The stadium is the subject of a row before its design is even begun and the client’s chairman has departed in mysterious circumstances … Vikki Miller reports on the difficult early days of the London Olympics

Contractor Sir Robert McAlpine and its team of HOK Sport, Buro Happold and M&E Engineering may be celebrating its success in being named preferred bidder for the Olympic stadium, but it now seems that victory marks the start of a long battle.

The concern is not that the stadium is going to be late, or incur gruesome cost overruns, but that it will be boring. And as the stadium is to be the centrepiece of the whole Games, the critics argue that a lacklustre design will damage the world’s perception of the country, the city and the industry that built it.

The leading critic is Lord Rogers, for long the quasi-official spokesperson for English architecture, and now a member of the Olympic design review panel. He has privately warned the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) that the stadium needs to be more iconic. And his is not a lone voice.

These warnings may sound premature, given that nobody has a clear idea what the finished article will look like, but what triggered the architectural alarm bells was the ODA’s decision that the stadium would be procured on a design-and-build basis.

This procurement route is loathed by architects because it relies on the contractor to oversee the design process.

And because the contractor is bearing the lion’s share of the risk, it tends not to engage in the kind of structural gymnastics that Santiago Calatrava pulled off at Athens, or that Herzog & de Meuron is undertaking at Beijing.

One source close to the process puts the point starkly. “Why has the client gone down the route that everyone was afraid of? By choosing this type of contract for the stadium, the client has already eliminated the chance of a strong design competition for the showpiece structure of the Olympics.”

It is unlikely that the ODA will backtrack, but what is clear is that the pressure on it is mounting. Since the authority is acting as client and planning authority, it appears to suffer from something of a democratic deficit. This means it has to be seen to be responding to other views, and Rogers’ review team is the only independent body in the design process.

As well as the critics of the contract itself, many others are unhappy with the way it was let. They argue that the prequalification criteria were so tough that smaller, more innovative companies were shut out.

Why has the client gone down the route that everyone was afraid of?

A source close to the process says the prequalification was made purposely difficult to comply with to ensure that only McAlpine or a top overseas firm made the shortlist. “Who has experience of big stadiums in the UK? It’s either going to be Macs or Multiplex, and I know which one I’d go with. The only other option would be someone from the States.”

For top marks, the contractor and architect had to have had experience of working on a 50,000-seat stadium and the contractor had to have an annual turnover of more than £500m. So, although it has not yet won the job, Team McAlpine is the only horse in the race, despite the ODA having stated in its memorandum of information that it wanted to shortlist three to six contenders.

This has raised fears that McAlpine will be able to bid up costs in the three months before the deal is closed. That issue was raised at a committee meeting of the Greater London Assembly last week. Dennis Hone, director of finance and corporate services at the ODA, admitted at the time: “I can understand that there is a lack of competitive tension. But there was one clear pre-qualified bidder against the others.”

Hone went on to explain that the ODA could go back to the market if it felt that the consortium’s designs were not good enough, or if a suitable price was not reached. But observers are questioning if there will be a market to go back to.

Skanska said it would not fulfil the prequalification criteria, and Taylor Woodrow said it had too much other work on. This left most architects unable to find a contractor to team up with. Ken Shuttleworth, founder of Make, says his practice did not enter the competition because he could not find a contractor

to work with. He says: “Everyone had a problem finding a contractor. Hardly anyone I know entered it.” Shuttleworth’s former boss, Lord Foster, did place a bid – but without a contractor.

To pacify critics who claim the design will not be iconic enough, it is understood that Team McAlpine has been in talks with stage designers to “jazz up” the stadium for the opening ceremony. But what is not yet certain is that it will take the job. A source close to the negotiations said it would decide by the end of the year if it was to go through with its bid.

The source says: “It is still difficult to put a price on the stadium, because negotiations about the designs are still a way off at this stage. The deadline for this round of negotiations is Christmas. By then, you should know whether McAlpine will proceed with this or not.”