The Olympic Village has seen two or three architects working one each building with a quality palette of materials within a set grid, with a view to the success of the site’s legacy, when a new and permanent community will take up residence. Aidan Walker takes a look
It's a cold, wet, windy and miserable spring day in Stratford. The Westfield Shopping Centre rises like a gold-flecked mothership on one side of the new high-speed rail link. Look north across the railway, and beyond the temporary wire fences, red and white safety barriers and security huts, a group or gaggle of what looks like blocks of flats can be seen. Get nearer, and you see that that's what they are - blocks of flats. We're at the Olympic Village, of course, a five-minute walk from the main Olympic stadium, and two minutes way from Westfield itself.
What hasn't been written and published about the buildings of the London 2012 Olympics is now not worth writing or publishing, but I'm interested in Olympic Village, shortly to become London's newest residential community, renamed 'East Village' and with its own newly minted postcode to boot - because these days I find myself responding to architecture with an almost wilful lack of sophistication, and try to remember what 'ordinary people' will think when they see a new building. Especially when it comes to residential architecture, it seems to me that this might actually be a defensible policy, because most people who live in newly built houses or flats are less concerned with massing and fenestration than they are with whether the stairways are safe or if the rubbish chute is blocked.
So I trudge over the railway bridge from Westfield in the company of The Independent's architecture critic Jay Merrick, a pair of silent surveyors, and our hosts, two affable publicists from the landlord's PR company. The 'landlord' is a group made up of about five companies; QDD, a joint venture between Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company, the property arm of the Qatari Sovereign Wealth Fund, and Delancey, a specialist real estate investment and advisory company; and Triathlon Homes, a combination of two housing associations - East Thames and Southern Housing Group - and private urban regeneration and investment company First Base.
These companies aren't the developers. As Denise Chevin and Paul Hackett of the Smith Institute explain in their account of the project, (commissioned by the Smith Institute in partnership with QDD and Triathlon), that's really the Government, in the form of the ODA, that became the developer of both the Olympic Park and the Village, working with Lend Lease as a partner on the housing elements.
The Village, it turns out, wasn't conceived or developed, in its first stages anyway, as the Olympic Village at all. It is the result of many years' work on the masterplan of Stratford City, a giant scheme to regenerate a whole swathe of East London, that kicked off in 1997. Fletcher Priest, the architect responsible for the masterplan, has been working on it since 2002, long before the Olympic bid was even put together.
FP partner Jonathan Kendall, who has been involved since the beginning, explains with relish the industrial history of the area: it has always been 'railway lands', home to many hectares of marshalling yards and related industries. The land was profoundly contaminated, and he is confident that a development of this scale, in which millions of pounds had to be poured into the ground before you could even start thinking about building, would have taken 20 years to come to fruition without the catalyst of the Olympics.
But it has actually been the Olympics' 'brief' that has driven the design of the buildings, and thus of the community that will last for generations after the athletes have left. A major factor, arguably more so than for previous Games, in environmental and building design for London 2012 has been 'legacy' - the usability of the buildings after the Games.
East Village is all about legacy, although the massing and appearance of the blocks owes a great deal to Olympics' requirements. You have a large number of buildings of much the same height and size, differing more in the detailing than the massing (that word again), and with much the same footprint. 'Running constantly through our brief was the need to deliver the Olympics' function while at the same time holding on to our vision for the legacy,' says Fletcher Priest's Kendall. The mid-rise block arrangement and its design were also selected on the basis that it could be built quickly and within the Games' budget, say Chevin and Hackett. It was laid out to a standard grid, using a restricted range of materials and colours. Sixteen architects were then chosen to design to these pattern books. 'We wanted a degree of variation, but we didn't want to create some kind of expo or theme park,' Kendall explains.
Each perimeter block of six or seven buildings of eight to 11 storeys and built around shared courtyards has had two or three architects working on its six or seven buildings. The chosen practices were all 'emerging small or medium', tasked with producing contemporary, modern designs rather than anything outlandish. The roll call reads like a list of 'interesting, not yet huge, but definitely creative' UK architects, most of them with some serious urban development under their belts: an incomplete list includes DSDHA, Lifschutz Davison Sandilands, Eric Parry, Glenn Howells, AHMM, Penoyre & Prasad, dRMM and Denton Corker Marshall.
But that grid and its limited palette of materials and colours - despite the investment in community or communality that you see in the high proportion of open space, provision for a wealth of leisure and retail facilities on site, and the crowning glory of the 1,800-pupil Chobham Academy, opening early next year - does make for a fairly uninspiring experience. It's strange, because the specification of the buildings, the materials, the overall atmosphere of the project, is definitely one of quality. This is no quick-fix, cheap housing for poor people, despite that, in yet another innovation, the majority of the units will be for rent not sale - not even the QDD privately managed ones, as well as the Triathlon homes, many of which qualify as 'affordable'. DRMM's Steven Wallis puts it in a nutshell: 'I don't think you'd describe it as exciting architecture. It's rather a new, exciting, urban experience.' That, of course, remains to be seen. Look at the scale of the project, especially in the context of one of the largest urban regeneration schemes in modern Europe - and remember that more buildings will come, both higher and lower, to break up the monolithic rhythm - and there are a host of reasons to be cheerful, not depressed.
But I couldn't get away from the feeling that it was all somehow a bit weird though. Granted, it was a miserable day, none of the buildings were occupied, the only people on the site were shapeless builders in layers of high-vis clothing, and the landscaping was in its infancy. It felt strangely un-British, a high-quality version, say, of the developments round the Périphérique in Paris, or of something a bit forbidding in Eastern Europe.
The developers, architects and landlords are all determined that a community should grow and thrive, and are acutely aware of the dangers of building cheaply and without amenity, allowing badly built structures to fall into disrepair, and of the social dysfunction that goes with such places.
There is no danger, I am certain, of East Village turning into a modern version of Heygate. But it will take a generation or two, I think, for this particular kind of urban living to take root in a country whose main tradition of residential architecture, despite the blocks of council flats in almost every town, is still the house. Some 23,000 athletes give way to 6,000 people in nearly 3,000 dwellings; it's a brave project, and critics and fans alike will be eager to see how it succeeds.
This article was first published in fx Magazine.