to make sure we got architecture that was a credit to a nation that has some of the best architects in the world.
Early on the problems rained in. The architects who did the designs for the bid would not necessarily be used for the real thing (goodbye Foreign Office) and the land clean up would take ages. The pre-qualification questionnaire conditions were ridiculous, the stadium brief looked confused and there was only one bidder. The athletes’ village looked somewhere between flat pack and cookie cutter, and the ODA looked like a builder’s monopoly with little or no design advice or input. It could all go very wrong.
With others, like Ricky Burdett, professor of urban studies at the LSE, the RIBA began a campaign. In 2006 we held our conference in Venice and culture secretary Tessa Jowell attended. I told her that the Games could be the plasterboard and paint Olympics. She reeled, seemed oblivious to the issues and demanded an immediate briefing from officials. Slowly, things began to change.
Lemley resigned in 2006 and was replaced by David Higgins; John Armitt (now Sir John Armitt) joined the ODA; Peter Rogers’ team at the Strategic Forum for Construction drafted the construction commitments; Nicholas Serota was appointed to the ODA board (he eventually told me to back off with my criticisms); Paul Finch was appointed to head a special design review panel; Peter Cook joined the stadium design team and design experts were brought in from CABE and elsewhere. I’m not sure they liked me, but the ODA was building a solid team.
More than anything London came alive for the Olympics and gave a party that Beijing could only dream of
In 2008 I went to Beijing with the London team and saw we had a tough act to follow.
What we did has not been perfect: some of the venues are unashamedly flat pack; the stadium brief does not seem to work in legacy mode; and the less said about the Orbit the better. But the whole is massively greater than the sum of the parts.
The stadium may not be great architecture, but it’s a great backdrop for a dramatic show. The athletes’ village is a credible piece of architecture and urbanism and will be the start of a whole new community. The velodrome is a sublime piece of design and the park is a great setting. More than that, London came alive for the Games and we gave a party that Beijing could only dream of.
I am now part of a US firm and speak to my American colleagues every day. They have loved the whole thing, from the quirky opening ceremony, through our amazing sporting achievements, to the final old and new Brit-rockers concert. The message is the same - respect to the Brits.
That may be the real legacy. No longer are we a second-rate nation. We have shown that we can be relied on to get things right. We are a “can-do” nation - and if you’ve got a big project on the books, give it to the Brits - you are in safe hands. The construction industry’s legacy is not just in the East End of London - it’s in the projects we can win abroad with our enhanced credibility. They will be our gold medals.
Jack Pringle is managing director of Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will and chair of the CIC