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August 08 2012

The Olympic Park: your highs and lows

Cheers galore for the velodrome and the world's biggest McDonald's, or gasps of despair? Justin McGuirk gives his verdict on the Olympic Park experience. Now tell us yours

We've seen sporting drama aplenty, but what about the experience of the Olympic Park itself? In between the east London Olympic venues and the roaring crowds is a rolling landscape of brand messages competing for attention. Here, among the restaurants and the merchandise, is the story of how our industrial past became the pleasure grounds of super-modernity.

The industrial narrative of the opening ceremony that Danny Boyle dramatised with his dark satanic mills is played out across the Olympic Park, but this time as farce. Britain might have launched the industrial revolution but now we specialise in post-industrial chic. The exposed bricks and rough timber that have become the default visual language of clothes shops and food chains are now just shorthand for cool – to the point where bricks are being exposed where there never were any to begin with.

In the Olympic Park, this aesthetic manifests itself as the brick wallpaper in the seafood restaurant and the raw wooden slats on the facades of the two enormous McDonald's restaurants. What's with the sudden design offensive by the Big Mac brigade? If it weren't for the golden arches, these buildings could be mistaken for the offices of a creative industry start-up.

My eyebrows first rose at the McDonald's in Westfield shopping mall in Stratford, the retail vortex visitors are funnelled through on their way into the Olympic Park. Here, punters dine on Jean Prouvé chairs. One of the most sought-after designers among collectors, Prouvé designed these Standard chairs in 1934 using groundbreaking metal-bending techniques from the aviation industry. In 2012, they're stylish anachronisms: very heavy and achingly expensive. What are they doing in McDonald's? This is supposed to be junkspace, as Rem Koolhaas termed the mall, not a Vitra showroom. All this good design is confusing. I miss the honesty of McDonald's standardised outlets, those Lego haciendas populated by plastic clowns with red afros.

There are, though, more obvious signs of our aestheticising of industry, like that big red thing next to the stadium. I used to think the ArcellorMittal Orbit was just a tangle of steel in search of a meaning, but I was wrong. In Beijing, the sheer quantity of steel in the Bird's Nest stadium was meaning in itself, a statement of a nation's industrial might. Here, it's a display of the fun that our entrepreneurs can have with other people's steel, a giant whoopee for globalised business. Apart from that, it's just a whimsical monument to an individual, our own Ozymandias. Look on my works, ye mighty, and loop the loop.

Fleshing out the industrial brandscape, let's not forget that the two Olympic mascots Wenlock and Mandeville are little ingots of steel. Designed by branding agency Iris, this pair hasn't yet captured the nation's heart. In truth, it's hard to be a lovable ingot of steel – especially when you've been crossed with a cyclops. I suspect humans are innately suspicious of creatures with only one eye. And so they're somewhat tragic figures are Wenlock and Mandeville, running and jumping around, blissfully unaware that they're not even cute. They stare out longingly from the shelves of the London 2012 Megastore, like one-eyed orphans.

The megastore is the schlock shop to top them all. It's vast, like a mini Stansted airport, and with the same space-frame roof that Lord Foster used – Foster being one of the authors of high-tech, the architectural style of the Olympic stadium, which emerged from Britain's great engineering tradition, itself a product of the industrial revolution.

These industrial sheds, or "big box" architecture as the Americans call them, are where real business happens these days – the retail parks and Ikea stores. The speed and cheapness with which they are erected is perhaps the most significant legacy of industrialised building methods, simply because there are so many of them. In the Olympic Park, it's not just reserved for the merchandise stores. The BBC's commentary box sits atop a stack of shipping containers. Meanwhile, the Games's corporate sponsors have thrown up temporary pavilions across the site, decorated sheds filled with Acer laptops, Panasonic plasma screens and BP's sustainability propaganda.

As Boyle intuited, everything can be traced back to the industrial revolution, both the glorious Olympic architecture and its ersatz neighbours. Apart from the decidedly heavy Orbit, it's a lightweight landscape where the convenience of the hotdog stand meets the brand messaging of the sponsors. When industry is mostly a memory, the industrial is reinvented either as veneer or a stuffed mascot. And it's a strange landscape indeed where McDonald's plays the arbiter of good taste.

The highs

• The Olympic venues
The stadium and the velodrome in particular, for their lightness and elegance.

• The planting
Hats off to the people who planted the Olympic Park – Sarah Price with consultants James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett – because the grasses and wildflowers are glorious, like a wild summer meadow.

The lifeguard chairs
These highchairs for the Olympic volunteers are the surprise product of the park – furniture for the broadcasting of good vibes.

• The world's biggest McDonald's
Just for the sheer entertainment of watching the burger giant attempt to confuse us with its good taste.

• Wenlock and Mandeville
Cyclopean steel bars – respect to the person who dug that out of their LSD flashback.

The lows

• The merchandise
Merch is merch, but there isn't a poster or photo pin in the London 2012 Megastore that you could bear to own.

• The branding
Whatever you thought of the logo, the way it's been extrapolated into the lurid landscape of wonky signposts and wine bottle labels is just tacky.

• The corporate pavilions
BMW and Coca-Cola at least put some effort into theirs, but otherwise I can't imagine why people were queuing up for Panasonic and BP's data capture schemes.

• Communal screens
Granted, the park is geared to heavy people flows, but it's a shame there weren't more gathering places with screens for watching events and medal ceremonies.

• Clutter
We produce a beautiful building like the velodrome and then shroud it in fencing, shipping containers and ugly ticketing booths.


