Passing the Torch

Passing the Torch

In five months, some 10 million ticketholders will descend on London for the 2012 Olympics where over $14 billion in construction nears completion. But that’s only the prelude. Gwen Webber takes measure of the event’s post-game strategy.

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, 500 acres of former brownfield site in the depths of East London, has undergone a tremendous transformation since London won the Olympic bid in 2005 to host the Games. The impressive buildings by internationally acclaimed architects that sit at the heart of the scheme have won accolades and commendations for design and sustainability, but these are not the crowning glory. For the park organizers and the masterplanners, as well as for some of the designers of the iconic venues, it is the infrastructure and ideology around creating an on-going life for the park that has presented the greatest challenges and opportunities.

“We never thought the Olympics project was as important as the city project,” said Jason Prior, chief executive for planning, design, and development at AECOM, the firm responsible for the initial masterplan presented to the International Olympics Committee (IOC). “This was the starting point because of the huge socioeconomic disadvantage of this part of the city.” The plan by a design team that includes Foreign Office Architects, Allies and Morrison, Zaha Hadid Architects, and Populous, has overlain the former wetland wilderness and industrial heritage of the Lower Lea Valley in East London with a carefully crafted landscape by Hargreaves Associates as well as four permanent venues (the Aquatics Center as the gateway in the southeast, the main stadium in the south, the handball arena in the west, and the Velodrome with its mountain bike trail to the north), three temporary adaptable venues, and the voluminous residential zone in the northern part of the site.


With a tendency to be overbearing, the mantra-like emphasis on the Olympic “legacy” is widely accepted as being the edge that helped London pip Paris to the post seven years ago. As the Games have aged and Pierre Coubertin’s original intent for a rotation of host countries has lost favor among IOC members, the idea of a sustainable Olympiad has permeated the committee’s founding criteria. While Paris proposed using its existing infrastructure for its 2012 bid and Beijing produced the most expensive main stadium to date in 2008, London’s is the largest regeneration project in the U.K. since the Second World War and, once the Games are over in September, it will also be the biggest new public park in Europe. To achieve these ambitions, the park’s infrastructure has been developed with two layers: “Games time” and “Legacy-mode.”

Even before London decided to bid for the Olympics, the area was already undergoing significant development. To the southeast of the park, sandwiched by the existing Stratford town center, Arup had been working on a masterplan for Stratford City since 1997. The 180-acre retail-led development for client Westfield was driven by the development of Stratford International station, which would connect to continental Europe via the Channel Tunnel, and which would also create important links from East to West London via the Central Line underground and further east via the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). Once the bid was won, the scheme was assimilated into the Olympics Park but the residential zone—renamed the Athletes’ Village—failed to attract a buyer and the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) had to bear the cost, in effect becoming the client.


The 2,818 new apartments in 11 residential plots form a series of Tetris-like courtyard clusters across the northern side of the park, covering 67 acres in total and providing a mix of low-cost housing with more up-market rental apartments and mixed-use blocks. One of the Stratford City planners stayed on as master planner for the Olympics was Fletcher Priest Architects (FPA), who created a highly detailed brief and specific design guidance for the Village’s 16 architects. Long-listed by the ODA from an international call for submissions, the architects include Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, DSDHA, and De Rijke Marsh Morgan. “The selection of architects was informed by the client’s view of the temperament of those practices to work in abnormal situations as much as the quality of their design,” said Jonathan Kendall, director of urban design and partner at FPA. “One of the big debates all the way through was about the balance between homogeneity and diversity: we were trying to hit an appropriate middle ground.”


The largest single venue in the park, the Athletes’ Village will expand to include a total of 4,000 new homes and provide the new residents and existing communities with a school campus, Chobham Academy, as well as a medical center. During the Games, temporary structures in the Village will house back-of-house activities such as catering, and transportation will develop to include five new neighborhoods, with around 7,000 homes and new infrastructure over a 30-year period. Inside the residential units, which will house 17,000 athletes, partitions will define the athletes’ bedrooms, and rooms allocated as kitchens for future tenants will remain bare until after the Games. Meanwhile, other venues have faced even greater design hurdles to make their structures flexible. The main stadium by Populous and Peter Cook, which was planned to shrink from 80,000 capacity to 25,000, will now be adapted to host the World Athletics Championships in 2017 and reduce to only 60,000. As the park’s centerpiece, the stadium has been criticized for its lack of design innovation but as far as sustainability goes, it is an efficient, lean machine. Made of a steel and concrete frame, it has removable tiers that speak to Cook’s long-held interest in plug-in architecture as part of his influential 1970s practice, Archigram, while its lightweight bicycle-wheel-inspired roof completes the 10,000-ton structure (a quarter of the weight of the Bird’s Nest stadium, albeit also with a smaller capacity).

