The Olympic Park is a tour de force of ecological landscaping, but it has little to do with its East End context
Seven years and £11 billion in the making, the London 2012 Olympic Park is finally complete. Two million tonnes of contaminated soil have been washed, 5km of riverbanks cleaned up and 35 bridges built. Six thousand two hundred trees, 9,500 shrubs, 63,000 bulbs, 250,000 wetlands plants and 766,000 grasses and ferns have been planted.
There are fields and lawns, wetlands, woodland and wild-flower meadows. There are 650 bird and bat boxes, kingfisher walls and swift hotels, as well as habitats to lure otters, water voles, sand martins, amphibians, reptiles and a host of invertebrates. There are thickets of oak, ash, willow, birch, hazel, holly, blackthorn and hawthorn, flowerbeds bursting with red hot pokers, tiger lilies and Japanese anemones. Look closely and you will even find toadflax to entice the rare brocade moth.
It sounds like Kew Gardens combined with the entire contents of the Chelsea Flower Show, a baffling shopping list for a project of incomprehensible scale, which has somehow been magicked from the mud at the bottom of the Lower Lea Valley.
Walking around the 250 hectares of gently undulating meadows and pristine tarmac plazas this week, it is hard to believe this is the same piece of land that used to be a wild world of abattoirs and breakers yards, newspaper printers and cooking-fat recycling plants. Pacing the banks of the oily waterways in 2006, shortly before the infamous blue fence encircled this swathe of east London, it seemed the Olympic dream was an impossibility. This was an abrasive edgeland, surely too big and too feral to be conquered.
A chequered past
The site lies at the lower end of the Lee Valley Park, a green ribbon that snakes 40km from Hertfordshire down to the Thames in a knotted tangle of rivers, reservoirs and marshland, woven between infrastructural arteries and fragments of industry. As a buffer between the city to the west and rural Essex to the east, the valley has an important history as a productive belt, layered with generations of service as London’s kitchen garden and workshop, the site of flour mills and shipyards, gunpowder mills, chemical plants and brick factories.
While bestowing the area with a romantic mythology, massaged by the writings of Ian Sinclair and Will Self, these years of heavy industry had taken their toll, leaving a scarred landscape of poisoned soils — a key factor in framing the site’s regeneration as an essential project of land remediation, “cleaning up” what was conveniently branded as a toxic dumping ground.
The Olympic site itself had been home to the sprawling Great Eastern Railway works, left derelict since the early 1990s, and a jumbled collection of sheds and yards. As a result of its isolation, severed from its surroundings by rivers and canals, deep railway gulleys and roaring A roads, it had collected the kind of uses and communities that accrue beyond the fold in the map. When clearance began in 2006, it was a mix of food wholesalers and concrete crushers, warehouse churches and travellers’ camps, piles of fridges and allotments. It is misleading to romanticise this former state too much, but it had its own special quality as a hidden backwater, an unregulated valve where the city could let off steam.
The winning bid for the London 2012 Games — dreamed up in 2005 by Edaw (now Aecom), Allies & Morrison, Foreign Office Architects and HOK Sport (now Populous) — proposed to wipe all this clean. The blank slate would give rise to a startling futuristic vision of a parametric parkland, with venues erupting from the ground in rippling waves — taut, muscular forms traversed by a dense matrix of sinuous, bifurcating pathways.
Reality intervened, FOA resigned, and the plan was dramatically simplified, with a new emphasis on designing a permanent park for east London, incidentally populated by venues, many of which would be fully or partially temporary.
The landscape you experience today is the work of LDA Design and American landscape architect George Hargreaves, whose practice was responsible for the Sydney Olympic Plaza and the transformation of other vast brownfield sites across the US. Brought in by the Olympic Delivery Authority in 2008, the team overhauled Edaw’s broadbrush approach, softening its edges, opening up the river banks and reducing the concourse area by almost 20%..
“The big move was revealing the water,” says Neil Mattinson, senior partner at LDA Design. “We pulled back the landform and sculpted mounds out of the displaced soil, which allowed us to reuse all of the material on site.” The width of the former concourses would have resulted in near-vertical walls meeting the rivers, but now the land slopes down, via meandering pathways and bushy banks, to naturalised, reed-planted edges — a floodable landscape that has removed the flood risk to almost 5,000 homes further north.
