Sunday, 12 June 2011

Olympic Park, Stratford

Back in February, I paid a visit to the Olympic site in East London. It was an interesting day out and hence I thought it would be worth sharing my photo’s and thoughts on the experience.

Having caught my usual train to Euston, I wandered over to St Pancras to get the high-speed link to Stratford. It’s been a couple of years since I last visited St Pancras and in that time it’s been given something of an Olympic themed makeover, with gift shops and the Olympic rings hanging from the central arch. From St Pancras I hopped onto the new HS1 link, and after a brief 5 minute whizz through a tunnel (less time than it normally takes you to coast into a station), I arrived blinking at Stratford International Station. I couldn’t believe how quick the journey had been.

The size of the new station is pretty indicative of the scale of stuff happening in the area. As it’s right in the middle of construction, you actually have to hop on a bus and take a surprisingly long ride through to the back of the existing Stratford Station (probably longer than the train ride from St.Pancras). It’s all faintly surreal, as you pass from the mega-construction of the Olympic village to the slightly less mega, east London of Stratford.

The visit proper starts with lunch and a talk on the ‘Legacy’ of the games. Despite my natural scepticism, it’s clear that a lot of effort is going into improving the lot of people living in the area. Of course, whether it will and even can be successful is another matter (it seems likely that there will be displacement and some gentrification). In the Q&A sessions that follows much of the discussion is about the decisions to award the stadium to West Ham, with the guys from the Legacy Company at pains to stress that it was much the best bid.

Getting to the actual Olympic site involves a rather grimy walk down Stratford high street, past some tired looking towerblocks, industrial lock-ups and car showrooms. In the walk I see no reference to the Olympics and just a couple of new apartment developments. I wonder what the overseas tourists will make of it all, or if they’ll want to venture into the areas slightly scary looking pubs.

One of the areas few new developments.

I’m disappointed to discover that not only will we be doing the tour on a bus, but that we won’t get a chance to hop off and get a better look at things. So apologies for the occasional shots of bus interiors and the backs of people’s heads.

As I’ve previously indicated the scale of the place is massive and overwhelmingly impressive, although architecturally it’s not particularly exciting. I think the main stadium rather exemplifies this; surrounded by park, river and a mass of earthworks, the stadium itself is fairly mechanical and utilitarian in appearance. In all honesty, I’m in two minds whether this is a bad thing.

Make's Handball Arena

The Media Centre

I suspect that Hopkins’ classy looking velodrome, with its slopey roof and timber cladding, will be the showpiece building and backdrop of a thousand studios. I can already picture Gary Lineker and Brendan Foster sitting in front of a giant image of it now.

Wilkinson-Eyre's Basketball Arena

I really hope that when completed the park, or the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park to give it its full name, is a success. It’s comfortably the biggest formal park I’ve seen built in the UK during my lifetime. While it’s all a bit brown and muddy now, you can see the potential and there are some good people involved, including Prof. James Hithmough, my former tutor and prairie planting expert. I actually went to a talk a couple of weeks later by Andrew Harland from LDA Design who is responsible for the design. It does look exciting. However as former colleague did point out, when you look at the plans the park has a very stark edge that indicates that it was probably parcelled up for D&B packages, prior to any actual design work being done. I hope this isn’t too noticeable when complete.

The athlete’s village area probably makes up a good third of the whole Olympic site. There is something faintly eastern-bloc about the massed concrete flats that comprise it, but somehow this seems strangely appropriate to my idea of the Olympics.

There is some pretty tasteful architecture in there too – I rather liked the limestone cladding, chock full of fossils, on one building. Others a bit less so, but I did like the kitsch reliefs of Olympian types on one building (sorry bad photo above).

Anish Kapoor’s orbit-thingy is every bit as wacky as you expect. I’ll be honest that I think it’s going to look like a heap of crap, but it’s quite fun watching it being assembled from giant Technic Lego.

Similarly, while I realise it’s someway from finished, I get the feeling that Zaha’s aquatic centre might not look as good as the renders...

Views back across the site

One of the most prominent buildings is the gold-clad Westfield Shopping Centre. It’s only on my way out that I realise how visitors to the Olympics will have to enter though the shopping centre, and hence will never actually have to venture out into Stratford. It’s seems appropriate that the last hurrah of New Labour’s regeneration policies should have this commercially driven model at it’s very heart.

Despite my occasional snarkiness, I think there’s something remarkably exciting about the whole place. It’s not often in Britain that you see a development with really first-class transport infrastructure, but that’s very much the case here. National pride is something that politicians like to bandy about, but I hope it is something to be proud of. Perhaps more importantly, as a nation we seem to talk down our ability to do anything big (be it the Millennium dome or implementing more sustainable development), but I think the Olympics should be an example of what can be achieved in development, and help to raise expectations generally.

I suppose the counter argument is to suggest what a fraction of the cash spent here could achieve around the regions, particularly given that they’re unlikely to see any sort of public investment for the foreseeable future. But I guess if we’re to be hand-wringing about any sort of public works, we won’t do anything.

I can honestly say that I came home with renewed optimism about the Olympics. So it does seem something of an irony that I’ve subsequently not got a ticket. Arse!

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