Going for Bronze? The London Olympics’ Lackluster Architectural Legacy

When London was named host city for the 2012 Olympics seven years ago, experts thought it was the urban planning behind the bid that ultimately won the day. Now, on the eve of the event itself, with several lackluster venues in place, many are wondering: What happened to that grand vision?

On July 6, 2005, a huge and clearly excited crowd of young people wearing a profusion of baseball caps and leisure wear squeezed into London’s Trafalgar Square. An enormous screen relayed live television news from Singapore, as the International Olympic Committee announced the host city for the 2012 Olympic Games. The winner—54 votes to 50—was … London. The crowd erupted in what, to any true Londoner, seemed like a rehearsed display of “Oh my God!”s, high fives, “Yo!”s, and other populist Americanisms that were adopted during Tony Blair’s crazy-for-Bush New Labour government. Was this a political rally, or an outburst of genuine popular sentiment? It was hard to tell.

Yet it was not at all hard to feel that here, perhaps, was the next great New Labour folly, following hard on the heels of the Millennium Experience, the dumb and pointless event that was opened by the Queen and Tony Blair in the £1 billion Richard Rogers–designed Millennium Dome at Greenwich as 1999 gave way to 2000.

Reality hit hard on the morning following the announcement, when four Muslim suicide bombers from the north of England made a rush-hour attack on the London Tube and a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square. Fifty-two people were killed, and 700 injured, in what became known as 7/7.

More from Metropolis

So as the city prepares for this summer’s 2012 Olympics, the talk in parliament is not so much of the cost of the new venues and the complex infrastructure that serves them, but of the soaring security budget, which is priced at £553 million, and rising. Some 10,500 athletes will compete for medals in London, protected by—at the latest count—23,700 security guards and 13,500 military personnel. HMS Ocean, a 21,500-ton amphibious assault ship with a posse of Lynx helicopters, will be moored at Greenwich. Low-flying Typhoon jets will patrol the skies, while ground-to-air Starstreak and Rapier missiles will be mounted on the rooftops of high-rise housing blocks, in a bid to take out terrorist threats from the air.

Can hosting the 2012 Games possibly be worth both the cost—an estimated £13 billion, all told—and the barely contained paranoia? After all, the 302 sporting and athletic events scheduled to be held between July 27 and August 12 could have taken place, at a much lower cost, in existing and upgraded venues across the city. Many commentators did, indeed, argue for as much, especially as the new, £798 million Wembley Stadium, designed by Foster + Partners, opened in 2007. Although it will host Olympic soccer matches, the vast sports complex could have served the Olympics comprehensively; the old Wembley Stadium was the principal venue for the 1948 London Olympics, which were held in an era of ration books, austerity, and national bankruptcy.

Once again, Britain is hosting the Olympics while deep in recession. On July 6, 2005, it had seemed so very different. The main BBC News bulletin that day, reported from a jubilant Trafalgar Square, said, “Shares of British construction companies soared, while mortgage lenders promised house prices in the capital would rocket.”

If you visit—or try to visit—the walled-around and heavily guarded Olympic site at Stratford in East London, you’ll see one of the largest construction sites in Europe. The 2012 Olympics are, in part, an enormous real estate gamble. A gaggle of new sports venues are dwarfed by serried rows of relentlessly glum, though brand-new, high-rise apartment blocks, which were designed by what are considered to be some of Britain’s best young architects, including Ian Simpson, Piercy Conner, de Rijke Marsh Morgan, and Niall McLaughlin. They have all done far better work elsewhere.

Intended for athletes during the Games, these oddly grim buildings—and their total of 2,818 apartments—will be rented or sold off after the competitors disperse. The housing is connected to the colossal and almost ineffably banal Westfield shopping complex, which stretches between the Stratford railway station and the Olympic site. Almost unbelievably, Westfield will be the main entrance to the 2012 Olympics for most visitors, as they come from Stratford station. But, as Napoleon said, Britain is a nation of shopkeepers.

The big talk by government—Conservative under David Cameron since 2010—is of “regeneration.” Yes, the Olympics are expensive, but they will provide, we’re assured, a “legacy”—a buzzword, today, of ambitious governments worldwide—in the form of sports venues and a new riverside park for future generations. By some magic, they will also transform, for better and far into the future, the poorest parts of London’s East End.