The design strategy for the park is separated into two zones formed by the natural hourglass shape of the site. The southern end, around the main stadium, Orbit and Aquatics Centre, is conceived as a busy, paved world of concourses and entertainment plazas — imagined to grow into a “South Bank of the East End” after the Games. The northern half is a more natural landscape of meadows and woodland, set around the timber bowl of the Velodrome, closer to the marshes and forests further north.
Source: LDA DESIGN
These two distinct worlds are linked by a vast sea of tarmac and resin-bound gravel — named London Way — that snakes up the centre of the park to channel visitors between the venues that plug in along its length. Like many Olympic promenades before it, it has a bleak, relentless quality — an endless concourse paced by a marching line of “memory mast” lighting columns, each topped with a helical wind turbine, and populated for the Games with an inevitable cacophony of sponsor pavilions and white-tent concession stands.
Either side of this broad, raised spine, which is bowed north-south across the park like a hog’s back, the topography slopes down to the water to provide an alternative, more enjoyable route through the park. In the southern reaches, around Orbit Circus and Stadium Island, this takes the form of conventional towpath edges, where the original concrete river walls are exposed and the occasional iron footbridge has been lovingly restored — although unfortunately fenced off for the Games. These paths back on to banks planted with wildflower meadows, an impressive sight of golds and blues now in bloom.
The broad, raised spine of London Way is bowed north-south across the park like a hog’s back
A whole stretch has also been given over to a project by young architects Tomas Klassnik and We Made That, who have planted patterns that recall the plan forms of buildings that were here before. It is one of the few places in the park where the history of the site is remembered and celebrated, not swept under the pristine green carpet.
On the bank of the Waterworks River, opposite the Aquatics Centre, young garden designer Sarah Price has worked with botanists from the University of Sheffield to construct the 860m-long 2012 Gardens. This riot of flowers and shrubs represents the history of British horticultural ambition, with plants collected from four different climatic zones, all carefully calibrated to flower for the Olympic fortnight — which, miraculously, they now have.
Progressing north, you encounter a lurid confetti carpet of coloured blobs, signalling the presence of an architect-designed bridge. Won in competition by Heneghan Peng, with engineer Adams Kara Taylor, this will be a great asset to the park in legacy mode, comprising two footbridges connected by a diagonal Z-blade walkway that crosses the (soon-to-be-restored) Carpenters Lock below, with a slick, mirror-polished undercarriage. During the Games, the triangular voids are cleverly filled in to form a single 55m-wide deck — and its Smartie-blob carpet is already proving popular with hop-scotching kids.
A similar strategy has been used by Allies & Morrison for other bridges across the site, avoiding the oversized infrastructural legacy of so many Olympic parks. Removable timber sections provide the obligatory 30m width during the Games, which will be reduced to a more human scale of 3-4m afterwards.
North of this bridge, leaving the central concourse spine and the world’s largest McDonald’s — whose timber-clad shed seems surprisingly tasteful next to the disastrous prefab glass and steel Megastore — things start to get a little wilder. Clumps of clover replace the manicured borders, mushrooms spring from beneath glades of trees and the concrete-edged towpaths give way to marshy banks of long grasses
Source: Anthony Charlton/ODA
To the east, where the austere beige cliff face of the Athletes’ Village looms into view, the park dips and swirls, forming a series of ponds surrounded by wet woodland. These are attenuation pools that filter greywater from the village, a landscape feature that extends into the development and helps to soften the gridiron in the manner of a Dutch singel. Considering how recently most of the park has been planted, it all looks miraculously well-bedded, and will doubtless improve with time — and a little less enthusiastic gardening.
Developed through physical models, the northern landscaping has a decidedly picturesque feel, with views of venues carefully framed by the rise and dip of planted berms, clumps of trees placed to direct the gaze, with long vistas opening up as you progress through the park. In places, it is hard to shake off the feeling of being on an overly managed stage set, an imported ideal of naturalised landscape completely alien to the tradition of London parks, and even further from the Lea Valley.
Like the Athletes’ Village, it is a placeless piece of placemaking, a Truman Show conception of an imaginary, perfect nature that has more in common with the choreographed mounds of a Florida golf course than the wilds of the post-industrial East End.