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July 30 2012

London 2012: Olympic cauldron relit after move to southern end of stadium

Cauldron relocated from centre of Olympic Stadium and relit by torchbearer who carried flame during London 1948 Games

The flame in Betty, the Olympic cauldron, was temporarily transferred to a lantern on Sunday night as the 8.5-metre structure was moved from the centre of the stadium in preparation for the start of the athletics at the end of the week.

The cauldron, which was one of the highlights of the opening ceremony, now sits at the southern end of the stadium, ahead of the 100m finish line in a nod to the position of both her predecessor at the 1948 London Games and the spot occupied by the cauldron in the old Wembley Stadium.

It will take 80 hours to turn the Olympic Stadium from the prop-filled setting of Danny Boyle's opening ceremony back to an 80,000-capacity sporting arena in readiness for the competitions. The flame was taken from the cauldron at 9pm on Sunday and placed in a special miners' lantern before work began to relocate the structure.

The cauldron, made up of 205 steel pipes and individually designed copper petals inscribed with the competing nation's names, was moved to a position inside rather than above the stadium, and relit at 7.50am on Monday.

Austin Playfoot, a torchbearer from the 1948 Olympics when he carried the flame from the Horse & Groom pub in Merrow to the Municipal Offices in Guildford, did the honours of relighting Betty by transferring the flame back from the miners' lamp using a 2012 torch.

Playfoot described his role as an "honour".

He added: "When I ran with the Olympic flame in Guildford I never thought I would get this close to the cauldron, it brought me to tears when it lit up. It will be an incredible inspiration to the competing athletes here at the heart of the Olympic Park in the stadium."

The cauldron will to be dismantled after the Games and each of the petals will be given to the competing 204 national Olympic committees.


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London 2012: Olympic cauldron moves from centre of stadium

The Olympic cauldron is put out and the flame transferred to a lamp as it is moved to the edge of the south stand



July 29 2012

Betty the Olympic cauldron moves away from centre stage

After an elegant opening ceremony performance, the flame shifts across the arena to make way for the sports

Sometime between Sunday night and Monday morning a team of workers will head into the Olympic stadium to shift the majestic Betty from her pride of place at the centre of the arena to a less focal, but scarcely less important, spot.

Along with the Queen, Daniel Craig and a cast of thousands, the Olympic cauldron acquitted herself elegantly at the opening ceremony, raising her fiery petals at the end of the night to form a perfect dandelion of flame and set a new standard for understated first-night aesthetics.

Her job now done, Betty – codenamed thus by the secretive organisers in honour of the executive producer's dog – will be moved to the end of the arena in a nod to the position of both her predecessor at the 1948 London Games and the spot occupied by the cauldron in the old Wembley stadium.

To make way, the 23-tonne, harmonically tuned bell that Bradley Wiggins rang to herald the beginning of London 2012 will, very carefully, be carted away into storage while it waits to find a new and more permanent home.

Although the decision not to hoist Betty above the stadium where she could be glimpsed by visitors has been questioned by some, the International Olympic Committee said her relocation was a matter solely for Locog.

"We allow people to have the cauldron where they want to," said an IOC spokesman. "London Games organisers did not want to compete with other cauldrons. We are fully supportive of that."

The cauldron's creator, the designer Thomas Heatherwick, resisted the temptation to join the global cauldron race, opting for grace and originality over sheer bulk.

The 8.5-metre-tall cauldron, which was crafted in a workshop in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, was intended to stand apart from the fiery troughs that had come before it.

"We were aware cauldrons had been getting bigger, higher, fatter as each Olympics happened and we felt we shouldn't try to be even bigger than the last ones," he said. Betty's design, Heatherwick added, had also allowed the organisers to stress the diverse but united spirit of the Games.

"This incredible event has 204 nations coming together, so we had a child from each country bringing these copper polished objects in."

However, despite all the thought and planning, the drilling and the secret rehearsals, Betty was not without her last-minute troubles.

According to Heatherwick, the cauldron failed on one of its final test sessions when one of the stainless steel rods holding the burning petals became jammed in the early hours of Thursday.

"We had been perfecting it throughout the week," he told the Sun.

"At the last test session a pin on which one of the petals pivoted had not been put in right."

The 42-year-old designer said his team did not let him know about the glitch, but worked desperately to fix it before Betty became Friday night's showpiece.

"On the night I was watching in silence, staring, not aware of anything around me and gripping the bars in front – 'What's going to happen, what's going to happen?'" said Heatherwick.

"When it worked there was an outpouring of relief.

"It really would have been a head-in-your-hands moment if it had not happened on the night."

Equally important to the success of Friday night – and every bit as secretive as Heatherwick's team – were the seven young athletes who confounded bookmakers and journalists by being the ones to light Betty.

Speculation that Sir Roger Bannister, the Queen or even Doctor Who would perform the deed proved unfounded as the seven did the honours, having been nominated by some of Britain's most famous Olympians.

Several of them said they had been sworn to such secrecy that they did not even tell their parents.

"The easiest thing was not being able to talk to anybody," said 18-year-old Jordan Duckitt. "Otherwise I would've let something slip."

Duckitt, who was chairman of the London 2012 young ambassador steering group for two years and was nominated by Duncan Goodhew, told BBC Radio Lincolnshire that he had got the call asking him to be part of the finale eight days before the opening ceremony.

He had been due to go on holiday with his parents, he said, but had to cancel everything. Unaware of his starring role, the family went away anyway.

Aidan Reynolds, a budding javelin star and the personal pick of the former Team GB captain Lynn Davies, also kept schtum about his role.

The youngsters' moment of glory came at the expense of Sir Steve Redgrave, who had been favourite to light the cauldron, but who instead passed the torch to them inside the stadium.

