Now all the hoo-hah has died down Stephen Hitchins looks at the true legacy of London’s Olympic Games, in the first part of a two-part article
John Cleese once quipped: 'I can take the dispair. It's the hope I can't stand.' And boy, did we have high hopes. It all began like an especially cringe-making episode of television's Twenty Twelve. As the UK prepared for 17 days celebrating the nation's favourite sports: rowing, cycling, sailing - anything where we felt fairly certain of winning medals - fact and fiction blurred as a summer of idealism appeared to be spinning out of control amid reports of ineptitude.
Simon Hoggart posed the not unreasonable question: 'What happens when the most incompetent security firm in Britain - possibly the world - meets the most disorganised government of recent times?' Twenty Twelve? But it wasn't funny any more. It was scarily accurate. Nothing quite said 'the magic of sport' as being frisked by the Army at a checkpoint and having an off-brand bottle of water confiscated at the Temple of Mammon, Westfield Stratford City, the retail vortex through which visitors were funnelled on to the site.
As the wretched soldiers returned from Helmand to pat down punters at the various venues, volunteers - so-called Games Makers 'paid' only with emotion and excitement - trained in the incongruous setting of 'McDonald's University' while complaining about the lack of provision for accommodation and late-night travel.
Bus drivers ferrying athletes from airports got lost, just as the official tour bus taking journalists on a trip around the Olympic Park got lost. The police lost the keys to Wembley Stadium. The weather did not help; we had the heaviest rainfall in 100 years. People had begun to ask if the UK was attempting to hold the Olympics underwater, as if instead of Danny Boyle's vision of a green and pleasant land the Games had been awarded to the lost city of Atlantis. And posters in Arabic across the rail network were condemned as 'gibberish', 'ridiculous' and 'unreadable' due to incompetent typography.
It was easy to forget that in 2004 when the shortlist for host cities was announced, an article appeared in the Economist headlined 'Spoilsport' that was sceptical about the business case for hosting the event and asking the International Olympic Committee to 'do London a favour and give the Games to Paris'. With Europe's economic crisis at full throttle, and wasting hours on the internet failing to obtain tickets, it was a bleak picture we surveyed before the 'greatest show on earth' began.
Everyone had something to complain about. We could win medals for it. When would the nightmare end? Freelance writer for The Guardian and New Statesman among others, Dan Hancox summed it up in a tweet: 'It's as if someone is throwing a party in our house, with a huge entry fee, and we're all locked in the basement.' The siege mentality was enforced by a relentless barrage of reports about the potential for 'traffic gridlock Games', 'austerity damp-squib Games', or 'security overkill Games'.
But then, how suddenly it changed, with the creative high-wire act of the opening ceremony, Isles of Wonder, showed a country at ease with itself and with its many contradictions, from its opening, sheep-laden 'The Only Way is Wessex' vision, to the Queen's acting debut, a cameo as the latest Bond girl.
A potential legacy of white elephants awaited, as there was a rather desperate search for that elusive 'Olympic bounce' to national morale. But as the weather changed, Olympic rings appeared on venues around the UK, the torch relay continued on its merry way and far from a tacky stunt to drum up phoney enthusiasm, the once indifferent public took to the streets with genuine delight. The Olympics were set to be a festival of Britain.
For all the cynicism and doubts, a toxic wasteland had been transformed into an impressive urban park ahead of time and under budget. Largely ignored and unreported was the BBC's survey of the UK's squad that overwhelmingly believed the country's sporting facilities had improved as a result of London 2012 and that interest in their sports had grown.
The Prime Minister talked up the benefits of being the host country when he forecast an impressive £13bn of benefits would the country would accrue, far outweighing the public-sector funding package. Dubbed the British Business Embassy, the 19th-century Lancaster House - playing host to 3,000 international business people passing through on their way to the Games - was transformed to showcase new and established designers and manufacturers, amid a rehang of the art in the building. The Gold Room contained solely the work of Hackney-based Lee Broom, who is having a good year since being dubbed designer of the year last November by the readers of Elle in association with the Daily Telegraph, and the success of his exhibition at the Salon del Mobile in Milan in April. Other rooms featured pieces by Terence Conran and Sean Sutcliffe, Paul Smith, Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, Jasper Morrison, Jason Bruges (who worked on Coke's Beatbox) and Thomas Heatherwick, who designed the Olympic cauldron.
What of the design legacy? What of the hopes we harboured there? Was the gritty stoicism of our sporting heroes, the tears, the guts, the glory, the celebrity culture, the deodorant advertising, underwear modelling, tweeting, tagging, blogging, endless rehashing of everything, was it at all matched by the planners and architects, the designers and specifiers? What of the highly paid superstars there, and their high-octane lifestyle? What of the East End world have they left us? Has a deprived part of the city been revived? Perhaps.
How quickly it was all over. The Olympic Park is left to the wild flowers of the arty photographs, the Army has been sent back to Afghanistan or put on the dole, yet doubts continue to linger as to any lasting benefits from staging this year's events.
