“There was a moment when people said, ‘Hey, shouldn’t this look a bit more like London?’” said Canadian architect Kathryn Firth, chief of design at the London Legacy Development Corp (LLDC), the mayoral machine in charge of the future of the site and its surroundings. “The feedback from public consultation was that it all looked like a very alien place.”
Former legacy chiefs had spoken with rapture of replicating places like Belgravia and Maida Vale in the Lea valley, analogies that did not sit particularly happily with the terraces of Leyton and the warehouses of Hackney Wick.
“I think it’s a bit arrogant to say we’re creating a bit of South Ken here,” Firth said. “We’re in east London, so we should learn from our neighbors.”
Consequently, the plan has been reconfigured to take in a mixture of traditional London typologies. Now scaled back to a total of 8,000 homes, the “legacy communities” will be formed from familiar things: terraces and squares, mansion blocks and mews houses. They will sit among a surreal landscape of Olympic fragments from the elegant swoop of the velodrome to the skeleton of the main stadium.
There is a sensible design code for each of the new neighborhoods, covering general layouts, materials and street character: stone, bricks and things that last will be favored over the recent vernacular of novelty shapes decorated with jazzy shades of plastic. Areas will be tuned according to their context. Over the canal from Hackney Wick, a land of artists’ studios and fragments of industry, there will be buildings with workshops and yards. Chobham Manor, closer to suburban Leyton, will have bigger, family-sized homes with gardens, while to the south, nearer Stratford, a world of waterside apartments will prevail.
Firth’s colleague Eleanor Fawcett sums up the ethos.
“It should be like the surrounding neighborhoods spilling in,” she said. “The objective is that no one will ever know where the fence was.”
Given that the site is cut off on all sides by canals, railway cuttings and elevated roads — a secure island that made it particularly attractive to Olympic planners — this will be a struggle. Still, Fawcett has spent the last few years co-ordinating projects that try to stitch the severed site back into its hinterland, both physically and socially.
“In some places, it’s as simple as moving fences to unlock stretches of footpaths on the river,” she said. “In others, it’s about funding temporary uses, things like skate parks and studios, that can spread into the park, to inform the nature of the permanent developments.”
Firth and Fawcett make a convincing duo. They bring a welcome voice of sanity after a disastrous failure of planning intelligence about how to make a coherent place out of this ragbag of parts. Yet, while their words and drawings may be reassuring, there is still precious little evidence that their hopes will come to fruition.
The LLDC has the unique power to insist on quality, acting as both landowner in the park and planning authority for 500 or so hectares around it. Learning from the great estates like Grosvenor and Cadogan in the West End, the corporation will retain ownership of the land and rent chunks to development partners on long-term leases, with all designs overseen by a panel of the country’s more thoughtful housing architects, including Peter Barber and Alex Ely.