Current student Joe Lyth reviews the first two lectures from this year’s Thinking Building lecture series.
The Olympic Legacy- Successful Integration or Perpetual Building Site.
With the Olympics getting ever closer, their affect on the existing fabric and communities of east London is forefront in the minds of the design community. At the Kingston School of Architecture and Landscape Legacy, and what ‘legacy’ actually is; is the key theme enveloping all our work this year.
The past two weeks we have had the opportunity to attend lectures from two key members of the 2012 team. Firstly we heard from Eleanor Fawcett, Director of Design at the Olympic Park Legacy Company, and a previous member of the Design for London team; and her colleague Esther Everett. The OPLC have the task of ensuring the Olympic park can be reintegrated back into the city after the games to create “a coherent piece of city.” This was followed a week later by Bob Allies, a partner of Allies and Morrison Architects, the practice that have been working on the Olympic master plan since its inception.
Hearing from such influential figures, both tied to the growth of the Olympic bid since early on, should be the ideal foundation to base our continuing work on the subject of Legacy. The sites for each studio are around the Olympic park, so our proposals and investigations are almost extensions of the scheme. How do you transform an entire section of the city into an example of british architecture, that will be a stage seen across the world? It needs to be a beautiful, functional park with infrastructure, venues, and successful strategies of managing the immense loads of people that will attend the games. But following that it must be able to blend back into the city, to leave a Legacy that will boost the existing communities and businesses in the area.
Eleanor’s lecture began with the examination of other large projects in East London. Canary Wharf, The Excel Centre and The Dome were all envisaged as chances to breath life into previously contaminated industrial areas, that were the remnants of East London’s industrial heritage. Despite all the good intentions each of these developments have failed to integrate, instead becoming ‘set-pieces’ with little benefit to the surrounding areas. This is the danger of the legacy of the Olympic park. Although as stand alone pieces they are functional additions to the fabric of London, the Legacy of any site is just as much about how it affects its surroundings.
Within the wealth of information it became apparent that the key philosophy was based on ‘five ideas to shape the lower lea valley’, each point dealing with a different aspect of the integration.
The first of these was the Importance of Town Centres. Most new developments seem to be almost self contained. Each with their own creche, shops, communal gardens, etc. This trend is creating residential ‘islands’, similar to the ‘set-piece’ projects we were introduced to. The OPLC are striving to solve this by reintegrating the site into the surrounding communities. The land that has been ‘taken away’ from them is to be handed back, and three new town centres will be formed to bridge the gap that was formed by the Lea Valley. This will blur the boundaries between the Olympic site and the surrounding city, and give the existing neighbourhoods a new ‘park frontage’.
The second of the five ideas was to address the issue of connectivity. The split in the city caused by the Lea Valley is enhanced by the A12 and major railway lines which making bridging the gap a very complex task. The Companies response is to rejuvenate the areas around the Olympic site, initially by creating more cycle paths and water services to the Olympic park. The canal side is also to be developed, creating interventions along the route to give it substance and purpose, such as power points beneath the Western Underpass.
This theme of creating new areas of interest is embodied in the third point, the creation of a Green Spine linking the Lea River Valley and the Lower Lea Valley. This protrusion into the fabric of the city lends an escape from urban sprawl. It also harks back to the Green Grid theme that the school undertook two years ago, and reminds us of the importance of London’s green spaces. The Olympic park is part of this spine, and is split up into 5 different parks each with a different ‘theme’. This refusal to develop the whole site, and the linking with greater london through the Lea Valley ‘green corridor’ emphasises the aim of the OPLC to break the Olympic site down into sections. The new residential developments are fingers creeping into the swathe of green space, creating a canal-side park instead of an empty barrier. The rationalising of the three levels of this landscape- the river, the towpath and the city, seem to create a filter that will fan out the legacy of the Olympic park into the surrounding areas.
The final point of the plan was to Value What’s There, to retain the existing legacy and use it to enhance the future. This project is already gathering speed, especially in Hackney Wick. An Arts and Culture map for 600 plus artists studios and local businesses has been produced. A new brand, ‘Made In’, and the use of local supply chains has given the area an amplified sense of identity; alongside projects such as Street Interrupted that have revived areas of the town. However, you can’t help but feel that some of this drive is very cosmetic, an attempt to make the areas surrounding the Olympic site look well maintained and lived in for the hordes of cameras and tourists the events will bring.
The lecture concluded with a brief overview, and the reiteration of what will happen post-Olympics. The park will be shut for 18 months to 2 years after the events have finished, but when the conversion is complete the area will provide housing for 100,000 new residents and 50,000 new jobs. During the redevelopment of the site bridges will be narrowed, temporary structures will be removed, and only then will the residential housing be started. The five point plan to blend the Olympic park back into the surroundings does sound convincing, but will such a long length of time with the area inaccessible, prevent this integration? Also, there is a worry that the project will lose momentum. The public are used to countless projects that have over run, or are yet to be completed . Will the olympic site become a prolonged embarrassment, a massive unfinished building site with temporary structures that so often don’t end up as temporary at all?
