‘The kind of place planners dreamed of’: London Olympics site 10 years later | Architecture

OWhat have the Olympics done for us? Nothing, apart from the 226-hectare park which attracts six million visitors a year, the magnificent sports facilities, the tens of thousands of new jobs, the depollution and opening up of former industrial land, the schools, the cultural institutions in progress construction, new homes, some of which are affordable in a significant sense. Not to mention the national feel-good factor for the duration of the games, and a more lasting increase in profile and pride of location. “We suddenly felt we were part of history,” says Rushanara Ali, Labor MP for the neighboring constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow. “If you came from east London, if you came from different backgrounds, you felt like you belonged.”

Other than that, nothing.

Since the London 2012 Olympic bid was launched at the turn of the century, there has been understandable skepticism – that it would not deliver on its promises, that it would trample on local interests and character, that it would be taken over by commercial interests. Some of this has been vindicated: hopes of “inspiring a generation” with a national sports revival, for example, have mostly dark.

But if you now visit the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park In East London, 10 years after the games were held there, you’ll see a beautiful and largely well-maintained landscape that skilfully exploits the network of waterways and level changes previously at the site. It spans a pleasant range, from shaggy meadows and wetlands to more manicured lawns and terraces. You will see a large number of people enjoying it who have reached it from all directions. The atmosphere is relaxed, welcoming, inclusive, mutually tolerant.

The Lee Valley VeloPark, originally the Olympic velodrome. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Guardian

You will see the graceful curved roof of the Velodrome and the more exuberant curved superstructure of the Aquatic Center, perhaps the BMX trackthe hockey and tennis centerand the copper box multi-sport arena, all modifications of the original Olympic facilities. If you wander through some of the surrounding residential neighborhoods, you may find quiet mew-like enclaves and pleasant streets with accessible and well-used open spaces, including playgrounds available for any family that might want to use them. If you’ve arrived at the park from the public transport hub of Stratford, you’ll probably have passed through the Westfield shopping centre, a work of corporate gigantism, yes, but crowded with people from near and far who seem happy to be there. ‘be there. And which, contrary to expectations, didn’t kill the older, more everyday shopping center in central Stratford.

Other sites include the area called East shorewhere the buildings of the Victoria and Albert Museum, University College London, London College of Fashion, Sadler’s Wells and the BBC take shape, and Here is, a thriving innovation and technology business campus that was once the media center for the 2012 games. You might also see, outside the boundaries of the Olympic site itself, nearby areas such as Hackney Wick teeming of life and busy canal towpaths like never before. For the next five years, the removable hexagon of the Abba Arenawhich houses a virtual concert residence of the famous Swedes, will stand at the southern end of the park.

Zaha Hadid Aquatic Center.
The “exuberant” curved roof of Zaha Hadid’s aquatic center. Photograph: Bradley Taylor/Alamy

It’s the kind of place planners have dreamed of for decades but rarely realized, with a multiplicity of uses – culture, work, homes, education, shopping, sport – where no single facility dominates. You can shop in the mall if you want, but you don’t need to spend money in the park to have fun. There will be great art and commercial entertainment, but none dominate. He’s achieved at least two things that were usually thought difficult: creating a thriving new urban neighborhood and creating a big new park where people actually come.

The location of London 2012 is also far removed from the venues of most other Olympic Games – Atlanta, Athens, Beijing, Rio – where the carcasses of great sporting edifices are stuck in open spaces, forever unable to draw the crowds that have filled their brief lives as Olympic venues. It is, as London expert Dave Hill writes in his new book Olympic Parka rare feat of political cooperation, in which national and local leaders and figures such as left-wing London mayor Ken Livingstone, centre-left minister Tessa Jowell and former athlete and Conservative politician Sebastian Coe worked together for a common cause.

The legacy of 2012, it must be said, has its flops. The most important of them is the 115 meters high ArcelorMittal Orbit, a large red public artwork by Anish Kapoor, engineer Cecil Balmond and architect Kathryn Findlay. It was conceived when Boris Johnson, after his election as mayor of London in 2008, apparently wanted to make his mark, like a dog urinating on a lamp post, the feat of his predecessor, Livingstone. It is a structure whose unnecessary tangles and contortions of steel are, in hindsight, an apt metaphor and warning of Johnson’s future governance of the country. Promises that it would pay for its upkeep of selling tickets to eager visitors proved futile, even after the addition of a crowd-pleasing slide that goes up and down.