On Sunday, he admitted that he was "a little disappointed" that he was not the one to put flame to cauldron.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Redgrave said being the last Olympian to carry the torch had been a great honour.

But he added: "Of course, looking back, I must admit that when I was told it would not be me lighting the flame at the opening ceremony, I was a little disappointed.

"It was not a question of arrogance. It was about the expectation of everybody I knew, who kept saying that it had to be me when I knew deep down that it was not going to happen."

He had been called around two-and-a-half weeks before and given a rough idea of what would happen, he said.

"As an extremely competitive individual with an ego, there is a part of me that would love to have lit the flame.

"I never had any problem with the seven youngsters taking the torch, because it was a genuinely humbling spectacle. But it was the expectations of others that I found difficult."

Fittingly for the man who took his Slumdog Millionaire Oscar to his father's working men's club in Bury, Danny Boyle also appears to be his usual modest self.

Two days after his directorial triumph, he cemented his status as Britain's latest national treasure by being snapped queueing for sausage and mash like any other Olympic visitor.

As for Betty, she will suffer the fate of all flowers when the games end.

Having bloomed so brightly and so perfectly, she will lose her blackened petals as, one by one, they are borne home by the 204 countries that carried them into the stadium on Friday night.


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July 26 2012

Take a virtual tour of the Olympic Park

Fly through the Olympic Park and explore the main venues using our immersive photographic tour. Discover hidden photographs, galleries and videos by clicking on the venues within the aerial panorama





July 21 2012

Olympic Stadium is in the running for Stirling prize gold

London 2012 Games venue makes unexpected appearance on list of architectural prize nominees

The six shortlisted candidates for the most coveted British award for architecture are announced today and the 2012 Olympic Stadium, pilloried by some for being too plain and functional, is in the running.

The Stirling prize is handed out each year by Riba, the Royal Institute of British Architects, after a panel of judges have considered the merits of significant new buildings throughout the European Union which have "made the greatest contribution to British architecture". Previous winners include 30 St Mary Axe, London, better known as the Gherkin, the Scottish parliament building and the Gateshead Millennium bridge.

In October, it will go to the east London stadium, a theatre in Belfast, a cancer centre in Glasgow, a City bank office, a Cambridge laboratory or an art gallery in Yorkshire.

The judges, led by the architect and former Royal Academy president Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, have drawn up a list of projects all built in Britain. It includes work by established stars, such as David Chipperfield, who won in 2007 for his museum of modern literature in Marbach, Germany, and Rem Koolhaas, a figure with an international reputation, although he is new to the Stirling shortlist.

So far, the favourite is thought to be Chipperfield. His company designed the stately and block-like Hepworth gallery that appears to float on a lake in Wakefield, Yorkshire, despite being made of grey concrete. Another likely contender is the Lyric theatre in Belfast, which was designed by Dublin-based O'Donnell + Tuomey, which was shortlisted last year for its cultural centre in Derry. The theatre is full of polished wood and manages a retro nod to the rich traditions of auditoria, while also being packed with arresting, modernist angles.

The new base of the Rothschild Bank, in New Court in the City of London, is also a possible winner. Designed by Koolhaas's OMA firm, it effectively opens up an area of the City to the passing public: a good piece of structural PR for a powerful bank in these troubled times.

But Rowan Moore, the Observer's architectural critic, has a sneaking suspicion that the unexpected inclusion of the Olympic Stadium, designed by Populous, might be a sign that it could win. "It is a handsome thing," he writes. "Hard to ignore, with the interesting idea that it can be partly dismantled after the Games, so as to avoid being the usual post-Olympic white elephant."

The fact that the stadium may not go on to demonstrate its full flexibility is not the fault of the architects, Moore argues, but of the politics surrounding Olympic "legacy".

The two remaining buildings on the shortlist are the Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge, designed by Stanton Williams, and Maggie's Centre in Gartnavel, Glasgow, designed by Koolhaas's OMA. The laboratory looks a little like a modern holiday villa, set appealingly and usefully in the university's Botanic Gardens so that the scientists inside can study the plants around them. The cancer centre in Gartnavel is one of a series built to provide peaceful places for patients and their relatives. The centres were the idea of the architect Charles Jencks and his late wife Maggie Keswick and the garden surrounding it was landscaped by their daughter, Lily.

Moore sees this year's shortlist as eminently sensible, with no outlandish horrors and nothing obvious left out. The lauded Olympic Aquatic Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid – winner of the prize in 2010 and 2012 – was not entered, probably because of the temporary seating that will mar its clean, undulating lines during the Games.

The choice of a selection of modest, practical buildings seems in keeping with the era, Moore feels. "They are all works that avoid the sugar rush of instant spectacle and which, by holding back a little, help you better experience the arts, drama, landscape or sport in and around them," he writes.


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Stirling prize shortlist revealed

A theatre, a laboratory, a bank tower, an art gallery, a cancer centre and the Olympic Stadium are in the running for Britain's foremost architectural award

Simple. Restrained. Simple and restrained. Possibly also sober, plain and very much not iconic. This year's RIBA Stirling prize shortlist reflects the zeitgeist of our straitened times, with their mistrust of extravagance and waste, more than any previous. Architects such as David Chipperfield, Stanton Williams and O'Donnell + Tuomey, who never knowingly overdecorate, feature prominently.

Rem Koolhaas's practice, OMA, better known for its amazing cantilevers and improbable collisions of form, offers as its two shortlisted projects assemblies of intelligently arranged boxes. Even the Olympic Stadium, usually an occasion for rhetorical displays of national pride, is notable for what it leaves out and what it is not – it is not the Beijing bird's nest and uses considerably less steel than its Chinese predecessor.