The original master plan, undertaken by the London-based AECOM—in its own words, a “global provider of professional technical and management support services to a broad range of markets, including transportation, facilities, environmental, energy, water and government,” employing 45,000 people worldwide—was certainly ambitious. Led by Jason Prior, AECOM’s chief executive of planning, design, and development, the chosen plan stated that it “placed the urban regeneration of London’s Lower Lea Valley as its primary driver.” The Lower Lea Valley is composed of the former industrial and railway lands that stretch up from the River Thames and along the banks of the River Lea, and wind north through Stratford and the site of the 2012 Olympics.

Centered on a huge new urban park—one of Europe’s largest—the 3,600-acre site would offer between 30,000 and 40,000 new homes and at least 50,000 new jobs. By 2030 (or 2040 at the latest), the Lower Lea Valley was to have been transformed into a shining example of well-intended “urban regeneration.” The AECOM plan was far more than an ambitious setting for the 2012 Olympics. Along with housing and employment, it encompassed social infrastructure, leisure and culture, town planning, and practical long-term issues concerning transportation, water, waste management (London’s main sewers thread their way through here, via treatment plants, to the Thames Estuary), social change, and environmental concerns.

To make it work, AECOM needed to fuse the concerns of national government together with those of six local boroughs, a plethora of government bureaucracies, numerous interest groups, and the Olympic Delivery Authority. This was a tall order. Given that the timescale of the plan was, effectively, 20 to 30 years, surely it would be a hostage to fortune, and rocked—for better and worse—by the effects of several economic cycles?

“The Westfield shopping complex and the Olympic Village housing were, in fact, part of an earlier plan by private developers,” Prior says. “We didn’t start wholly from scratch with our Olympic master plan, but what we’ve tried to ensure is that the fundamental infrastructure for a thoroughly regenerated Lea Valley is in place. This is a long-term project. The Olympics have been the catalyst, but they will come and go—hopefully in a blaze of glory—and then the life of East London will move on, and, if the plan is fulfilled, very much for the better.”

While no one can yet judge the aftermath of the 2012 Olympics and their long-term effect on London’s economically challenged East End, critics are certainly skeptical of what the new buildings for this year’s Games have achieved so far. “London could, and should, have striven to stage a model modern Games, which would have involved exemplary architecture,” Alice Rawsthorn, the design critic of the International Herald Tribune, tells me. “Tragically, it’s failed. Nothing illustrates this failure as clearly as the difference in architectural quality between the original plan for the Olympic Park, which played a decisive role in helping to clinch London’s bid to be the host city, and what’s actually been built there.”

“The only part of the park to bear any resemblance to the original design is Zaha Hadid Architects’ Aquatics Centre,” Rawsthorn says. “Most of the others have been replaced by inferior alternatives, an extreme example being the decision to dump Foreign Office Architects’ dazzling stadium in exchange for something that looks as if it has been knocked up by a bunch of amateurs in a hurry.”

The distinguished architectural historian William J. R. Curtis concurs, saying, “The handful of buildings of quality stand out against an overall mediocrity, in which an odd assortment of structures clash and compete with one another in form, material, and scale. As for the site plan, it’s really confused. Instead of pleasant public spaces, there are many freestanding objects performing structural gymnastics”—especially, Curtis might have said, the bright red, helter-skelter ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond. “These mechanisms and gadgets provide an outmoded vision of technology.”

Harsh words? Perhaps. Yet aside from the Aquatics Centre—which, in any case, will be marred for the duration of the Games by unsightly tiers of temporary seating, bolted to either side of Hadid’s thrilling tidal wave of a building—only Hopkins Architects’ taut and elegant Velodrome, capped with a roof shaped like a giant Pringle, comes anywhere close to an Olympic design ideal.

It is also difficult to discern—as yet—a convincing, much less an altruistic, urban plan. Instead of an extension of the city with recognizable streets, garden squares, busy main thoroughfares, and places of lasting interest, we have a humongous sprawl of unrelated buildings stretching out from a shopping mall—Westfield—that might as well be in Singapore, Shanghai, or Des Moines, Iowa, rather than London.

“But, if you look at the plan,” Prior says, “you’ll see much less dense housing, and more recognizable city streets, emerging. The focus is on the Olympics buildings at the moment, but it won’t be, twenty or thirty years down the line.”

I ask Prior about the place of industry and manufacturing. Late in the day, the British government has become an advocate of manufacturing, and the Olympics site was once an important manufacturing center. This is where the locomotive works of the Great Eastern Railway once stood; today, Britain is all but incapable of building trains. This was a place of skill, of a highly educated working class, and of factories—including those of the aviation industry—that were once at the leading edge of design, technology, and manufacturing. There were many such factories, stretching from Stratford up the banks of the River Lea, which flows into the Thames within sight of the new Olympic Stadium.