There’s also the stadium, where huge sums of public, national and local government money, including ongoing running costs, have effectively subsidized wealthy, part-owned Premier League football club West Ham. by two former porn barons, who is now based there. The stadium’s architecture was clean and smart, well-suited to Olympic athletics events, and came with a plan to downsize after the games. The problem arose when it was belatedly decided to make it a football venue, for which it was not designed, and required an expensive adaptation.

V&A East, with the London College of Fashion behind.
V&A East, with the London College of Fashion behind. Photography: Oliver Wainwright

There are large, overgrown roads running through parts of the park, built to meet Olympic technical requirements. There are ragged and disconnected parts of the plan, where one part doesn’t come together convincingly with another. The default architecture for residential neighborhoods is a benign, somewhat bland and dull architecture, with occasional outbreaks of big lumpen stuff where developers have seized the chance to make some extra cash. There’s the matter of businesses formerly on site, moved elsewhere so Olympic construction could start, 31% of which had closed in 2015. But as that’s similar to the national closure rate over a period that included the financial crisis of 2008, it is unclear to what extent their relocation was to blame.

And there is the matter of new housing on and around the Olympic site, of which 11,380 have been built out of the 30,000 to 40,000 promised at the start of the Olympic project. Of these, 15% are classed as “mid-range”, a category of accommodation below market price but out of reach for many who live in the surrounding areas, and 13.5% of the total as “rental at low price” and “social rent”. . The London Legacy Development Corporation, which is leading the regeneration of the post-Olympic area, says housing has been reduced by reallocating land to other beneficial uses, such as East Bank, but nevertheless 33,000 new homes will have been built in the post-Olympic area. area under their jurisdiction by 2036. They also say that affordable housing percentages are often set by old building permits that they cannot control, and that they hope to increase in the future. One could say, if one wanted to be a little generous, that on this subject the jury is out.

Above all, it is needless to wonder whether the Olympics can really take credit for all that is now in and around the former Stratford Railway Grounds. Since the 1990s the area has also been saturated with public investment in the form of transport infrastructure – the extension of the Jubilee line, the Docklands Light Railway, a high speed line 1 station built to serve the tunnel under the English Channel, the Elizabeth Line – which had already prompted proposals for a huge redevelopment before London’s Olympic bid was made and won. A park, housing and a shopping center were part of this plan. Many of the region’s assets, such as the cultural facilities on the east bank, are funded by budgets additional to the £9 billion spent on the Olympics.

What the 2012 games achieved was to accelerate these developments – LSE Professor Tony Travers estimated that without them “we would have had to wait until 2050-2060 for the area to regenerate completely”. The Westfield shopping centre, following the crash of 2008, would certainly have been suspended had it not been for the Olympics. 2012 also added an extra level of quality and magnificence to what was built, as well as intangible elements of excitement and local self-esteem.

ArcelorMittal Orbit Tower and London Stadium
‘Useless tangles and contortions’: Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit tower, right, and the London stadium, now used by West Ham United. Photograph: Richard Barnes/Alamy

The truth about the Olympics in general is that it costs billions just to organize these short-lived sports festivals, with no guarantee of additional profit for the venues where they take place – the fact that the investment goes into a place and the large structures built do not in themselves lead to long-term regeneration. This is embarrassing both for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and for the host cities, and in the bidding and hosting processes of the games, which require cities to make optimistic proposals to both the IOC and their audiences in general, promises of inheritance and regeneration are fabricated which are rarely kept afterwards.

The rare trick London pulled off was overcoming the flaw at the heart of the Olympic project and realizing many of the legacy promises. There is a sleight of hand here, as not everything happened because of the games. An assessment that takes into account all additional public investment in trains, schools and culture may or may not conclude that the result is good value for money. But he’s there, and he’s doing a lot of good things, and he’s widely popular, all of which are accomplishments worth celebrating.

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