Olympics $14 Billion Site Mixes Scary Tower, Big Dolphin

2012 Olympics
The parklands that will become part of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park after the 2012 Olympics. The ridged landscape, designed by San Francisco landscape architect Hargreaves Associates, and six kilometers of waterway are among elements organizers hope will attract nine million annual visitors. Photographer: Anthony Charlton/Olympic Delivery Authority via Bloomberg

I expected a grand, flag-bedecked avenue leading into London’s Summer Olympics site.

Instead, I walked through what’s touted as Europe’s largest shopping mall. The generic design of this behemoth deflates expectations.

Britain has spent some 9.3 billion pounds ($14.4 billion) for this exercise in city branding. While Beijing put $67 billion into venues that are all but unused, London targeted its investment on commercial and residential revitalization in and beyond the long-neglected 246 hectare (608 acre) site in the east of the capital.

(To see a slide show of London Olympics architecture, click here.)

Games goers will quickly become aware of the compromises the long-term ambitions exacted. Once through the mall, you’ll stroll under the elegant dolphin-headed porch of the Aquatics Centre.

London celebrity architect Zaha Hadid made the center’s voluptuous, hump-backed form an eyesore by tacking on two clumsy bat winged seating tiers to accommodate 17,500 spectators.

The tiers will come off after the games, leaving behind 2,500 permanent seats and an elegantly slimmed 269 million pound landmark.

Even now, the interior looks glorious, with a luscious undulating ceiling and elegantly sculptured diving platforms that will no doubt figure heavily in TV coverage.

Giant Bicycle

The 500 million pound Olympic Stadium’s white-painted steel-pipe framework -- a giant bicycle wheel turned on its side -- backdrops Hadid’s building. Post-Olympics usefulness drove the stadium’s utilitarian form. The above-ground superstructure can be readily dismantled to shrink the arena to as few as 25,000 seats from 80,000.

While the stadium doesn’t inspire, it’s got a gutsy industrial integrity that grew on me. Peter Cook, whose sci-fi imagery has influenced architects and movie-set designers since the 1960s, collaborated with the engineering firm Buro Happold and the workaday Kansas City-based stadium architect Populous.

The ArcelorMittal Orbit, a 114-meter-high (374 foot) sculpture posing next to the stadium, was supposed to be the games’ heroic icon. Instead it’s a 22.7 million pound image of industrial apocalypse. Menacing tentacles of red-painted steel trusswork coil around a spiral stairway and an aerial observation deck.

The Orbit was largely a gift of Lakshmi Mittal, chief executive officer of steelmaker ArcelorMittal, and was designed by artist Anish Kapoor and bravura structural engineer Cecil Balmond. It will wow you even as you wonder how they got away with it.

Ridged Parkland

Moving north, a gently ridged parkland unfolds. It’s the first stage of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which will open in stages beginning about a year after the games.

It has replaced contaminated railyards littered with heaps of discarded tires. Pollutant-filtering marshes and peaceful paths line the Lea River and a network of canals built to serve industry. A pair of swans obligingly emerged from the reedy edges as I passed.

This remarkable transformation forms the core of the 102-hectare park choreographed by the San Francisco-based landscape architect George Hargreaves of Hargreaves Associates. After the games, New York landscape architect James Corner Field Operations will add a festive promenade with squiggly hedges to wrap the stadium and Orbit.

Warped Velodrome

The outwardly sloping wood-faced walls and gently warped roof of the Olympic velodrome makes the most of the new landscaping by snuggling gently into the lines of trees and meadow. The shape, by Hopkins Architects of London, optimizes the 6,000 seats for best viewing of the four kinds of cycling events it accommodates.

Perhaps because it won’t have to be remodeled after the games, it is by far this Olympics’ most elegant structure.

The organizers wisely erected temporary venues for sports not popular in Britain. That’s no reason to make the hockey and water-polo venues out of hideous scaffolding wrapped in an ocean of PVC. The basketball arena is at least thoughtful, a white PVC tent that’s becomingly dimpled by local architect Wilkinson Eyre.

More ugly white tents enclose a massive games infrastructure that will require a lot of stylish fences, banners, and plantings to disguise.

It won’t be easy to hide security measures that are running to more than a billion pounds and may entail missiles mounted on nearby highrises.

Though it’s a strangely mixed bag, this games, more than any other since Barcelona, seems tightly focused on leaving an extraordinary legacy for a part of east London that’s seen little investment. Transit improvements, for example, now make the Stratford gateway better connected than any part of greater London outside the center.

If the commitment pays off, few will remember the provisional quality of the games themselves.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Martin Gayford on art and Jeremy Gerard on New York theater.

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