Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: Mandeville
April 17, 2012Posted by on
As a rather large reality TV studio the 2012 London Olympic Park is pretty impressive. However, that simple fact gets obfuscated by all the talk about legacy and architectural set-pieces.
The legacy commitment is impressive, but let’s not kid ourselves: first came the Olympic bid, then came the strategic notion of a legacy in order to secure that bid against competitors such as Paris. Given enough wriggle room, this legacy may yet become another victim to commercial spin. And the degree to which Newham Borough locals believe in the legacy of an ‘urban entertainment’ area is debatable.
But, who knows, Stratford may yet become one of London’s desirable residential locations, particularly with a cleaned-up River Lea and the adjacent canal that links down to the River Thames. Perhaps. But London has, historically, been oriented westward from its original core, the City of London (now the financial district). Bankers seeking somewhere to invest their annual bonus have always followed the historic crowd: to places such as Kensington and Chelsea, not to the former Docklands and associated eastern areas. Certainly, the images of the future Queen Elizabeth Park are distinctly upbeat and, given such an amazing transport interchange that has been created, it makes sense create a new high-density centre here. However, one wonders whether it will all end up as another development island, like Canary Wharf, with minimal impact of surrounding existing areas except as an opportunity for absentee landlords.
While we await all this happening (and you’ll have to wait until late 2013 and into 2014 for anything much to see) there is the reality of the 2012 Games park itself. And it’s a weird place.
Every time I read about the architectural events, especially the Hadid Aquarium and the Hopkins Velodrome (two utterly disparate projects, reflecting starkly different design attitudes and values) I wonder what the whole thing would have been like if the the project teams involved had really taken a hold of this reality TV-set notion and run with it.
(Ironically, as if to rub in the point, the old Big Brother house is located just south of the perimeter of the Olympic Park.)
As it is, the Aquarium is rather incongruous. No doubt it will be one of the jewels in the legacy crown (the other being the Velodrome), if only because it is the UK’s first Zaha design that feels like it came out of her office. The school in Brixton is worthy enough, but can hardly be described as an exercise in parametrics, no what how hard Patrik Schumacher strives to persuade us otherwise; and the Roca showroom in west London illustrates the dangers of becoming trapped into parodying one’s one stylistic tropes (which is also what the proposed branding exercise for the Serpentine Gallery extension in Hyde Park feels like).
The Aquatics building may be incredibly non-green, sporting a 3000 tonne ‘wave-shaped’ steel roof, but it is elegant. And, I’m told, it is currently very impressive on the inside (although test events gave the audience the sauna treatment). However, the boils-on-the-nose of the beast (which make-up artists have failed to conceal) are the two temporary banks of seating stacked up on either side of the pool and its sweeping, tongue-like roof. Like the rest of the building, these temporary structures have been keenly value engineered somewhere between the original CGI’s and the built fact. And, like so much within this TV-set, these extensions are less than beautiful on the exterior.
This issue of image is obviously crucial to the two-week event. But why not go all the way? Why not design the whole park as a huge studio, complete with event-sets rather than real buildings (if there is, in fact, a difference)?
Anyone tuned into the notion of ‘sets’ would have ensured that whatever was on show to the global TV audience would have been dressed up to give the desired effect …. Perhaps it will be, but we’ll probably get interior shots no better managed than the Games logo (designed by that long-term London corporate identity pioneer, Woff Olins) and Games mascots (the somewhat cringe-prompting Wenlock and Mandeville, who look like some sorely-tested designer at the ‘iris’ agency was desperately striving to mimic Hadid’s formal sensibilities).
This criticism runs to everything about the Park. The planting that has been going in is the real thing and, in twenty years time, will no doubt look very good – so why not plastic in the meantime and the real thing as a legacy replacement, once the pressure of a Games timetable is off? (There is some perfect landscaping at Canary Wharf, just down the road. Bits of it are too perfect – they’re plastic.)
The stadium (designed by Populous, an HOK spin-off) makes more sense, but even this 80,000 seat endeavour has been sucked into the legacy mire. Will two-thirds of it be demolished after the Games, as originally intended? Will a football club take it over? Will the pitch-surrounded-by-track issue get resolved? Will the minimal roof keep the rain off the reality-TV audience?Who knows; the story changes every month and is currently under wraps.
Perhaps what we needed was a cross between the Otto tents of the Munich Games, now on a Bucky Fuller scale and covering a vast area, enabling the event structures and the in between bits to be made in stud-work and plaster. Instead, we have the likes of a peculiar exercise in camouflage executed near the main Park entrance, at Stratford, as if waving about in order to distract attention away from the old shopping mall that the new Westfield-shopping-centre-entrance-filter-into-the-Games has effectively replaced (what, by the way, is claimed to be the largest indoor shopping mall in Europe). The architects, Egret West, are very good, but their brief has been somewhat ridiculous. Why not, for example, more tensile fabric forms that, at least, would have supplemented the existing bus station and thus inflate their presence? (A degree of otherwise absent coherence might have resulted.) Why not a total structuring of the arrival-by-car-Underground-Overground-Eurostar-bus (etc.) mall entrance areas so that every viewpoint and possible camera shot was taken care of? It’s fascinating: the demands of a found reality and a mediated reality mixing up our mind-sets. What is ‘real’ – the CGI’s, what one sees on TV, or what is built? It’s all real, one supposes … real in different ways, for different people and purposes, at different times …
Nevetheless, there may have been a lost opportunity here that will have to be fulfilled by some other, subsequent Games city. Whereas movie industry scene-designers might have been the team leaders we might have had too many architects and master planners (often the same firms) on the London team. But you know it’s coming: scene-setting-and-augmented-reality Games that complements the general hype and media spin. We’d just have to avoid the kind of authenticity-testing ostensibly applied to the athletes, because that really will mess with our brains. Meanwhile … we have Wenlock and Mandeville, who aptly sum it all up.