Legacy or lunacy?

London 2012 was supposed to be the austerity Olympics. In the wake of the Beijing spectacular of 2008 a consensus had emerged that the architectural bubble had burst. The seductive complexity of the Bird’s Nest stadium, the massed ranks of drummers and fake fireworks, and the closure of Beijing’s industrial plants to ameliorate the city’s notorious counterpane of brown smog led to the kind of spectacular possible only under an authoritarian regime with plentiful cheap labour and a booming economy.

Everything that followed, it was agreed, would have to be more modest in its ambition, more unassuming in its architecture, more about the legacy than the fleeting spectacular. London’s Olympics was going to be the greenest ever. But then a nervousness crept in, about being seen as cheap. The cost of staging the Games exploded from an initial estimate of £3bn to the current £9bn. London’s original plan featured a single piece of spectacular starchitecture, the expressionistic aquatics centre by Zaha Hadid. This was undeniably a building that London demanded, as the city had barely any modern swimming facilities.

There was also to be an economy stadium, a controversial horse course in Greenwich Park and a smattering of demountable boxes. In the event, the stadium cost more than half a billion, the equestrian events centre will cost an astonishing £42m and leave nothing at all in its wake (except a churned-up park) and there is, of course, the execrable ArcelorMittal Orbit, the biggest, ugliest work of public art the city has ever seen.

As we begin the Olympic year, nearly all the buildings are ready and we can start to see what has emerged. A look at the centrepieces, the stadia and the sports infrastructure helps us to understand what the city might inherit for its £9.3bn investment.

The aquatics centre remains the most impressive structure. Zaha Hadid’s second building in her adopted home city (her first, the Evelyn Grace School in Brixton, won last year’s RIBA Stirling Prize), is an organic, sculptural tour de force, its interior now one of London’s most uplifting spaces. But its exterior creaks with an odd anomaly. The elegant, fluid form is compromised by two sticky-out ears accommodating the temporary seating which will allow it to fit an astonishing 14,000 spectators, compared to the 2,400 it will house after the Games are over. Thus the sinuous lines of a landmark building intended as the architectural centrepiece of the Games are ruined by a pair of clunky extensions at exactly the point the eyes of the world are on it.

The building’s complex, curving roof resembles a cuttlefish, an architectural butterfly stroke. The interior is vast, the brilliant blue shimmer of the pool casting sparkling reflections on the concrete roof which bulges down over the water like the belly of a blue whale. The focus of the space is on a family of five carefully crafted concrete diving boards. These slender concrete forms taper down to impossibly fine bases, a group of concrete cantilevers of real beauty. They seem to come from that well of émigré concrete constructivism that produced Berthold Lubetkin’s penguin pool at London Zoo, a markedly foreign, experimental approach to concrete as a material of abstract beauty rather than utility.

The five concrete diving boards that form its centrepiece

Not everything here is as wonderful. The public spaces and entrances betray the ambition of the pool itself; they are dull and reveal the heavy traces of value engineering (even though this is a £269m building). Nevertheless, the idea that this should become a municipal pool for a poor east London borough does inspire, and this is a facility that a city starved of Olympic-standard pools genuinely needs. It is a thing worth having.

Perhaps the same cannot be said about the Olympic stadium itself. Billed as a cheap and cheerful work of pure engineering by stadium specialist architects Populous, this is a fine, functional stadium for a city that doesn’t need it. At more than half a billion pounds it seems a shocking waste of money in a city littered with high-tech, high-capacity stadia.

When the new Wembley stadium was designed (by Foster & Partners, completed in 2007) it was conceived as a football venue which could be quickly and efficiently converted for use as an athletics stadium. The pitch area is designed to be raised so that the expanded surface needed for the running track could be accommodated (albeit with a slightly reduced spectator capacity). I understand there was some problem with the location of a warm-up track beside the stadium and other demands of the International Olympic Committee but, surely, when the economy began to falter the tough decision should have been made to abandon plans for an unneeded new stadium. But now that we are stuck with it (its post-Olympics future is still in doubt) it is possible to look on it as a competent, lightweight structure, its diagonal struts peaking into lighting pylons negating any extraneous structure. Even walls have been abandoned in favour of a view of the dark underbelly of the terraces – this dramatic architectural approach now compromised by the addition of an advertising “wrap”.

The biggest surprise is the £93m velodrome. Like the pool, this is a building type London has lacked and the new creation by Hopkins Architects is a superb vessel. It seems to express the stealthy speed of the cyclists, its timber-clad walls banking sharply to reflect the shape of the track and seeming barely to support a floating roof. The design was quickly nicknamed The Pringle in reference to its crisp-shaped double curved roof, and it is as crisp a building as you could imagine: the architects’ assertion that they were influenced by the refined, lightweight engineering of a racing bike is clearly more than empty rhetoric. There is nothing extraneous here, just a lean, purposeful structure enveloping a truly impressive space for one of the sports Britain has actually excelled at.

The velodrome building, nicknamed The Pringle, designed by Hopkins Architects

There are other good things on site. Wilkinson Eyre’s basketball and handball arena (£43m) is one of the biggest temporary Olympics venues ever built and its white shrink-wrapped PVC skin straining against its structure creates a taut, muscular membrane. I also like John McAslan’s super-solid power station clad in rusted Corten steel, a faint echo of the former industrial edgeland on this site.

This was a Games sold on its legacy and the critical question is exactly what legacy it will leave. Football clubs bickered over the unneeded stadium but it now looks like it will remain in sorely underused athletics mode at huge public expense. The aquatics centre will be the most expensive-to-maintain municipal pool in this – or perhaps any other – city. The argument for London’s taxpayers was that this was a desired development made possible by, or at least accelerated by the Olympics: such resources would never have been marshalled otherwise.

But, actually, what London has got is a huge park strewn with enormous chunks of blankly impenetrable structure. It seems odd for an architecture critic to complain of too much architecture but at a moment when buildings and facilities of real community engagement – from libraries to sport fields – are being closed, the question needs to be asked whether this huge expenditure can be justified for a few brief moments of national pride.

The detritus of recent Games, Beijing and Athens in particular, presents a forbidding wasteland. Nothing looks emptier than the rusting desolation of an abandoned fun park. If there is to be a worthwhile legacy of London’s Olympics, the sporting architecture will not be it.

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