Launch Slideshow

Seventeen Days Later

Seventeen Days Later

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For Burdett, who served as a chief adviser on architecture and urbanism to the ODA, what’s unusual about the London plan is this sense of political continuity—not just between bureaucratic overseers but also between Mayor Livingstone and Boris Johnson, his successor.

“It’s been pretty seamless between Livingstone and Johnson,” Burdett says, not just referring to the Olympic agenda but also the larger urbanism strategy. The broader push to make London denser and more globally competitive is “something shared and retained between the two.”

For AECOM’s Hanway, the key significance of the design strategy is how the plan devotes 70 percent of total expenditures to permanent improvements to the site. The goal was to avoid white elephants at any cost.

“Our sense from the start was that the driving iconic image of our design would not be a stadium or any venue,” he says. “The centerpiece would be the Queen Elizabeth Park and this effort to revive the river.”

A Question Of Economics
For all the grand ambitions of the legacy plan, critics have nonetheless questioned the expense. “I think the entire Olympics is a colossal waste of money,” Edwin Heathcoate, the architecture critic of the Financial Times, wrote recently. “There should have been some effort to create a kind of austerity games like the one after the war. … Whenever I say this, I am beaten down by someone countering that this land would have never been regenerated without the impetus of the Olympics. Well, that’s nonsense. It would have, but more slowly, and at less expense to the taxpayer.”

Part of the budgetary overruns arose because remediation efforts at the site have been more expensive than anticipated. And temporary venues are not the money savers that you would guess they’d be. According to Hanway, building a temporary structure is roughly 85 percent as expensive as constructing a permanent one. For him, the attraction of temporary architecture is that it frees up land for future uses. In that sense, Beijing—where the 91,000-seat Bird’s Nest is completely empty most days—has served as a cautionary tale. Temporary means flexible, from a planning point of view.

A more unwieldy question is whether the kind of fine-grained, long-term improvements that Olympic organizers are seeking can be imposed in a top-down master-planning process. And while it makes sense to use the attention and funding that come with the Olympics to galvanize change in East London, the attention will necessarily fade once the games are over. The risk is that bottom-line thinking, rather than the comprehensive vision that has so far guided planning, will ultimately prevail once the London Legacy Development Corp. takes over.

AECOM has already received one significant endorsement of its London work: The organizers of the next Summer Games, in Rio de Janeiro, have hired the firm to prepare its 2016 master plan. And while Brazil may spend more freely than the U.K. has, there are some ways in which AECOM is looking for some continuity of its own between the two Olympics. The firm is hoping that the London basketball arena, a temporary structure designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects and wrapped in recyclable white PVC panels, will be rebuilt in Rio. Brazilian officials toured the facility this spring.

Burdett argues that a relocated venue could provide a new model for Olympic architecture. If the International Olympic Committee got into the business of commissioning temporary venues that could be moved cheaply from one Olympic city to the next, it might change the selection process in a profound way. “You could have poorer cities suddenly able to bid on the Games,” he says.

In a more practical sense, Burdett likes the idea of London building permanent venues only for those sports that Brits actually play in large numbers—and that can be enjoyed in the less-than-balmy climate.

“Why build a [permanent] basketball stadium if we don’t play basketball?” he said at an LSE forum on Olympic architecture this spring. “There’s no point. Why build a water-polo facility? With this weather, are you serious?”