Zaha Hadid, victorious for the last two years and not much interested in restraint, is absent. Her most likely contender, the Olympic Aquatic Centre, was not entered, probably so that it can be submitted in another year when the ungainly wings containing temporary seating – widely agreed to be the building's worst feature – are removed.

None of which means that all the projects are necessarily cheap. The stadium, for one, is not. Nor that they are insipid. Chipperfield's Hepworth Gallery has a rock-like obduracy that is anything but. But they are all works that avoid the sugar rush of instant spectacle and which, by holding back a little, help you better experience the arts, drama, landscape or sport in and around them.

The judges, led by the architect and former Royal Academy president Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, will have one or two big decisions. The first is whether to give it to the stadium, which is by far the largest and most significant project – in terms of the worldwide attention it will draw – on the list. It is a handsome thing, hard to ignore, with the interesting idea that it can be partly dismantled after the Games, so as to avoid being the usual post-Olympic white elephant. (Even if, due to political complications, this possibility is unlikely to fully exploited.) The judges may want to recognise the Olympics in some way, and make up for the failure last year to award the prize to the much-admired Velodrome.

If not the stadium, they will have to decide which is the best of the other five simple-and-restrained projects. A bank tower? Ummm, not very now. A Maggie's Cancer Centre? Like the Oscars, the Stirling prize can be attracted to serious illness, so much so that they awarded another Maggie's the prize a few years ago, but they may not feel like repeating themselves.

The judges should, of course, be swayed not at all by questions such as who and what has won before, and whether a bank, a stadium or a refuge for cancer sufferers would make the architectural profession look more lovable. They should simply decide which is the best building. Here, the decision is a tight one, as there are no real turkeys on the list and both the Hepworth Gallery and the Maggie's Centre, for example, do nice things in relating the inner life of the buildings to their surroundings.

My choice would be the Lyric theatre in Belfast, a view slightly tinged by the feeling that it would be good to look beyond the usual names and places, but mostly driven by the belief that its arrangement of materials and space, in the service of the building's purpose, are as good as anybody's. But, in an outstandingly sane year, when there are no outrageous exclusions or inclusions, any of the others would also be a good choice.

My bet is that it will come down to the stadium versus Chipperfield, with the stadium winning.

The RIBA Stirling prize will be awarded on 13 October

The six shortlisted buildings

2012 Olympic Stadium, London Populous
Odds 5/1

The Olympic stadium got some sniffy reviews when its design was unveiled five years ago – too plain, too ordinary was the general view. Now, plainness, simplicity and its economical use of steel are seen as virtues, as is the fact that it is partly demountable. In theory at least, this should make it easier to reuse after the Games. It is also a handsome, confident-looking structure. The only problems are that its price was not quite as plain and ordinary as its appearance implies, while protracted struggles to find a new use after the Games suggest that it is not as adaptable as all that. These struggles are probably more to do with politics than design, however.
Previous form (as HOK Sport, Populous's former name): Arsenal's Emirates Stadium and sliding roof over Centre Court at Wimbledon.

Maggie's centre, Gartnavel, Glasgow OMA
Odds: 9/2

With its other shortlisted project, OMA shows it can do nice. This is one of the series of Maggie's cancer centres, where leading architects design places where patients and their relatives can come for advice, counselling, company or simply peace and quiet. They were conceived by the architecture critic Charles Jencks and his wife, Maggie Keswick, who died of cancer, as antidotes to the architecturally depressing spaces in which most treatment takes place. OMA's centre is less assertive than previous centres such as Zaha Hadid's in Fife, or the Richard Rogers-designed building in London that won the Stirling in 2009. Instead, it focuses attention on the landscaping, which is designed by Jencks's and Keswick's daughter, Lily.

New Court, Rothschild Bank, London OMA (with Allies & Morrison
and Pringle Brandon)
Odds: 4/1

Given that bankers are only slightly more popular than child-abusers, it would take some nerve by the Stirling judges to give this first prize, even though Rothschild likes to protest its difference from the casino banks of ill repute. On architectural merit alone, it is a contender: it seeks to create the headquarters for a powerful financial institution, while also offering the world outside an arresting open space off a narrow City of London street. It is intricate and sometimes playful, even if not entirely politically correct. OMA is the practice founded by Rem Koolhaas, which, despite international renown, has not troubled the Stirling judges until now.
Previous form: Central China TV HQ, Beijing; Seattle Central Library


The Sainsbury Laboratory, Cambridge
Stanton Williams
Odds: 7/2

A place where "world-leading" scientists can study plants in the setting of the University of Cambridge Botanic Garden. As well as fulfilling taxing technical demands, the architects Stanton Williams aimed to achieve a "collegial" environment conducive to the sharing of ideas and knowledge. The result is an L-shape, like two sides of a cloister or a college court, that is also open to the landscape. The architectural approach is rectilinear, well-built, with sharp, straight lines offsetting the natural surroundings. The structure has a certain solidity, while also creating a series of layers through which light and views are filtered.
Previous form: University of the Arts, King's Cross; Tower Hill Square (public space next to Tower of London)

Lyric Theatre, Belfast O'Donnell + Tuomey
Odds: 4/1

A beautifully considered and well-made theatre by the Dublin-based O'Donnell + Tuomey, who were shortlisted last year for their An Gaeláras cultural centre in Derry. The design is about progressing from the city outside through the foyers and bars to the performance space at the heart of the building, with views to a river and greenery. It uses a lot of brick and timber, but avoids the worthiness that sometimes goes with these materials. Belfast doesn't always make headlines for its architectural quality and its new Titanic museum is a contender for the Carbuncle Cup – Building Design magazine's prize for the year's worst building. But the Lyric is on the Stirling list on merit.
Previous form: National Photographic Archive, Dublin; Photographers' Gallery London

