Vandals or visionaries?
Our perceptions of place and landscape change with time. Seven years on from London 2012, we take a look back at the protest that besieged the Olympic Park site in its early days and ask whether the critics had a point.
“If London was to secure a lasting legacy from the Games, the landscape architecture had to respond at a scale to match the Park’s infrastructure. The watercourses needed to be culverted and the pylons needed to go.”
An instinctive distrust of grands projets lies deep in the British psyche. A barrage of criticism was unleashed against the folly and the vandalism of ‘corporate redevelopment’ of the site for the Olympic Park.
The meaning of the site was seen to lie in its past, which meant that any new place was pretty well bound to have no meaning at all. The campaign was spearheaded by Hackney author Ian Sinclair, whose Ghost Milk was a scorching diatribe on “the long march towards a theme park without a theme”.
Suspicion of change was partnered with nostalgia. Sinclair wrote about ‘wild apple orchards and abandoned forests’ on the overgrown site, as well as its post-industrial ruins. This sense of past glories also lies deep in the British psyche. Think of Turner’s ‘The Fighting Temeraire’, winner of a BBC poll for Greatest Painting in Britain. The ship played a heroic role in the Battle of Trafalgar, but this painting evokes the sense of loss as she is tugged to her Last Berth.
Similarly, pictures of the rusting hull of the SS Great Britain being towed back into Bristol docks in 1970 show river banks lined with thousands of people, deeply moved.
Discarded refrigerators, Stratford
Not everyone welcomed London 2012
Polluted waterways marked the Olympic site
Moving in the wrong direction
While the Olympic Park design team was under siege, the stark truth was that entire site was so seriously contaminated that only two rivers and one bridge could be kept. But laments for the loss of post-industrial heritage became a distraction from the real risk to the design of the Park.
This risk came from the way in which civil engineering infrastructure was dominating the Park, with the site being fragmented by roads, rail, utilities and two watercourses. When LDA Design was brought in, we pointed out that the park needed to be larger if it was to register. The landscape architecture had to make a decisive response at a scale to match the infrastructure and the iconic Games buildings.
This meant identifying the true asset of the riverine Park, the neglected River Lea, and culverting the other river. The Lea was sluggish, polluted and sunk deep in a channel with steep banks. These banks had to be pulled right back all the way through the Park, to give the river a heroic presence and bring coherence to the design.
This was the kind of assertive move which Humphrey Repton might have relished, and we continued to follow his lead when working at scale: opening and closing views, achieving an interaction between monumental architecture and the landscape – a 21st century picturesque.
Giving the River Lea the presence it deserved was the making of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
“The power of the Olympic Park has always been in its social purpose, and that is what needs to remain clear and compelling.”
Building from small transactions
Of course the critics of the Park never knew that their campaign was placing its design in jeopardy. Back then, they probably would not have cared anyway. But it is important to recognise the valuable point that they were making at the same time.
Ian Sinclair always argued the need to “build from small transactions”. In other words, build from people’s interactions with the place – what we call ‘First, life’.
All grands projets must be rooted in what people want from the site. The sloping lawns of the River Lea and the elaborate playscapes now throng with local families every weekend. This is not by accident. The Park has two distinctive characters – a mounded, shaggy, natural feeling in the north, and ordered and gardenesque in the south. Both are shaped around the principle of maximising the connection between people and place.
Ambition for the Park was to bring new opportunity to people in east London, and this is what we have pursued through our more recent work there. Our masterplan for UCL East is designed to make the campus genuinely accessible and useful to local people, in time even central to their lives.
We have designed the Stratford Waterfront public realm as a place with its own distinct identity, and where you do not have to spend money to feel connected.
With the public realm for Here East, we reflected the enduring entrepreneurial nature of Hackney Wick, with Yard spaces for artists and makers, large spaces for pop-ups, and concrete slab benches. A successful working landscape will always respect what has gone before, and design respond to post-industrial heritage even when the site is stripped.
Until recently, the focus has been on development in the core of the Park and then on filling the gap around the core. As a result, some uninviting points of access still remain. Now attention is turning to improving connectivity into the Park and making the edges work better for pedestrians and cyclists. This is happening at Stratford Walk, which has the job of unifying Stratford City, the International Quarter, with the Park. In delivering the public realm for this key entrance, we are aiming to create somewhere that is highly intentional, with clear sightlines to all key landmarks within the Park. It should feel lively and invite people to linger.
Even though the original critics of the Olympic Park longed for a London that might well never have been, to “build from small transactions” remains critically important. This means the Park needs to feel a fundamentally civilised place to live, with generous provision of affordable housing with equally generous space for nature.
The power of the Park has always been in its social purpose, and that is what needs to remains clear and compelling.