A balancing act
The feeling of walking through a stage set should come as no surprise, for that is exactly what this is — for “the greatest show on earth”, as we are constantly reminded. If the ODA built the theatre, it has been Locog’s role to erect the scenery for the event itself. “We were always keen to ensure that the temporary Olympic overlay shouldn’t dictate the park layout,” says Kevin Owens, head of design at Locog. “The park should be driven by common-sense, urban-design principles rather than event planning strategies.”
With legacy ever the driving design force, Owens’ task has been the difficult one of fitting a plethora of temporary structures into this landscape to give the impression of a park in which the Olympics happens to be taking place, rather than a relentless campus tailored to this one-off event, while also mindful of what might come after.
“We have tried to follow the layout of legacy development plots with our temporary structures as far as possible,” he explains, describing the Games as “launching the park to the world”, and conscious that any moves made now might inform how the site is used in the future — for both temporary events and permanent development.
Considering the sheer amount of stuff that the Olympics entails, Locog’s distributed masterplan — in which all components, from sponsor pavilions to concession stands, are scattered throughout the park in distinct character areas — seems reasonably successful, although it is a shame so many of the structures resort to either default hired marquees or lacklustre brand showcases. The appeal to employ young local architects fell mostly on deaf ears, save for the delightful anomalies of the Coca-Cola Beatbox by Asif Kahn and Pernilla Ohrstedt and Serie’s BMW pavilion.
The face of the future
Elsewhere, the “Look of the Games”, developed by Futurebrand from Wolff Olins’ original identity, has been liberally plastered across the site, with angular pink wayfinding totems and triumphal entrance arches by Surface Architects doing their required job of being very visible from everywhere.
Less successful is the giant Park Live video screen by Richards Partington Architects, which sits on stilts in the river, engulfed in a flimsy swoosh, and Eric Reynolds’ towers of blue shipping container TV studios that somehow lack any of the charm of his development at Trinity Buoy Wharf.
Post-Games plans are still uncertain, although the park will receive two new hubs — a wild adventure playground and café pavilion by Erect Architecture in the north, and a “Tivoli-esque” pleasure garden by James Corner Field Operations and Make Architects in the south, both of which look promising.
It would be nice to think that, once the garish Olympic flotsam has blown away and the park reopens 18 months after the Games, we will be left with one of the most magnificent public spaces to be built in London.
In one sense, we will, but it relies on the London Legacy Development Corporation — which will manage the park for at least the next 10 years — and the nature of the forthcoming neighbourhoods to ensure the place does not become a privatised enclave of gated communities and sponsored mega-events, forever sold off to the highest bidder. Any sense of life of the old Lea might have been smothered for now, but it must be allowed to return to give this place the character it needs.
Temporary structures will accommodate a variety of functions during the Games
Wayfinding beacons: Surface Architects
Comprising six 7m-high zone beacons, five 15m-high major beacons and two 12m-high entrance gantries, the wayfinding structures are based on the angular “Look of the Games”, developed by Wolff Olins and Futurebrand. Dressed in Olympic fluorescent pink, they do their job of being visible from across the park very well.
McDonald’s: AEW Architects
Hailed as the “world’s largest McDonald’s”, this 3,000sq m, timber-clad building includes seating for more than
1,500 customers, and will sell £3 million of fast food during the Games. Complete with balcony decks and surrounded by wildflower meadows, it is a considerable improvement on most fast food outlets.
Soundforms stage: BFLS Architects
Designed with conductor Mark Stephenson and Arup Acoustics, Soundforms is the “world’s first mobile acoustic shell”, a portable stage for classical performances. It is made from inflated ETFE cushions and lined with a series of profiled reflectors to project sound across the surrounding lawn, with room for an audience of 800-1,000 people.
Olympic Broadcast Studios: Urban Space Management
Following on from Eric Reynolds’ work at Trinity Buoy Wharf, this temporary tower of TV studios is formed from shipping containers, topped with a pergola roof structure and clad in coloured fins. In line with USM’s “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach, the containers can be dismantled and reused.
Client Olympic Delivery Authority, Masterplan architects Edaw (now Aecom), Allies & Morrison, Foreign Office Architects, HOK Sport (now Populous), Landscape LDA Design / Hargreaves Associates, Lighting designer Sutton Vane Associates, Speirs & Major, Gardens University of Sheffield with Sarah Price, Maintenance & management plan ETM Associates