In today’s money-straightened times, the London Olympic Games, which will take place in around two months’ time may have struck the balance between planning a memorable, iconic event and investing in subjects that interest all relevant parties, whether it be environmental sustainability or the regeneration of some of the most impoverished areas of the city.
On Tuesday, 15th May, the London School of Economics (LSE), hosted a public lecture, which gathered together the main architects working on the Olympic sites – Jim Eyre of WilkinsonEyre Architects, Michael Taylor of Hopkins Architects and Zaha Hadid – together with Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate and the Olympic design champion. Also present were Andy Altman the CEO of the London Legacy Development Corporation and Ricky Burdett, director of LSE Cities and chief advisor of architecture and urbanism of the London Olympics.
To the audience’s disappointment, Zaha Hadid, the world-renowned Iraqi-British architect, did not show up and sent her colleague, Jim Herein, who was the lead designer of the Aquatics Centre. The Sheikh Zayed Theatre, located in the LSE New Academic Building – which is considered an architectural masterpiece of its own – was packed with students, architects, engineers and others, who were simply curious about how the Games were put together.
The lecture was possibly overly focused on design, which left the market-driven LSE crowd unusually quiet for the Q&A session, but it certainly fascinated those who understood the creative technological efforts that were put into making these buildings cutting-edge as well as sustainable.
It became clear that the Games are seen as an opportunity to impress and create environmentally friendly structures and spaces that can benefit local communities. Burdett neatly summarised the architecture of the Olympics as an effort to create a piece of city where the basic ingredients were a buried transport hub, a large expanse of empty land – filled with contaminated brown field and a high water level – and little residential space.
In order to make the Olympic site sustainable, which is the size of Hyde Park, there has been a balance between park and buildings, versus temporary structures. The Queen Elizabeth Park will bring nature into the city, with a green strip along the waterways, while the spaces where temporary structures, like the basketball arena stand, will be used to build mixed-use compounds.
In fact, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) and the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), see sustainability not only as a way to be environmentally friendly, but to create a city that will continue to live beyond the sporting events. Burdett noted that seven years since London was selected to be the host city, is actually not a long time for a plan with such a long projected lifespan.
That said, in today’s climate of austerity, sustainability can also be seen as a commitment to keep costs down. The initial budget for the Games was £2.3 billion, but £9.3 billion has already been spent. In their defence, the architects argued that, from the start, they knew adhering to the budget was not realistic. Moreover, the seven years since London’s selection have seen events that dramatically shook London.
First, the 7/7 bombings of 2005, the day after London was awarded the Games, necessitated a big increase in security costs, then the financial crisis of 2008 forced involved agencies to tighten costs and make fundamental changes to the ‘master plan’.
For example, Zaha Hadid Architects, were the first architects to be appointed and their idea was to make a huge architectural statement, with a fluid, open building, simple in design, but with extremely high levels of building quality. Their compromise was to make the Aquatics Centre more compact and to provide seating for 17,500 people, most of which can be removed after the Games.
WilkinsonEyre Architects built the basketball arena, a temporary structure, that can be neatly dismantled into five layers. For Jim Eyre, the challenge was to live with what is essentially a basic rectangular white box, but he added flat arches on the outside with tricksy light patterns. It is not clear what will happen to the basketball arena after the Games, but Eyre intrigued the audience, when he said temporary structures could democratise access to hosting the games, by reducing the cost of new build.
Mike Taylor, of Hopkins Architects, worked on the Velodrome, together with Sir Chris Hoy and one of the world’s two renowned track designers, Ron Webb, to create what Taylor described as, “the most successful television venue in mankind”.
The tracks were hand nailed and they flex with the controlled ambient humidity and underfloor heating. Nicknamed the ‘Pringle’, the velodrome’s striking roof is mainly composed of cables, nodes and safety nets and the whole structure used only 13% of the steel that was used for the velodrome in Beijing and includes recycled gas pipes from an American oil company. While the Beijing velodrome stands isolated, the London velodrome will be an integral part of the Leo Valley Velo Park, which will be open to the public and have mountain bike circuits and other outside tracks.
Some great individual projects have been built, but visiting the Olympic sites does not give the impression of an overarching unified theme, probably because of the different architects used. The one clear objective for all the architects,
was to plan with a view of what London will need in 30, 50, or even a hundred years.
For the mayor and the London Assembly, the Olympics represent an opportunity to renew East London and, “to create the veins of a functional piece of city by 2025”, as Burdett said. The recent opening of Westfields, in Stratford, created over 7000 new jobs and the London Legacy Development Corporation was created three years prior to the Games, with the sole purpose of planning and implementing a 20 to 25 year master plan, which is a demonstration of political commitment.
Altman told the audience that the plan is to accommodate mixed income communities, where 35% of the site will be converted into 7,000 units of affordable housing, with about 3,000 units built to house large families from the nearby boroughs. Altman explained that the idea is to establish quality neighbourhoods from the outset, rather than simply selling off the land.
The mayor and the government agreed to reduce the pressure on paying off the costs of the plan, in order to ‘secure value creation’ and prevent radical changes that might result from the London’s set five-year mayoral terms.
Altman’s presentation depicted an optimistic image of parks and mixed-use spaces for schools, housing, energy and health centres. It could be that the London Olympics is going to be the catalyst to make all future Games sustainable, but for most people, the question is whether the great plans are worth the money.
Burdett and Serota argued that it is a valuable investment, because it is part of a long-term strategy to rebalance London and that the cost of the Olympics is great value, compared with the massive subsidies given to the banks. In addition, the architects who felt a sense of frustration with the cuts they were forced to make, claimed that the London Olympics is a demonstration of how sustainability can triumph, by doing more with less.
Compared to the Beijing Olympics, the cost of the London Games is lower, the structures are more sustainable and the master plan takes into consideration the needs of the local communities. Burdett pointed out, that for every stop on the Jubilee Line underground heading east, a year is lost on average life expectancy. If the London legacy plan succeeds in reducing the discrepancy between the east and west of London, we might be able to claim the London Olympics as model worth following.