The East End is in itself an Olympian challenge. To some extent, it was clear that austerity undermined the grand vision. Great buildings may be around for eternity but the temporary buildings have their place, and sometimes they too may become permanent. By their nature they can promote new ideas, experiment with techniques and styles, and they may well entertain and astonish - the Serpentine Pavilion has given someone the opportunity to create an ephemeral folly every year since 2000.
As to the area as a whole, the infrastructure now in place - from a new train line, a major line upgrade and light rail extension to the shopping centre, and the development of the park - will be an asset to the wider community for generations to come. Yes, areas will be privately owned and controlled, and yes, the taxpayer met the costs; yes, the affordable housing element has been diminished, and yes, many of the original Olympian pledges have been watered down if not entirely disappeared, but amid all the gentrification I still somehow doubt that this will ever become another bankers' ghetto. It is the East End after all.
Before the Games began I was fearful that the Olympic spirit might not have entirely left the world of planning and design. I was amazed, and filled with awe, at the achievement of actually getting it built at all. My own whingeing about tickets and our failings as a nation were superseded by the delight of history, spectacle and a parachuting monarch. It seemed to have worked.
JMW Turner annotated on the backs of several of his watercolour studies with notes conveying the excitement he felt at the Venetian views he had from his hotel room. I used to feel the same when I looked out from my daughter's apartment at views over the Olympic Park. What had begun with endless sifting of the toxic landfill was to get its symbol. First and foremost there was the strange sculpture, a red roller-coaster piece of whimsy bolted together by just four guys with two cranes like some giant piece of Meccano and looking like something out of an amusement park.
At 115m high, the Orbit observation tower, Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond's homage to the architecture of dreams, reminded the art critic Jonathan Jones of 'pink glistening palaces like moist human organs that appear in Hieronymus Bosch's painting the Garden of Earthly Delights', which seems a little over-the-top for this rather comic Utopian steel structure. Lakshmi Mittal agreed to largely pay for the structure after a chance meeting with Boris Johnson in a toilet in Davos. Nicholas Serota said the Orbit was 'the perfect answer to the question of how sport and art come together', as if the question had been posed in the first place. Eusaku Ushida and Kathryn Findlay were the architects responsible for making it all work.
The Orbit looks temporary but is permanent. The matrix of buildings across the main site are a mix of temporary and permanent. The basketball arena, which looked like some huge marshmallow wedding cake, was one of the largest temporary venues ever built for the Games and the third largest venue in the Park.
The kit of parts from design team KSS Wilkinson Eyre SKM was not only a temporary building, it was also adaptable, home to several events (basketball, handball, wheelchair rugby) and a variety of uses (including a holding area before the major ceremonies). Taller than Tate Modern and longer than a football pitch, it seated 12,000 spectators and may rear its 11,500 sq m tent-like membrane again in Rio in 2016.
Wilkinson Eyre was also responsible for the kilometre-long Air Line cable car that connects the O2 Arena with ExCeL and the glazed pavilion terminals on either side of the river. Some 34 cars flying 90m above the water provided a suitably dramatic addition to the transport system. Taxi drivers called it 'the mayor's fairground ride'.
The Z-shaped bridge spanning the River Lea at Carpenters Lock - between the stadium and the aquatics centre - and designed by Heneghan Peng, was due to be scaled down after the Games, but is now likely to remain in place at least until after the World Athletics Championships in 2017. The central multicoloured infill deck was another temporary insert into the Olympic Park, with the main structure designed to be reconfigured into two stainless-steel-clad footbridges post-Games. The bridge contributed to the seamless extension of continuous landscape, crossing waterways, railways and roads, that was at the heart of the overall planning.
Pernilla Ohrstedt and Asif Khan designed the Beatbox pavilion for Coca- Cola as part of its Future Flames 2012 campaign, a musical instrument of a building that fused design, music, sport and architecture as visitors moved and touched parts of the crystalline structure, the sounds embedded in more than 200 interlocking ETFE plastic pillows. The sounds, that included heartbeats, squeaking trainers and arrows were triggered and remixed with the Mark Ronson Katy B number Anywhere in the World by 'playing' the translucent air cushions as people went on to the roof.
The 11ha Eton Manor site was developed by Stanton Williams. Founded by Old Etonian philanthropists more than 100 years ago, it was the site of a club for underprivileged boys until it closed in 1967. On the northern edge of the Park it is home to dozens of courts and pitches, temporary training pools for the aquatic events, nine courts for the paralympic tennis, temporary seating for 10,500 spectators, and a legacy of a 5,000-seat hockey stadium and indoor tennis centre with other community sporting and leisure facilities. The buildings are largely wood, concrete, and black-painted metal.
The Games' hockey venue, the temporary Riverside Arena with its two distinctive blue and pink pitches and seating for 15,000 and 5,000 respectively, will be relocated to the Eton Manor site, to be renamed the Lea Valley Hockey Centre. The 2015 European Hockey Championships will be held here, one of the portfolio of sporting events to be held in the UK after the Olympics. The blue 'field' in the hockey stadium was a deliberate move by the Hockey Federation to raise interest in the sport. It made it difficult to see the ball on television, but it works when you are there.