“Indeed,” says Peter Buchanan, the London-based architect and critic, “a proposal to broaden London’s economy by turning the Lea Valley, now the Olympics site, into a science park for research and manufacturing in a major new economic sector—the bio-economy and nanotechnology—was summarily dismissed by Ken Livingstone [the mayor of London from 2000 through 2008] as irrelevant. This would have built on Britain’s last strong industrial sector, pharmaceuticals, and on the research being done at Imperial College and Cambridge University, at either end of the Lea Valley corridor.”

Prior disagrees, pointing out that although what you see right now is sports venues, housing, and shopping—and a big new public park—the Olympics plan does indeed have a place for high-tech, modern industry, and did from its inception in 2003, before London won the bid. Of course, it would have been good to see high-tech enterprises opening for business here this year, but these are clearly early days for the regeneration of Stratford and the Lea Valley.

Perhaps what most clouds a bold—and optimistic—view of the AECOM site plan are the lackluster designs of several of the key Olympics buildings, and the grim nature of the Olympic Village. When the design of the stadium, by Populous, was unveiled at a press conference at Stratford in November 2007, there was a deafening silence in the room. Was that really it? Was that all the London Olympics would get for a cool £537 million? The 2008 Beijing Olympics had the stunning Bird’s Nest stadium by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, who worked with Ai Weiwei, the Chinese conceptual artist. London got what looks like a tin cookie-cutter from a convenience store. It might be the lightest Olympic stadium yet built, and efficient in many ways, but it looks so very tinny and dull.

It seems significant that several of the London Olympics venues are temporary structures, among them the shooting venue by Magma Architecture, the basketball arena by Wilkinson Eyre and KSS Design Group, and the water-polo arena by David Morley Architects. This has given the London Olympics something of the air of a sports-based trailer park.
In truth, the temporary structures, which have caused the 2012 event to be labeled the “flat-pack” or “austerity” Olympics, were designed as much to keep costs down as to avoid the creation of the kind of structural “white elephants” that, in recent decades, have characterized all too many Olympic sites worldwide. Even the main stadium has been designed so that it can be cut down to size after the Games.

Evidently, the Olympic legacy talked up by politicians, and by the Olympic Delivery Authority, which is charged with construction, is not primarily an architectural one. As for design in general, the harebrained Olympics 2012 logo appears to say everything. Punk-like—and curiously outdated—it suggests a London that’s broken and divided. It is also very ugly, whereas the original five-ring Olympic Games logo remains a graphic masterpiece. But perhaps the quality of the master plan should not be conflated with the hype surrounding, and the kitsch enveloping, the short-lived Games.

Foreigners are much less likely to be down on the London Olympics. In fact, they can be positively enthusiastic. “I was living in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympics, and there was much worry locally before the Games,” says Hank Dittmar, the chief executive of the Prince’s Foundation and the former president and CEO of Reconnecting America. “In the end, it was a great party, and none of our fears materialized. I suspect London’s Olympics will be similarly successful.”

“The way that the Olympics Park reconnects with water and nature along the Lea Valley is marvelous,” Dittmar says. “Post-Olympics, the challenge will be to make the same connection with the neighborhoods on either side of the park. The story about regeneration will not be written until both happen. The iconic venues are only a sideshow to this long-term challenge, but without the Olympics, it’s doubtful that the area would have come back to life for another twenty years.”

The 2012 Olympics represents, above all, perhaps, the great spirit of British compromise, although not necessarily at its best. Far too much money has been spent on dull design and a stretch of city that, so far, feels as if it has little or nothing to do with the look or spirit of London. The Velodrome, the Aquatics Centre, and a few workaday buildings, like John Lyall’s pumping station and John MacAslan and Partners’ energy center, are fine, yet these stand isolated in a sea of architectural mediocrity.

The overall plan, although ambitious, all-embracing, and well intended, seems flat and uneventful. A wonderful opportunity, then, for a high-design Olympic Games, underpinned by imaginative new London architecture and industry, appears to have been lost. It might well have been best if the development plan for the regeneration of the area had been kept separate from the overhyped Games, but then it’s the Olympics that seem to get so many people—especially politicians, developers, and investors—excited in the first place, as proved by those whooping and cheering scenes in Trafalgar Square back in 2005. Fingers crossed, and terrorists neutralized, the Games themselves may yet be a treat. The real regeneration of East London, however, and a revival of intelligent and likable architecture and design in the area, might still emerge when the circus has moved out of town.

Recent Projects