The Hepworth, Wakefield David Chipperfield Architects
Odds: 3/1

A sober, impressive art gallery named after the Wakefield-born sculptor Barbara Hepworth. It is designed by David Chipperfield, who has several Stirling near-misses to his name and one win, in 2007. His strengths are the attention he pays to light, space and material, but the judges usually end up going for something more spectacular or else for projects that are seen to have more social significance, such as schools or housing. Set next to water and to historic industrial buildings, the Hepworth seeks to address its site and emulate their Yorkshire toughness with a structure of pigmented concrete.
Previous form: Neues Museum, Berlin (shortlisted for Stirling in 2010); Museum of Modern Literature, Marbach, Germany (winner 2007)


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June 20 2012

RIBA announces 50 best buildings on longlist for Stirling prize

Olympic stadium, Belfast suburban home and Kevin McCloud design in competition for 2012 top architectural award

The 80,000-seat Olympic stadium in east London will vie against a rear extension to a suburban Belfast home for a place on the shortlist for the Stirling prize, the annual building of the year award.

In a sign of the tough business climate gripping British architecture, the longlist of the 50 best buildings in the UK features the modest domestic project as well as the centrepiece for the Olympics.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) said the list of the award-winning buildings "revealed a trend which could be coined austerity chic".

The arena that will stage the Olympic opening ceremony on 27 July has received a lukewarm reception in some quarters but is considered a contender for the £20,000 prize as the only truly large British building aiming at the Riba award this year.

It is likely to face competition from other award winners, including the Hepworth art gallery, in Wakefield, designed by Sir David Chipperfield, and the new Lyric Theatre, in Belfast, designed by O'Donnell and Tuomey.

There is evidence that there is still some money around, albeit in predictable quarters: the award winners include a lavish London headquarters for the merchant bank NM Rothschild finished in travertine, oak, aluminium and glass to designs by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

Kevin McCloud, the Grand Designs presenter who used to front the Stirling prize award live on Channel 4, could this year appear on the shortlist after a housing scheme he developed in Swindon was granted a Riba award. The project known as The Triangle, and designed by the Birmingham architect Glenn Howells, features 42 homes in an updated terrace format and cost £4.2m.

Beside the seaside there were awards for the Turner Contemporary art gallery in Margate, Kent, also designed by Chipperfield, and the Festival House on Blackpool's Golden Mile, a wedding venue commissioned by the council to allow tourists and others to tie the knot in front of a precisely framed view of the Blackpool Tower.

The list also reflects the continuing programme of Maggie's Centres for cancer patients, established in the memory of Maggie Jencks, wife of the architecture critic Charles Jencks. At an earlier date Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid designed some of the centre's buildings; the latest award-winning additions are in Swansea, designed by the firm of the late Japanese star architect Kisho Kurokawa, and in Glasgow, designed by Rem Koolhaas.

In Scotland there were awards for reworkings of the National Museum of Scotland, and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, both in Edinburgh.

But Hadid, granted a damehood in the Queen's birthday honours, was overlooked for her Riverside Transport Museum, in Glasgow, with the building failing even to make it on to the list of the 23 best buildings in Scotland for the last year.

"There was a bit of a stooshie [fuss] because it was by Dame Zaha, but the argument was it doesn't matter about the name of the architect, what is important is the quality of the building," said Neil Baxter, secretary of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.

International awards went to the reinvention of a Barcelona bullring as the Las Arenas shopping and leisure complex by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, and a new Centre Pompidou, in Metz, by Shigeru Ban Architects, Jean de Gastines Architects and Gumuchdjian Architects.

The winner of the Stirling prize will be announced on 13 October in Manchester.


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May 19 2012

The Olympic Park

The Velodrome, the Copper Box, the Energy Centre: some fine buildings will grace London 2012. But tawdry compromise is never far away…

Here's the thing about the Olympics. It's a magnificent event, engaging, as it does, most of the planet in the innocent idea of playing games extremely well, and if it avoids disasters it can make the host nation feel good about itself. But it is also insanely expensive in both money and risk, thanks in part to the tyrannical demands of the International Olympic Committee, and profoundly unsustainable, as it requires an immense amount of construction for a 17-day event plus 12 for the Paralympics.

The numbers don't add up, so the Games are sold to citizens on the basis of promises that turn out to be false. They will increase participation in sport and reduce obesity – they don't. They will boost tourism – actually Olympic cities usually experience a decline in visitors. They will be sustainable, but only in the sense that a space rocket powered by biofuel would be sustainable. They will cost the government £2.37bn, or, rather, £9.3bn; or, if all associated costs are included, even more. So to make the Games work, circles have to be squared, compromises made and deals done. Sponsors become gods, because without them there would be no Games, and the branding police enforce their will. Demands of surveillance and security become boundless. Everything has to be on-message.

The contradictions of the Olympics are ingrained in the built fabric of London 2012, which is now essentially finished, awaiting little more than for the meadow flowers seeded in the site's gardens to flourish in synchrony with the big event, and for the completion of the stadium wrapper sponsored by Dow Chemical. It's an urban effort of a scale and ambition that this country has not managed for a long time. It has so far been smoothly delivered, without the baleful stories of near-disaster that accompanied the construction of the Athens Olympics, or the reports of multiple deaths on the Beijing stadium site.

