Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
London takes aim at the post-Games hangover
Last week’s scenes of jobless bankers (that’s bankers with a B, not a W) hugging on Canary Wharf’s suddenly snap-frozen wastes tugged – nay, tore – at the heartstrings. One ex-senior vice-president, European equities, noted wistfully that his last deal was for four jaffa cakes in Lehman Brothers’ canteen. Talk about pathos. Yet, just four Tube stops away, preparations proceed apace for the biggest party, and the biggest urban regeneration, England has seen for decades.
At first glance London’s Olympics looks a lot like any other. The usual narcotic farrago of bureaucracies, egos, arguments and overruns; the usual problem of coaxing poached eggs – aka Olympic stadiums – into some kind of coherent pan.
Architecture is not yet an Olympic sport, though some argue it now figures in the bid-winning process. Others, like the Times critic Tom Dyckhoff, see London’s “tragically underwhelming” main stadium as a fitting symbol, after the Beijing bird’s nest spectacular, of a west-to-east ascendancy shift.
But one quality sets London 2012 apart. Legacy; an intelligent, strategic approach to the morning after.
These days, all Olympics incur vast debt. The official tab for Sydney’s is $1.3 billion; the real cost may be twice that. Big numbers so, ideally, you ensure that the long-term cultural benefits justify them. Too often, though, it’s the contrary; as with any hangover there’s the financial cost, then the physical destruction.
In Beijing, it was the flattening of thousands of hectares of ancient hutongs around the Forbidden City and the casual displacement of two million people. In Barcelona it was a fabulous opportunity destroyed for an Olympic park that is now the only Barcelona precinct devoid of humans.
In Sydney, Nick Greiner’s decision to put the Olympics on cheap but toxic land linked to the city only by an already congested road and a dead-end rail spur that would operate every third Sunday after Lent (or similar) means we are, even now, dishing out $30 million a year to sustain our sad little flock of overbred albino pachyderms. Sydney 2000 was a great party. It was also a case study in making perpetual liability the only urban legacy. For London, this is a lesson learned. And much of it is being done – strategised even – by Australians.
The site, unlike Homebush Bay, radiates that devastatingly obvious quality that marks a really good idea. Stratford (not even close to Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare town) sits in the lower Lea Valley in London’s bleak East End. Dead-centre Eas’ Lundun gansta-land, littered with dead dogs and car wreckers, the site straddles four traditionally far-left London boroughs – Newham, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest – as well as the main North London sewer.
Those are the downsides. And so far, really, so Homebush. Balancing them, though, are: the Eurostar station that puts Stratford seven minutes from St Pancras and two hours from Paris; the Tube station that puts it three stops from the Bank of England and four from Canary Wharf; a Docklands light rail stop; and the very-fast underground Crossrail link from Heathrow, opening in 2017.
Factor in the million new London residents in the next 15 years and the combined violations of poverty, war and modernism that put east London so desperately in need of a decent set of threads. Crikey, you could build a sandcastle here and sell it off the plan.
London, says Professor Ricky Burdett, won the bid as “the compact Games”, where everything is close, walkable and (to that extent) green. He should know. As chief adviser on architecture and urbanism to the Olympic Development Authority (chaired by ex-Sydney engineer and Lend Lease CEO David Higgins) and former confidante of Ken Livingstone, Burdett is London’s Lord High Poo-Bah on matters architectural.
So long-view it’s perhaps more exit-strategy than strategy, London 2012, says Burdett, is conceived in three parts; the Big Gig 2012; the “bloody nightmare” 2013-20; and post-2020, when Stratford matures as a new city precinct.
So the venues are largely demountable. Of the stadiums, only 31/2 will remain post-2012. These are Zaha Hadid’s aquatic centre, Michael Hopkins’s equally swooping velo-park, Make Architects’ handball arena and the bottom half of the main stadium.
Also permanent are Lend Lease’s 17,000-person Olympic village, half the footprint of Sydney’s but twice the height, and Frank Lowy’s mega-mall (complete, sadly, with roof parking). The rest become development sites, scattered along the restored Lea River.
So, will it be any good? Yes, says Burdett, it will help London rebalance east and west. Yes, says Greg Deas, Lend Lease’s principal village architect, it will equal traditional towns in charm, but in a new idiom. Yes, says Nigel Hugill, departing chairman of Lend Lease Europe, whose decade-old proposal seeded this whole thing. His reason is perhaps the most interesting.
Hugill’s children go to posh private schools but Stratford will be the second, no-fee public school he has sponsored under Tony Blair’s “academy” program. For a million quid he gets government funding to build, staff and run the best 1800-child school he can, under supervision, as an exercise in concocting social glue. That’s legacy.