One of my biggest disappointments of recent years, is not having attended any events at London 2012. For a few weeks that summer, it was as if all else was on hold. The build up had been so long and intense, with all the usual rows and cynicism that are part of our national character. And then came the surprise and joy that we actually managed to put on such a great event, and win armfuls of medals as well. But as the fun and fireworks of the closing ceremony faded, the story of this part of London was about to start a new chapter. Now, almost halfway to the next games, in Rio, the Olympic Park has re-opened, and I finally got the chance to visit. The regeneration of this stretch of land along the Lea valley had been the centrepiece of the games’s much vaunted legacy, so would it live up to expectation.
It wasn’t an entirely promising start, the sign outside Stratford station appeared to be pointing in the wrong direction, sending unwitting tourists to God knows where. But the moment I crossed the road from Westfield shopping centre, into the park, things looked up. Perhaps aided by the beautiful spring weather, the bountiful blossom, and the air of happiness wafting from the relaxed sunday crowds, I was immediately captivated.
The park straddles a maze of waterways which snake through an architectural themepark. The buildings themselves range from good to bad to downright ugly, and in isolation appear chaotic and unplanned in typically British fashion. I’ve previously visited Olympic parks in Barcelona and Munich. In Barcelona, the layout is anchored by the historic old stadium with some wonderful modern additions, all perched on a lofty hillside overlooking the city, while the buildings in Munich were all conceived and planned as a unified architectural whole, stylistically way ahead of its time. However it’s the landscape design in London by LDA and Hargreaves Associates that, despite the architectural free for all, makes it all work.
Rivers & Bridges
The waterways range from urban waterfronts next to the aquatic centre, with hard edges and formal planting to the naturalistic softer river with reed beds the further north you go. The bridges are as eclectic as the architecture, and include remnants from the past, massive road carrying structures, and the more whimsical mirror bottomed pedestrian crossings.
The Aquatics Centre by Zaha Hadid
Undeniably impressive with it’s swooping stingray curves, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by certain elements. The glazing looked clumsy, and as for the rear elevation, it was more of a sinister crustacean than elegant stingray, lurking as it did, in a strange mound of grass. Darth Vader also came to mind.
The Main Stadium by Populous
With the ‘pretty’ bits, such as the fabric wrap and the floodlight towers, now removed, the stadium really is reduced to a very basic looking structure. I can only imagine that it didn’t have the sort of architectural attention lavished on its neighbours because nobody knew what to do with once the games were over. It certainly lacks the style of some of the other buildings, but with that goes a lack of pretension. It will be interesting to see how will be ‘dolled’ up by its future tenants, once the hoarding comes down.
The ArcelorMittal Orbit by Anish Kapoor
Oh Anish, I love your work, but what is this? And sadly it’s no better in the flesh. What’s more, that London bus red is already fading to pink. I prefer the visitor centre at its foot.
The Velodrome by Michael Hopkins
Like many new buildings in London, this award winning building has become better known by its nickname, in this case the Pringle. It looks distantly related to Hadid’s aquatic centre, but fortunately sits at the opposite end of the park to avoid sibling rivalry. And while the ‘Stingray’ dominates its surroundings, the ‘Pringle’ sits more gently in the landscape.
The park is also well stocked with neat little cafe pavilion structures, and of course, looming over to the east is the former athletes’ village, now London’s newest neighbourhood. And finally, the structural concrete that formerly carried a bridge over the water to the stadium, has now been turned into a mini climbing wall.
All in all, The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is a wonderful legacy of the games, and already appears to be much used and enjoyed. When you consider some of the dire warnings, and some of the less successful Olympic aftermaths experienced by other cities, London’s achievement should be celebrated.