Ten years on:
The making of the
Ten years on from the opening of the Olympic Park, four directors from LDA Design share their experiences and insights on its design and development.
“We identified the site’s real asset, the River Lea, sluggish and polluted and sunk deep in a channel. The steep banks were pulled back to create the park and to give the river a heroic presence.”
Andrew Harland, Director, LDA Design
Living the Park – Andrew Harland
“Where has the park gone?” This was the first question I asked when LDA Design took on the landscape masterplanning of the Olympic Park in 2008. Civil engineering infrastructure had come to dominate the park and fragment the site. It was essential that landscape architects took charge, to secure a decisive response at a scale to match the infrastructure and the games buildings. We identified the site’s real asset, the River Lea, sluggish and polluted and sunk deep in a channel. The steep banks were pulled back to create the park and to give the river a heroic presence.
I think it was a defining moment for the profession when LDA Design took on leadership of the largest and most complex landscape project that has been delivered in the UK, with a team of 20. There was a lot of scepticism at the outset among the other project teams because we were “only” landscape architects, about to disrupt the progress of the engineering and construction. Over time, we changed perceptions – through persuasion, tenacity, and by delivering.
During that three-year design phase, we lived the park. I had never experienced such intensity before. Every move was made in the glare of intense national scrutiny and governed by sheafs of protocols. As landscape architects, we were at the interface of the competing demands of every interested party: the venues and the infrastructure teams, the ODA departments, and statutory stakeholders. Our co-consultants proved to be fantastic collaborators, but we all had to raise our game to a whole new level. It was fun, bonding, and massively rewarding.
LDA Design has since worked on a dozen Legacy projects and my close bond with QEOP is constantly reinforced, from the University College London East [UCLE] campus masterplan and East Bank to a landscape protection study and being on review panels. The power of QEOP lies in its social purpose and the sloping lawns of the River Lea throng with local families every weekend. Now my daughter has even chosen to make her home in Hackney Wick, two minutes from the park.
Andrew Harland is a director at LDA Design and Trustee. Andrew jointly led LDA Design’s work on the Park.
“The Park was a commission like no other with the ultimate, non-negotiable deadline and the world watching and waiting.”
Neil Mattinson, Director, LDA Design
A Purposeful Park – Neil Mattinson
The legacy of London 2012 is the strongest ever delivered by an Olympic Games, anywhere. There are no decaying white elephant venues here, but a Park that welcomes young mothers and the newly retired equally. This is a purposeful landscape, a driver of social and economic change, providing doorstep nature for once neglected areas and catalysing a rebalancing of London – a pull east that continues ten years on.
The creation of the Park was ambitious in myriad ways. It was the first time that new wildflower planting been delivered on such a scale in the UK. Many of the site’s ecological targets have been realised: otters have been sighted; kingfishers are flourishing. This on a site so badly contaminated, it had to be completely stripped and rethought as a riverine park.
For me, the Park has a boldness that you rarely see. That’s its secret. Landscape at this scale – any scale, really – is likely to miss its mark if it is not truly ambitious. You must be confident enough to identify the power in the landscape. It will provide the single, strong, simple idea that will lead everything else – here, it was the River Lea. From there you can build in the new views and make sure it becomes both part of the everyday and is also loved for being special.
The Park was a commission like no other with the ultimate, non-negotiable deadline and the world watching and waiting. A large team of specialists working at breakneck speed and an expert ‘hands on’ client combined to make it the most demanding and most rewarding project of my career, an experience which will stay with me forever.
I believe it moved things on, pioneering new standards in ecology, adaptability, and sustainability, and ensuring landscape architecture was seen as key to unlocking potential. I still get asked to showcase the Park to new clients, and they get it straight away because its power is plain to see.
Neil Mattinson is a director at LDA Design and jointly led LDA Design’s work on the Park.
“I remember how tricky the first few months of the project were, because our first contribution to the park design was to challenge assumptions that had long been held about the size of concourse needed and the retention of a stream channel in the north of the park.”
Rob Aspland, Director, LDA Design
Working with clay – Rob Aspland
I’d worked on some complex and challenging projects before the Olympic Park, but this commission was at another level. I remember how tricky the first few months of the project were, because our first contribution to the park design was to challenge assumptions that had long been held about the size of concourse needed and the retention of a stream channel in the north of the park.
We knew that having less concourse (which would only get removed post-Games) and diverting the channel would allow us to create way more park both for the Games and the Legacy modes, and also make more of the river.
In hindsight that may sound obvious, but we were working in the context of an early works contract that was already seeing earth moved and bridge abutments built. We had to make the argument with exceptional technical rigour and conviction, working collaboratively with crowd movement specialists, river and drainage engineers, ecologists, structural engineers and cost consultants to get what we knew to be the best result for the park.
We won those early arguments and developed a design that set new standards in inclusion, habitat creation, and water and waste management. We brought the same technical rigour to dealing with countless technical challenges along the way.
Seemingly in stark contrast though, we developed that design of the park using a large-scale working physical model constructed from clay. This malleable, tactile material allowed us to express a playful and sculptural topography that framed views and shaped habitats. What struck me at the time, and which has stayed with me since, was how precision and rigour was the enabler to the sort of creative freedom exemplified by our work with the clay, not the antithesis of it.
Rob Aspland is a director at LDA Design. He is working to transform Westfield Avenue and movement around London’s South Bank.
“The park has been a constant throughout my career. I’m now helping to develop new landscape thinking to transform Carpenter’s Estate, which borders QEOP, working with teenagers and finding out what home, shared spaces and the park means to them.”
Benjamin Walker, Director, LDA Design
Creating a proper park – Benjamin Walker
My first day in my first job in 2007 was working on what is now Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. How lucky was that? The standout landscape of a generation. It was ‘in at the deep-end’ stuff, but what a wild swim.
The park has been a constant throughout my career. I’m now helping to develop new landscape thinking to transform Carpenter’s Estate, which borders QEOP, working with teenagers and finding out what home, shared spaces and the park means to them.
I learnt so much on this project, and every time I head back, I see the value of the decisions we made over ten years ago. For example, the initial plans for the Olympic Park had overlarge concourses, which we pushed back on to ensure that we could create a generous, enduring green space – a proper park! – whilst making sure it was safe and comfortable for large numbers of people. I’ve taken this learning with me onto other projects such as Battersea Power Station, another at-scale, decade-long LDA Design project where we are creating fabulous new public realm for a formerly cut-off industrial site.
Leading the complex design process for the park positioned landscape architects front and centre. It also put reuse of materials and carbon sequestration at the heart of the design, setting ambitious targets for biodiversity gain that are only now making their way into design standards. Landscape-led design has gained traction because it results in the most remarkable places, and the creation of the park is pivotal to this shift.
Every year, I host a walk around Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park for landscape architecture undergraduates from my alma mater, the University of Edinburgh. Sharing a fraction of what I’ve learnt with students about to embark on their professional lives is a highlight. I can’t help but feel proud, and I can’t help but wonder what they will look back on with a similar sense of pride 10-15 years from now.
Benjamin Walker is a director at LDA Design and London studio lead. Current projects include Carpenter’s Estate and Battersea Power Station.