February 8, 2013 5:46 pm

John Hopkins, Olympic park cultivator

John Hopkins

Landscape architect,
1953-2013

In transforming a forlorn area of east London into a lush backdrop to the world’s greatest sporting occasion, John Hopkins created England’s biggest new urban park for more than a century, his legacy an enduring meeting place for the people and wildlife of a metropolis.

Hopkins, who has died suddenly, aged 59, was the mastermind and driving force behind London’s Olympic Park, where the wild flower meadows that were seen on screens worldwide last year are due to reopen this summer. A project of immense complexity and scale, it required him to be as managerial as he was creative and to pioneer ways of combining landscape, garden and city design.

Sir Nicholas Serota, Tate director and former board member of the Olympic Delivery Authority, said the park “owes its form and its success to the vision and determination of John Hopkins”. Peter Neal, co-author with Hopkins of The Making of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, described his achievement as “to demonstrate the power of landscape to radically transform places”.

The raw materials were hardly auspicious. The Stratford site was deeply contaminated after decades of industrial decline, playing host to a munitions dump, a fridge mountain and choked and polluted waterways. Pylons marched over an area where soil had long festered in toxic groundwater. But a champion of sustainability, Hopkins was able to declare after the clean-up that 97 per cent of what was on the site had been reused or recycled.

The biggest risk in cultivating the 250 acres of new green space, he said, lay in his intended swath of pointillist vistas featuring native annuals such as cornflowers, field poppies and marigolds. That was because, as he told colleagues with relish, the flowering was meticulously timed to coincide with the 2012 Olympic Games. The meadow areas would still appear to be “barren earth” just weeks before the July opening ceremony. But his confidence was built on diligent planning and two seasons of trials.

John Charles Hopkins was born in Liverpool on December 6 1953. He graduated in landscape architecture at Thames Polytechnic, now the University of Greenwich, where he later became a visiting professor. A softly spoken man with a moustache as luxuriant as anything he cultivated, his career took him into both the public and private sectors and across Asia and the US. One influence was Alexander Garvin, an academic who emphasises how parks can benefit the economy and please the senses; Garvin was prominent in New York’s own 2012 Olympic bid.

Hopkins came to the ODA in 2007 from LDA Design, a practice where lauded projects included regenerating Warrington town centre in northwest England after an IRA bombing: he introduced sculpted gardens and brought the US artist Howard Ben Tre to the UK for the first time to provide its public art.

Noted by colleagues and friends for a calm self-assurance and a dogged temperament, he was at ease in moving between academia and industry. Hopkins was a consultant to the Royal Parks agency, over 14 years helping to improve London’s most prized outdoor amenities. Joe Gardiner, former editor of the quarterly Landscape, who visited him at LDA’s central London offices, described an intellectual generosity and “infectious enthusiasm”.

In bringing the Olympic project to fruition, Hopkins saw it as vital to communicate its longer-term purpose to those working on it, explaining the legacy not only to managers and designers but the builders and electricians working on the details. “My view was that if we gave people a vision they would do their job better,” he told the Landscape Institute’s journal.

The mission threw together engineers, ecologists, soil specialists, garden designers, archaeologists and others who in some cases had never before collaborated. Hopkins’ response to the management task this presented was both uncompromising and optimistic: “If you set the targets but don’t tell people how they’re going to deliver them, and you force each party to report against how they’re delivering  . . . people are really innovative.”

His fiancée Laura Adams, who survives him along with a daughter and son from a previous relationship, described Hopkins as an iconoclast “unafraid to tell the truth”. Calling for the use of more benign infrastructure, he warned: “We are going to have to live off ecological interest not ecological capital.”

Though some celebrated gardeners sniffed at the Olympic Park’s simplicity, Hopkins said he had resisted “great pressure” to make it a design icon, preferring an unfussy style seen in the undulating lines of the meadows and parkland. His own appraisal of the project might stand as a manifesto for urban planners and designers: “It looks beautiful and it’ll be there for generations to come – just getting better and better.”

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