There are intelligent strategies for dealing with at least some of the problems that usually afflict the Games. There are several well designed structures and not much that is downright terrible. During the recent test events in the Olympic Park there was some sense of community, arising from shared experience among many people, of a kind that was supposedly going out of fashion.

All of which is truly admirable, but it's an achievement that comes with conditions and compromises. The stadium, like all its predecessors, struggles to find a viable future use. The sense of community is for Visa cardholders only and sustained by batteries of Rapier missiles. There is a weird alternation of the profligate and the miserly: to hold the Games at all is absurdly extravagant, and the security budget grows at will, but places such as the athletes' village – where thousands will live in the future – are squeezed hard by time and money, such that they are less wonderful than they might otherwise be. The event is held in the name of the public but its portal is a private shopping mall.

Part of what is good about the Olympics is captured by buildings such as the wood-clad, wavy-roofed Velodrome by Hopkins Architects, a structure beautifully attuned to its purpose, spare in construction, which sits on a little hill with elegant festivity. Also by relatively unsung structures such as the temporary venues for basketball and water polo, which are stylish but relatively straightforward ways of getting the job done. Or the Copper Box, a plain but effective container for handball, which is one of the best works of its architects Make. Or the electrical substation, a handsome brick structure by the Glaswegian practice Nord, and the rust-coloured Energy Centre by John McAslan and Partners. Like Olympic sports, these embody the focused pursuit of the good to exceptional in a precise if limited field.

A lot of what is worst about the Olympics is captured by the Orbit: the grandstanding, the gesture-making, the unholy alliance of politicians and corporations in making expensive but empty statements that miss out any real connection with the human race. The Orbit, by the artist Anish Kapoor and the engineer Cecil Balmond, seems to be something to do with art, as expressed by its red squiggly form, and something to do with access, evidenced by the stairs rising up it, but the two don't seem very happily combined.

The official blather is that it is "very aspirational, in a very appropriately Olympic way": alternatively, you could listen to a man I overhead trying to explain it to his family – "It's what they call sculpture. It's just there to make you ask, 'What is it?' "

It gobbles steel, which ruins the justified boast of the stadium that it was efficient in its use of this high-energy metal, and occupies land in a way that complicates the planning of this bit of the site for the post-Olympic legacy. It makes little attempt at harmony with, or even acknowledgement of, its neighbours, the stadium and the Aquatics Centre. And it will cost £15 to go up to the top. I suggest that residents of nearby council tower blocks charge £14.95 to visit their flats. The view will be just as good and visitors would gain a richer understanding of London and of humanity.

The stadium itself is nicely lean and taut, at least until the arrival of its Dow Chemical-sponsored-don't-mention-Bhopal wrapper. It is not encrusted, as most modern arenas are, with the flummery of franchises and corporate hospitality, much of which is housed in separate pavilions at ground level. It is the perfect model of an austere structure for austere times, or would be if it hadn't come with the un-austere price tag of £486m, with further public subsidy required to support a future use for it. It is also designed to be demountable, which is sensible, except that when Tottenham Hotspur proposed to demount it to build a viable (if hideous) football ground there, Lord Coe screamed blue murder and had it kept.

There is Zaha Hadid's £269m Aquatics Centre, majestic if compromised by gawky temporary extensions to house the seating needed for the Games. There is the athletes' village, where the dogmatic belief that the ideal form for cities is a grid of regular 10-storey blocks concurred with developers' desires to build large, repetitive structures. The result is a robotic approximation of urbanity, in which curves and oblique lines are barely admitted, like a portrait drawn with an Etch A Sketch.

And there is the Westfield shopping centre, which is not strictly an Olympic project and would have happened in due course without the Games, but the 2012 organisers are keen to take credit for it and use it as evidence for their theories about regeneration. This is now a throbbing citadel of retail through which most Olympic visitors will be funnelled, but one that doesn't bother much about the faces, or backsides, it presents to its surroundings.

Between these dollops of construction is green stuff and air: it is the park that has to make everything cohere and smooth the abrupt transitions between the lumps of building. Designed by the American landscape architect George Hargreaves, it does a remarkably good job, starting with the fact that it pays some attention, unlike most things Olympic, to what was already there. This is a watery place, criss-crossed with bits of the river Lea and associated channels, with multiple changes of level and fragments of its industrial past. As Iain Sinclair has pointed out, much was expunged to make way for the Games, but Hargreaves has the sense to use and improve what's left, creating a closeness to water, a wandering, intricate tissue of overlapping layers and loose, shaggy planting.

In places the vegetation is dominated by the expanses of hard surface necessary to cope with Olympic crowds and by the temporary paraphernalia of the Games. At times it resembles rather small pieces of parsley on the large lumps of meat that are the sporting venues. But it's vastly preferable to the arid plazas that usually serve the Olympics, and there is something wonderful about a rustic waterway that winds close to the side of the stadium. After the Games the hard surfaces will shrink, as will the many bridges over the water, and the green will increase.

There is intelligence, investment, talent and hard work in the Olympic park and buildings, albeit not always organised in the most useful way. No one could call the progression on to the site, through the razzle of Westfield towards the blank flank of the Aquatics Centre's temporary seating, a well-considered entry to the greatest show on earth. What's more, the good quality design and planning stop abruptly at the boundaries of the park: you don't have to go very far before the stardust fades into the junkheap of Stratford town centre, where worn but serviceable old buildings are overlain by some of the most grotesque public art known to man and overlooked by exploitative apartment towers of developers' tat.

