Owen Hatherley on Britain's 'bland' Olympic legacy

Aside from a few swooping sports structures, the architectural legacy of the Olympics is predominantly bland or oppressive. But that’s OK if the people of Newham are getting something out of it, isn’t it? Would that they were


If there's one architectural object that embodies the 'Olympic legacy', then it's the Shoal, a sculpture by Studio Egret West. It is placed in front of the unlovely Arndale-like hulk of the Stratford Centre, at the side facing the Stratford transport interchange and the entrance to Westfield Stratford City. Aware that this insufficiently iconic structure would be seen by all visitors to the Olympic Village and the Olympic site, the munificent Olympic commissioners got the bumptious Alsopians at Egret in to hide it without demolishing it, or (as at Egret's other big project, Park Hill) turfing out its tenants and draping it in luminous anodised aluminium. The idea is dubious enough, but the execution is something else - a series of multicoloured 'fish' swim along the centre's concrete and stock brick, suspended on big, bulky and wobbly steel members. Some of those members don't have fish on at all, but little CCTV cameras instead. Who knew ubiquitous surveillance could be so much fun!


Shoal by Studio Egret West Photo: O.F.E from Flickr

It may sound like I'm being cynical here. After all, didn't the Olympics 'deliver' various public facilities and a new park where once there was a poisoned post-industrial wasteland? I'm not one of those fixated with the memory of the picturesque interzone that once occupied the Lea Valley -- it was a very vivid and strange landscape, and though it would have been nice if it could have been remade without erasing quite so ruthlessly its unplanned wildernesses, it's also hard to see how they could have been retained as anything other than a smug contrivance; flats surrounding tyres and shopping trolleys would not necessarily have been better. Listening to Ken Livingstone on the Lea Valley, you got the impression that the area was being transformed from a landscape used mainly by Iain Sinclair into an area of desperately needed social housing and public facilities. The notion that Ken was going to get a new Alton Estate built on the sly, via the massive injections of money that come with the Olympics was always implausible, and from the start, there were clearances of housing co-ops on the site to make way for the New Stratford. Yet it's still staggering quite how much Livingstone's gamble failed.

The 'legacy' can be roughly divided into the site itself and the knock-on-effect, the latter being mainly Stock Woolstencroft's series of towering dromes down Stratford High Street, a miserable parade of barcode facade buy-to-let nullities, and the clearance of the Carpenters Estate -- now halted after a public campaign, but still an area of only partly-occupied council housing in a borough, Newham, that has taken to trying to export its poor to Stoke-on-Trent. Then there's the vast, bland mall which provides a huge barrier between the Village and Stratford proper, a building of no more architectural distinction than the Stratford Centre itself, albeit significantly shinier. If these are the side-effects on the immediate area, they are hardly encouraging. But what of the official legacy, the Olympic Village and the Queen Elizabeth Park?

The latter is pleasant if extremely eerie in its combination of calm and ultra-heavy security. The imposing appearance of the publicly funded, Qatari Diar-owned Village, with its unified height and bulk leading to 'Eastern Bloc' comparisons, has led to some obvious criticisms. It does look peculiarly authoritarian in its stark, stone-clad monumentality, hence, presumably, the necessity for Fun to be slathered about, as in the ArcelorMittal Orbit, that monument to downsizing commissioned by Boris Johnson in the toilets of Davos: probably his only major contribution to the development. The other buildings have their moments, passably swooping sports structures that, with luck, won't be the victim of cuts at Newham Council in a couple of years.

What next? The bedroom tax and other measures are putting Newham under enormous pressure, which may explain its abandonment of the clearance of Carpenters; and its rhetoric suggests that it will be trying to avoid oligarch-owned towers in future, with current plans opting for low-rise 'villages', with delightful sourdough bakery names, like 'Chobham Manor'. In fact, Newham intends to directly build some of these houses, employing Rogers Stirk Harbour to design one of the first council-commissioned estates in decades, using the prefabrication system RSHP devised for Oxley Woods, Milton Keynes. It would be wonderful if it were possible to proclaim that this signifies a great change of heart, away from the public subsidy of rentier capitalism that has so comprehensively dominated the Olympic Borough. Unfortunately, that's not exactly what Newham is planning. It will be the client of the new development, but the houses will not be open to those on the council waiting list, but will instead be 'affordable' -- that is, available at 80 per cent of the market price, immediately pricing out almost all council tenants and a considerable number of even middle class Londoners. After that, perhaps, if it's successful, they'll consider building council housing at subsidised rent. If public money can fund a sports festival to the tune of £15bn, then why can't Newham Council spend some of its money on cornering the market for prefab chic?


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