Never have the modern Olympics paid so much attention to the ideas of impermanence and portability, to the goal of packing ’em up and building ’em somewhere else. In a radical departure from the edifice complex that has blighted previous Summer Games, London 2012 is shaping up as the first Lego Olympics.
“ ‘Touching the ground lightly’ is the phrase we use,” says Chris Jopson, a senior architect at Populous, the London firm that’s responsible for the overall design of the Olympic Park and its main stadium. “We want to be able to return things to the way they were.” The firm has a motto for the building the Olympic and Paralympic Games, which begin on July 27 next year: “Embrace the temporary.”
In other words (because the designers themselves are far too polite to say it), London is trying to avoid ungainly hulks that will disfigure the city’s face long after the crowds have gone and crouch like rusting reminders of a party that lasts a month but takes years to pay. The white-elephant legacy of Athens, Barcelona and Montreal is a sore spot. Even the majestic, nation-building stadiums of Beijing 2008 have come to seem, in three short years, like time-capsule relics from a more extravagant age.
Take the Olympic stadium. Mr. Jopson stands next to a model in Populous’s south London office, but the real thing is already finished an hour’s drive away in the Olympic Park, which sits in the down-at-the-heels neighbourhood of Stratford in London’s east end. It is 75 per cent lighter than a typical stadium of its size, it was built of a new type of concrete that requires less carbon to manufacture, and its top deck is partly constructed of gas pipes left over from a failed pipeline project. It is modest, and very English: a make-do-and-mend stadium that nods to the east end’s history as one of the most badly damaged areas in Britain in the Second World War.
Even more crucial, it comes apart, like a very large piece of Lego. During the Olympics and Paralympics, when it will be full to bursting for the athletics competitions and opening and closing ceremonies, it will hold 80,000 spectators. After, the top decks can be removed, down to 25,000 seats. It will probably end up at 55,000 seats, when its new tenant, West Ham football club, moves in after the Olympics (West Ham fought a bitter legal battle with Tottenham Hotspur, which also wanted to make the stadium its home.)
The “reduce, reuse, recycle” Games is a handy narrative for London 2012, which has many successes going for it (sold-out events, venues that were built on time and budget) but an equal number of question marks (the fallout from this summer’s riots, controversy over the use of historic venues and the claim that young people are still indolent couch potatoes, despite the government’s promise that it would use the Olympics to shift them into sports). More than 100 structures have been built for the Games; two-thirds of those are temporary.
Over at the airy offices of Zaha Hadid Architects, designers are showing off their baby, the Olympic Aquatic Centre. This is an Olympics where functionality trumps aesthetics, but the Aquatic Centre, with its wave-like, 160-metre timber-and-aluminum roof, is a thing of beauty, the clear winner of the pageant.
It, too, will be repurposed after the Games are over. Two giant boxes that stick out on either side of the main building, holding a total of 17,500 seats, will be taken away and only the three pools and the diving boards will be left behind. The plan is that when the athletes leave, the neighbourhood’s toddlers and grannies move in.
“The main thing for us is that people actually use it afterward, so that it doesn’t just sit there and turn into a white elephant,” says Jim Heverin, the Aquatic Centre’s project manager.
The people of Stratford could use a pool – and jobs, and some nice new buildings and shops. When then-mayor Ken Livingstone was fighting for the Olympic bid in 2005, he would tell whoever listened that Stratford sat in Newham, Britain’s most impoverished borough. Far from the picture-postcard sights of central London, it was a bleak post-industrial landscape where tourists never ventured. (When the two-square-kilometre site for the Olympic park was razed, it was revealed as a dumping ground for everything from electrical pylons to bomb debris and tar-soaked rubble. An onsite “soil hospital” steam-cleaned hundreds of thousands of tonnes of contaminated dirt.)
“It was a big scar across the city,” says Dan Hawthorn, the Mayor of London’s man in charge of the games. He has to convince the people of east London that this is not just a case of nine million people arriving on their doorstep, partying for a couple of weeks and leaving, and that the park will be scaled down to meet the community’s needs. “That kind of expense and disruption is never worth it just for a few days of sport,” Mr. Hawthorn says. He adds, “If you’re just bringing in wealthy people from around the country and the world, you’re going to make the people of the east end feel even more neglected than they already do.”
When the Games are gone, many of its buildings will be taken down, sold or repurposed. Qatari developers have struck a deal to buy the athletes’ village for £557-million (about half of what it cost to build, critics have pointed out). The basketball and water-polo arenas will disappear, and the BMX track will be dismantled and moved to a new location. The handball stadium becomes a multi-use sports centre, although it’s unclear who will use it. This week, Richard Caborn, the former Labour sports minister, warned that so few young people in Britain were taking up sport – a key part of the government’s Olympics plan – that the Games’ legacy was in danger of “failing completely.”
In the best-case scenario, and barring another serious downturn in the economy, the east end will begin to see forward movement, even if its children remain sedentary. The largest mall in Europe (Westfield Stratford City, which opened this month) and the largest urban park (the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, opening 2013) will sit next to each other. London’s soaring answer to the Eiffel and CN Towers, the Anish Kapoor-designed Orbit, is currently rising over the Olympic site like a ball of yarn flung by an angry cat.
But that’s only one small part of the city. The third of the three Rs, “recycle,” will be in evidence all over London. Instead of building new venues, the idea was to use world-famous locations in fresh, and sometimes jaw-dropping, ways. Horse Guards Parade, where you can normally see Changing the Guard and various sombre military ceremonies, becomes home to beach volleyball (giving Prime Minister David Cameron a bird’s-eye view, since 10 Downing St. is practically next door.) Archery will be held at Lord’s Cricket Ground, though not in the area deemed “hallowed,” where only cricket may be played.
The greatest controversy centres around Greenwich, a vast park on the river revered for its unparalleled links to the naval, royal and scientific history of England. Next summer, horses will be galloping over the pristine parkland (designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site) in the Olympic equestrian events. Competitors will jump and canter on a special “field of play” designed to protect the ground, which is rich in archeological history, but this was not enough to mollify protesters, who attempted without luck to have the venue moved.
At the end of the Games, the steel trusses and spectators’ stands will be taken down and sold, the debris hauled away and Greenwich will look the same as it has since Charles II ordered the Royal Observatory built more than three centuries ago. That, at least, is the plan.