During the Games, intense effort is put into throwing metal balls and sharp sticks or cycling in circles, and we are invited to admire not the thing itself but the way it is done. The 2012 constructional effort has a little more purpose – in that it creates a park, thousands of homes and a few other things – but it raises similar questions. As with throwing balls and sticks it shows good technique and fantastic delivery, as well as amazing levels of funding. But could they not be applied more directly to places where people actually live, including those a few hundred yards away? These are the kinds of things usually lacking in new schools, hospitals, housing and public space: why should they be found only within the sacred enclosure of the Games?


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May 05 2012

Anish Kapoor's Orbit tower: the mother of all helter-skelters

Finally, after two years of planning wrangles, Britain's largest public sculpture towers over the Olympic park

Time-lapse film: constructing Anish Kapoor's Orbit tower

As planning applications go, it would be fair to say that case #10/90250/FULODA, submitted to the London boroughs of Newham and Waltham Forest planning committees in May 2010, stood out somewhat. In among the loft conversions and Victorian conservatories that mark the staple fare of the weekly planning agenda in this part of east London, this particular file put the sober case for a 115m steel tower in the form of a vast, deconstructed spiral, painted bright red, lit up at night and visible from 10km away. Did the neighbours mind?

By the time it reached the application stage, the creators of the ArcelorMittal Orbit on the Olympic site (or "Boris's Folly", as it was generally known on the blog sites) had already invited as many neighbours as possible to comment. The Big Opportunity, a conglomeration of interest groups in the vicinity, with 56 members ranging from the East London Inventors Club to the Ladies' Wing of the Followers of His [Hindu] Holiness Swaminarayan Mandir, had been consulted. Responses had been invited from interested individuals from the Orbit's "region", which stretched as far as Milton Keynes, Brighton, Canterbury and Southampton. From all this reaching out, 118 comments had been received and noted by the time of the full planning application: 39% wrote in favour of a design variously described as "beautiful", "fragile" and "feminine". The rest argued in forceful terms that it was "ugly" and "not symmetrical" and objected in no particular order to the fact that it was red, pointless, expensive and an advert for Arcelor Mittal (and quite a cheap one at that).

At an open planning meeting, one of the tower's creators, the engineer Cecil Balmond, who is responsible for some of the world's most inspired and innovative structures, recalls how he thought they had lost it. "From the floor, people just seemed to be lining up with complaints, one after the other," he recalls. "It looked pretty bad at one point. We don't want this and what is the point of that? But then after a while came the counter-arguments: Britain needs something different and new, we can't bury our heads in the sand, all that. I just stood back and listened."

By the time of that public debate, Balmond and his fellow Orbit-creator, the artist Anish Kapoor, had become rather used to explaining their ideas to committees and taking feedback. They had (mostly calmly) addressed the concerns of critics, conservationists, health and safety officers and legacy deliverers one by one. Rather than calling it a tower, they liked to refer to the Orbit as "the tallest sculpture in the UK". In response to a suggestion that this sculpture had no relevance for London or the Olympics, it was argued that "the Orbit will take on a relevance of its own" after the Games had ended. As detractors had correctly observed, the colour red was chosen "intentionally for it not to blend with its surroundings". Charged with asymmetry, they argued that it was "meant to look unstable or fluid". Those who were standing up for the beleaguered bat colonies in the area had little cause for concern either: the low levels of light on the Orbit "would have no discernible effect on the bat assemblage over the Olympic site" or, indeed, on human assemblages in the neighbouring streets.

Last week, in advance of the tower's opening, I went to talk to Balmond and Kapoor at their respective studios about how they managed to stay sane and see this strange project through. In a way, they are typical Londoners. Balmond was born in Kandy, Sri Lanka, Kapoor in Mumbai, India. They both came to England as students and never left. Balmond has his hi-tech base, all 3D printers and biomorphic structures, on the edge of Hackney, a mile or two from the Olympic park; Kapoor's studio is a linked complex of factory spaces that stretches all the way down a road in Camberwell, south of the river (as his fame and ambition have spread so has his workshop; it now has the feel of a kind of aerospace lab manned by medieval guildsmen). In each man's office, scale models of the Orbit have pride of place. And despite what has been a gruelling process, both Kapoor and Balmond retain a sense of boyish excitement – or perhaps simple relief.

Kapoor started out in his teens with ambitions to be an engineer and this project has more than satisfied any remaining vestiges of those dreams: "I hope," he says, "I always will have a fascination with that archaic, elemental need to feel like an ant in an ant colony. To climb up the pyramids and just feel awe at man-made structures. That was the attraction of this for me."

For a role model in that enthusiasm, Kapoor needed to look no further than the project's driving force. Boris Johnson was almost lost for superlatives when announcing that work was starting on his great scarlet tower in 2010: "It would have boggled the minds of the Romans," the mayor declaimed. "It would have dwarfed the aspirations of Gustave Eiffel, and it will certainly be worthy of the best show on Earth, in the greatest city on Earth."

That was certainly the idea to begin with. The story goes that Johnson, keen to make his mark on the Olympic site that had become the fiefdom of the Tory peer Lord Coe, bumped into Britain's richest man, Lakshmi Mittal in the lavatories at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009. Grasping his opportunity with both hands, the mayor buttonholed the steel magnate about the possibility of funding a lasting symbol of London 2012, boggling the minds of Romans etc. Mittal himself confirms to me that "Boris might have even taken less time than he says to convince me... sometimes you just hear an idea that resonates with you - this was one of them." Soon thereafter, Mittal pledged £17m of his fortune to Boris's priapic fantasy and the mayor sent out a notice inviting the artists and architects of his realm to find a way of spending that money.