The two main distinctions between the stadium (called the Lily) and most other stadia is that first, the 2012 venue will remain an athletics stadium, while others tend to be forced to adapt their use rather than their size to accommodate demand. Second is the lack of hospitality built inside the structure; the food and ticketing pavilions have been placed outside on podiums leading into the building. “The advantage of its short-term use is that it can have a relaxed, festival atmosphere,” said Philip Johnson, principal at Populous. Even the external skin, a continually twisting fabric around the concrete base, has been designed to reflect the transitory nature of a pavilion. Similarly, a temporary rubber surface fills the gaps between the Central Park bridge’s three Z-shaped structures, which will be the main pedestrian route during the Games. The 90-foot- and 130-foot-wide bridges over the two rivers wrapping the stadium island will shrink to around 30 feet wide and have been designed in couples, one permanent and the other temporary, to accommodate the expanded number of visitors. This has also impacted upon the shape and feel of the park. As well as the demand for proximity to existing and new neighborhoods, “the positioning of the venues was also informed by the Games schedule,” said Kevin Owens, design principal at the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG). “It was determined by the parkland as well…the waterways and natural landscape.”


For the Aquatics Center and its role as the Olympics gateway adjacent to the Westfield shopping mall (siphoning visitors from the station onto the entry bridge at an incline of 23 feet), the challenge was the restricted site. The orientation and program were mostly prescribed as the site is flanked by a railway line on one side and canal on the other. The former use of the site also affected construction: the design team had to build a bridge underground so as not to put weight on buried tunnels covering existing electricity pylons that lie directly beneath the building’s roof supports. The unsightly additional “wings” attached to the concrete shell, which provide 15,000 additional seats during the Games, were, according to Jim Herevin, associate at Zaha Hadid Architects, always intended to be there—a fact the press up until now has aggressively ignored. “This is what happens when you try to develop a site that is so complex and so large,” said Heverin. “The bottom line is that no one would try to build this type of building on this kind of site except for the Olympics and the government because they are looking at the greater good.”

Ensuring the Games has a lasting impact rests on its infrastructure’s capacity to evolve. The Aquatics Center has been built with a system of flexible floors and boons that will enable the pools to be divided up and their heights to be divided. During the Games, there will be no reception or lockers and the changing rooms will have temporary partitions, while a glass screen allows visitors to look at the pool underneath the podium. “Effectively what we have done is design for after-use first and then changed it to be used for Olympics,” said Herevin.


Indeed, this strategy was employed across the board to avoid the park becoming another Expo, like many object-led Olympic sites before it. For the temporary buildings and interstitial spaces, the Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC) has been developing a program to retain a level of activity while permanent uses are agreed upon. The permanent buildings, such as the International Broadcast Center by Allies and Morrison and the handball arena by Make Architects with Populous, will transform into community-based venues, while other areas will be landscaped over the next year. New York–based Field Operations recently won a competition to design the South Park, which will link four main attractions: the 375-foot-tall ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond, Zaha Hadid’s inimitable Aquatics Center, Populous’ stadium, and the London 2012 Gardens. A concurrent competition to design the North Park was won by Erect Architecture and will feature a visitor’s center and children’s playground. “We are trying to humanize the park,” said Eleanor Fawcett, head of design at the OPLC, who has overseen a gamut of “fringe” projects that aim to encourage existing communities to invest in their new local park and has begun the strategic process of allocating uses for some intermediary spaces. “It’s an opportunity to be more daring and experimental in the interim,” she said. “We either do this or pay for security guards.”

The park’s legacy is already underway. Though it is hard to imagine whether a project of this scale, characterized by its buildings and worked up almost entirely in the virtual, can avoid becoming what author Iain Sinclair called a “JG Ballard theme park.” In six months, when the top layer of the Games is peeled back and the temporary buildings dismantled, it may be down to the latest addition to the park—the recently announced British Olympics Museum—to tell us about the London Games’ true legacy.