Ken Shuttleworth's Make architects won a competition in 2007 for the design of the handball arena, a simple structural box with 7,000 retractable seats that is fully adaptable to become a multi-sports community hall for basketball, badminton, martial arts, volleyball, wheelchair rugby, and many more sports. Spectators enter via a glazed concourse level that encircles the building, giving ample views of the 2,750 sq m field of play, enabling visitors to see what's going on as they walk past.
Some 88 'light pipes' in the roof draw light into the venue. There are also a further 13,700 sq m of catering, security and media facilities. Clad externally in 3,000 sq m of sustainably sourced copper, it was called the 'copper box' from the start and is what it looks like - a rather banal, but highly flexible, generic sports centre that is not a cathedral of sport but is as practical as it gets and very energy efficient. The firm also submitted an interesting proposal for the Aquatics Centre in a competition eventually won by Zaha Hadid.
Make's swooping curved roof inspired by the arms of a butterfly swimmer would have been just as majestic as the built project, and possibly considerably cheaper than the £269m spectacular piece of curvaceous expressionism cost from Hadid. The undulating roof that we have is nevertheless stunning, arbitrary and unrelated to structural logic or economy as it is, and now home to a much-needed facility in the area.
Previous attempts to build Olympic-size pools in London have always fallen a few metres short due to the cost. (Fulwell Cross in Redbridge was one of the first in the mid-Sixties that nearly made it.) At long last we have one, a focal point for community, national, and international swimming. It must be said, however, that the temporary wings for the Games looked clumsy and some of the seating they housed had restricted views, about which spectators rightly complained.
Ron Sheard led the HOK Sport team, now called Populous, in its design of the main stadium. A symbol of any Olympics, it is also had to address the dilemma that faces all the organisers who take on the challenge of mounting the event: what will we do with it after the parade? This transformable, demountable structure composed of temporary elements, with a series of selfcontained pod structures around the access level, was all rather unremarkable and criticised for its lack of ambition - but that rather misses the point. It's the sport, stupid.
Plain, simple and economic, this is a building for an event, not for ever, yet as ever the brief moved around. Across London the spiralling costs and ever-lengthening delivery of the new Wembley were scaring everyone, and so the original proposal by Foreign Office Architects that had helped win the bid in 2005, was dropped. It looked fabulous, but threatening. It looked as if it could easily prove difficult and expensive.
It is very easy to say that because of its symbolic nature, this is a building that should have money spent on it. But because no one appeaed to have had the foresight to do a deal on the future life of the building before it began, cost and delivery became all. Spare, simple, and economic, it is not the 'stunning building' that the then culture minister Tessa Jowell claimed it was, it is not something to raise the spirits, but it met the strategy that had been set, is austere yet came in on budget (if £486m can be considered austere), and will be transformed - but into what we still cannot be sure.
Around 55,000 seats will go, it will be home to athletics, but who will pay? When Tottenham Hotspur FC proposed to dismantle, move and erect it elsewhere for athletics, before putting up its own new stadium on the site, Lord Coe, a Chelsea supporter, vigorously opposed the idea. When money seems to do all the talking this still seems a very strange decision. But it worked for the Games, it embraced the temporary nature of everything, fitted into the sustainable, cost-effective Games scenario, was not a product of the architectural school of conspicuous consumption, and was immeasurably improved by the addition of the Dow-sponsored-but-keep-it-quietabout- Bhopal wrapper. Effective yes, but it underwhelmed.
To coincide with the Games, Populous sponsored an exhibition at the Sir John Soane Museum that aimed to explore the origins in antiquity of the modern sports stadium, such as the religious sporting competitions of ancient Greece, Rome's Colosseum, and Constantinople's Hippodrome, and how modern architects have responded to this legacy and gone beyond it. The exhibition also inaugurated a new gallery designed by Caruso St John that is the first phase of redevelopment at the museum.
Created with the aim of being the world's fastest 250m cycle track, the Velodrome succeeded in appearing suitably festive sitting on that slight rise in the ground as it catered for a festival of cycling. It is a gem of a building, the sightlines are superb, the sense of involvement magical, for many people it was by far the most successful building of the Olympics. At £86m it seemed almost cheap. It will be home to many more glorious events. And the track's designer, RV Webb Consultants, has created the fastest track in the world, as we saw from the first day of competition as world records crashed. Michael Taylor, the architect, was justified in his claim to have made the building 'as elegant and efficient as a bicycle'.
British success on road and track has had a galvanising effect on the public with sales of bikes, cycling magazines and club membership growing exponentially. With its simplicity, elegance, architectural and technical acclaim, the Velodrome symbolises success and the dreams of a community ready to be inspired.
Golden moments will fade and the temporary venues that provided them disappear, but the gift of the summer is there for all of us. In the next issue I shall continue to consider to what extent they are worth remembering and passing on, if they might inspire others, and whether they matched the Olympian endeavour of the athletes.
This article was first published in fx Magazine.