The legacy of the London Olympics

The Olympics were supposed to regenerate London’s poorest boroughs, but what remains to show from the global event are lurid towers and faceless apartments

By Oliver Wainwright  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Thu, Jul 25, 2013 - Page 9

In 2006, as London bathed in the afterglow of winning the bid for the 2012 Olympics, Sebastian Coe announced: “Legacy is probably nine-tenths of what this process is about — not just 16 days of sport.”

Presented as a benevolent behemoth of fast-track regeneration, the Games were supposed to leave behind a shiny new world of 12,000 homes and 10,000 jobs, set amid the rolling hills of the largest new park in Europe. It would be the miracle cure for the maligned East End, cleansing a swath of the Lower Lea valley — a site conveniently branded as a toxic dumping ground, at the nexus of London’s poorest boroughs.

On Friday, reports were published declaring the legacy to be a triumph for UK tourism, sports participation, volunteering and business. What is the physical reality on the ground? One year on, and with £11 billion (US$17 billion) of public money spent on the Olympics, the first part of the park will reopen this weekend. With national cynicism no longer suspended, now that the collective frisson of watching our Lycra-clad heroes has faded, how is the promised bounty shaping up?

Walking down Stratford High Street, along the southeast border of the Olympic park, the signs are not auspicious. At every junction of this roaring A-road sprouts a steroidal tower, each clad in ever more lurid colors, transforming the street into a gauntlet of competing ambitions. Looming over adjacent council estates, these brash totems are a monument to Olympian greed. Marketed with the blandly aspirational names of Velocity, Aurora and Icona, they reach their peak at the purple 43-story shaft of the Stratford Halo. Strip away all the festive colors, though, and you’ll find that these are actually mean-minded silos of tightly packed one-bedroom apartments, mostly sold overseas for buy-to-let.

Like a physical bar chart, their bloated bulk stands as a diagram of the vastly inflated land values whipped up by the Olympic gold rush. Developers swarmed in when the area was earmarked as the sacred site. Paying over the odds, each was determined to build what they imagined would be the ultimate gateway to the Games. Inevitably, they failed. The real gateway to the Olympic park had been determined long before — in the form of a gigantic shopping mall. Westfield represents part of a pre-existing plan for Stratford City, imagined as a glamorous new “metropolitan center” built around the Stratford international rail hub. The plan hit the rocks and was divided into separate hands, split into an inward-looking mall on one side of the tracks and the eastern bloc-style flats of the athletes’ village on the other.

This commercial compromise destroyed any idea of an integrated “city” right from the start. Nor did the financial crisis help: The housing developers had to be bailed out by the public purse to the tune of £1 billion, and the results have since been sold on to the Qatari royal family for about half that. The sole precondition is that half the apartments be let for “affordable” rent (80 percent of market rate).

With its wide, tree-lined streets and its endless facades of beige concrete, the housing area, now christened East Village, feels peculiarly soulless. It’s not just the rigid, coarse and repetitive courtyard blocks that rise like 10-story cliff-faces — it’s the gaping boulevards that sweep between them. There’s little sense of human scale. The original plan was to roll out a similar grid of muscular blocks right across the park, like our own slice of Benidorm. Remarkably, common sense has prevailed.

“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.

There is also the much-declared political will to experiment with self-build, co-housing and community land trusts, meaning the park could become a test bed for new kinds of housing. It would all require a brave leap of faith — something the LLDC’s target-driven constitution is unlikely to allow. With the obligation to make some sort of return, given the cost of the Games, there is constant pressure for commercial viability: because of the cost of improving infrastructure, the target for 35 percent affordable housing, not to mention the strict design codes, anything beyond the market norm will be difficult to achieve.

Meanwhile, London Mayor Boris Johnson — self-appointed chair of the legacy corporation — is pushing to accelerate what was a 20-year plan, hungry for visible results and political capital.

He would do better to slow down. Outside the park, developers continue to try their luck, spurred on by what others have got away with. Stock Woolstencroft, architects of the dismal Stratford towers, are attempting to continue their march of mediocrity with schemes on the other side of the park. In Fish Island, to the west, they have submitted an application for 15 buildings of up to 14 stories (in an area allowing a maximum of six) clothed in a random livery of cheap cladding. It was slammed by the review panel, but the response to such schemes will be the test of the corporation’s planning powers, and how far it is prepared to insist on good design.

Despite all the blunders around the edge of the site, there are reasons to be optimistic. The communities within could yet be successful. However, an uneasy fact remains: that building on the site of a global event — making workable streets from tarmac wastes and weaving housing around velodromes — is a difficult and expensive way of producing a good city. When it comes to building careful, generous places, do we really need the Olympics as an excuse?