We had a week to dwell on these questions before the next lecture. Bob Allies opened with the history of the Olympic bid. Allies and Morrison Architects were appointed in 2008 by the LDA to work with the OPLC and “jointly lead the masterplan for permanent Legacy development”. They assessed the potential of the Lower Lea Valley site, which at the time was a place of low level storage and industry, a dumping ground for the City of London. He highlighted the topography of the area which had been altered significantly in the past. Debris from bombings during WW2 was cleared into the Lea Valley, and the legacy of the industry that inhabited the area previously was a contaminated site. The use of ‘London’s back yard’ as the site for the Olympics is almost poetic, the polluted legacy left by the industry is being usurped and replaced by the new park.
The previous lecture had been overwhelmingly positive, all the projects that we were told about were working; yet there was an underlying sense of worry that it could all so easily fall apart. Bob was more realistic. He admitted that they had realised early on that the processes of designing for Legacy, set against the complexity of the site needed for the games, was a constant conflict of interests. They looked at the affects of previous Olympics, how the host nations had set up the site, and what the legacy was in each instance. The Olympic site in Athens, among others, and its current empty state was enough to make them realise the site couldn’t thrive past the games as a useful entity, it needed to be reabsorbed into the surrounding fabric. The previous lecture had highlighted the philosophy behind this reabsorption, now Bob explained its execution.
He highlighted in more detail a few of the areas of the design that would be affected by the redesign post-games. The Olympic concourse bridges the river throughout the site, however the majority of the bridges have been designed to become part of the landscape, with only one of them considered ‘glamorous’. The swimming arena is a 3000 seater swimming pool with two wings added to increase capacity. The wings disrupt the design of the building and look almost ‘clunky’, but after the games they are to be removed. Bob seemed to enjoy explaining that this would mean the arena would look better after the Olympics than during, “as it should be”. This sign of long term function over short term form is a promising hint that the legacy of the site has taken precedence over the brief Olympic period.
As explained in the previous lecture, the hardest part of this masterplan was how to link the two sides of the park together after the games. The ‘inherited context’ of the parklands and the remaining concourse gives the site substance, but the new building plots that link the park and the existing neighbourhoods are the stitches that will tie the area together. These plots are the one of the most important parts of the Legacy of the olympic site. They will tie the site to the surrounding fabric, but must also respond to the existing communities to enhance the area. Eleanor pointed out the habit of developers to create ‘self-sustaining’ developments. Each of these building plots are being sold to different developers, and there is a danger that they are going to become the very ‘set-piece’ sites the team is trying to avoid. Each developer will have their own style, each wanting to show off and better the other to entice buyers and maximise their profits.
Efforts have been made to stop this from happening. Each building plot has restrictions and rules to follow on the amount of streets within it; the amount of public space; the heights of the buildings and the amount of facade to be on show; the depth of buildings; the amount of non-residential units within the block, the width of each unit and the landscaping around them. In prescribing these limitations they hope to control the developments, and ensure the quality of the buildings. They also hope that this will prevent the sites from becoming segregated, and unify the areas without them becoming monotonous.
There is the thought that perhaps a chance is being missed here. There is an opportunity to set an example for future developments. Should this be used as an precedent for the zero-carbon homes that architects are going to have to design to meet Government targets? Should the rules be more prescriptive to attain this goal? With the site split up into so many different plots will it be difficult to maintain the high quality of buildings? If the limitations were tighter, and a standardised type was required, perhaps this would be a realistic goal. However over-tight restraints may put developers off, and the perpetual building site mentioned earlier may be the Legacy of the Olympics.
There’s still a year to go before the Olympics start, these two lectures have given us a much more detailed view of how the site will work during the games. The ideas and programmes being championed by OPLC will boost the areas surrounding the site, which will perform admirably to the volume of visitors. The venues will impress the crowds, and the 2 weeks and 2 days that the games last will be a success. From then on remains to be seen. The programmes will take passion and proactivity to maintain, the new communities may not integrate into the existing communities as hoped. The building plots may not be finished for years after the games, and the Olympic park may return to being a forgotten area of London. The main focus that seemed to be lacking in both lectures was the reaction from the current residents from the areas surrounding the Olympic site. The first lecture barely mentioned it, and the only glimpse in the second one was a banner saying that the Olympics had taken jobs out of the area.
Within our school-wide theme of clarifying the meaning of ‘Legacy’, I think these lectures have suggested that Legacy has two parts. The physical Legacy of the area, including high quality buildings, planning and designs to ensure the functionality and durability of the area for many years to come; and the reaction of the the people that currently inhabit it, the communities it shapes; their response and adaptation to the changes will decide the future of any well meant scheme, and will decide whether the legacy of the Olympic Park will be successful.