"Anish called me up that morning," Balmond recalls. The pair had long been friends and had collaborated on various projects including Kapoor's Marsyas, the brilliant crimson horn that filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2002. "He said, 'Have you seen this one?' I hadn't. Then he said, 'Shall we get together and do this? You know, rival the Eiffel Tower and so on?' And I thought, 'Well, no one's going to say no to that.' So we joined up. And then realised that there wasn't the money for the Eiffel Tower."

Kapoor and Balmond sat down with a sketch pad and thought what the reference points might be. As well as Eiffel, they thought of Tatlin's Tower (the vast constructivist monument conceived for Petrograd in the year of the Russian Revolution, but never built). And they thought, too, of the Tower of Babel, particularly Bruegel's version of it, an irregular mass of stone and humanity reaching chaotically heavenwards, like some termite's mound. And then they thought: how can we make a mythical tower new?

"Anish was saying, 'Well, all towers go up, but what can we do that is different?'" Balmond recalls. He couldn't imagine to start with. "But then I thought, everything that goes up is concentric, essentially. That's what we need to get away from. So I thought 'orbit', just as a metaphor originally." He sketched a loose ellipse on a piece of paper. "Now planetary orbits are highly unstable things, whirling around, but they are stable in the sense that they follow a fixed path. So then I drew an orbit that comes back on itself but keeps touching itself. So that was the idea."

It was to be 180m high, the platforms just stuck in as and where. With this sketch, from a starting line-up of 60 proposals, Balmond and Kapoor made the last three, alongside Antony Gormley, looking to recreate the success of his Angel of the North, and the Hackney-based architects Caruso St John. Just before he walked in to present to the first of many committees, Balmond recalls: "Someone from the mayor's office said to me, 'Do you know the budget?' And I didn't. She said it was around £25m. And I thought, 'Oh Christ!' Because what we had I knew would cost £50m to £80m. So straight away we brought it down to as low as we could go and still get a good sightline into the stadium: 115 metres."

That was only the first of a series of compromises. In this sense, as Kapoor observes the Orbit is very much of its political moment: "The basic premise was to do everything you promised for about half the money," he says, with a grin. Earlier in the week he had watched the Olympic mockumentary Twenty Twelve's take on the process. "The organising committee on the show come up with the idea that Orbit should be a symbol for promoting sexual health," he says. "But sadly they copped out half way through and don't end up putting a condom on it as planned. What is astonishing about it is how accurate it was in terms of some of the meetings we all had..."

As Balmond says, with a similar sense of weary mischief: "I suppose the story behind the story is that the competition seemed to go on for ever, round after round." The decision process lasted the best part of a year. "At one of these meetings, I said to Boris, 'Just choose someone, for God's sake. Otherwise nothing will get built.'"

Balmond and Kapoor not only had to convince Nicholas Serota and his aesthetic jury of the value of the design, but also the "legacy committee", who, full of Dome-shaped nightmares, didn't want a "white elephant, still less a red one". So there was insistence on maximum retail and restaurant areas. The elevator had risen up the outside of the tower in the original plan but that cost too much so they put it inside one of the legs. The walkways that spiral up to the viewing areas were originally open but health and safety insisted they be covered. Gaps between stair treads were also removed. "First, any space had to be too narrow for a mobile phone," Balmond recalls, "then it was a 50p piece."

After that, the Olympic delivery people, who were building the stadium site, "were instinctively against it because they had done a brilliant job of getting things ready on time and they didn't necessarily want this huge art piece in the middle of it all, potentially screwing all their plans up".

In order to minimise disruption, the Orbit was put up without scaffolding, and essentially by three men: one in a crane and two rising slowly on cherry pickers, bolting the ultimate Meccano together piece by piece. And, despite all the earlier compromises, both Balmond and Kapoor are immensely satisfied with the result, though they are tired of the question: "What is it?"

"The fact is that you will never get Orbit in 2D," Balmond says. "Its richness and its over-layers can look excessive to a certain kind of mind. But 3D and the scale are the only way to judge the piece. Even then, it's a tough aesthetic for some."

"The problem with models," Kapoor says, "is that you can't pretend scale. You have to experience it."

With this in mind, early on the morning after I had spoken to Balmond and Kapoor, I drove east to have a look at their creation. As I came down from the A12 flyover, the Orbit was rising into the gloomiest morning, like some strange helter-skelter, defiantly red against the black storm clouds (Boris Johnson's greatest regret is that it did not incorporate a slide to whizz down). The Olympic development has sought to make sense of the particularly chaotic bit of urban landscape that the tower presides over; it hasn't succeeded quite and the tangle of the Orbit seems, from all the vantage points I could find, to add to the confusion. The closer you get to it, the less sense you can make of it, beyond a smile-inducing kind of energy and movement. Which is, for better or worse, exactly what Kapoor and Balmond (and perhaps Boris and Mittal) had in mind.

You can see in it what you want, as Balmond observes. Mittal tells me that to him the Orbit "represents the essence of what the Olympics are about, pushing yourself to the limit... building the unbuildable..." (though he also likes the fact that the structure that bears his name is "a showcase for everything steel has to offer...") Pandering a little to his sponsors Balmond admits he did one "cheeky presentation" where he extrapolated the five Olympic rings from the swirl, "a bit of post-rationalisation, but they are there". More than that, though, he claims to see "a kind of semi-organised flux, which was a pretty good way of describing London in the 21st century, and all its energy frothing and bubbling round and around." That kind of thing.

Kapoor's worst nightmare, he said, would have been to create a logo or, worse, a national symbol in the manner of the Beijing Olympics. "I can clearly make sleek objects but this was not meant to be one of them." So what was it meant to be?

"It's a series of discrete events tied together," Kapoor says, which again is something approximating his idea of London. "We didn't want an icon, we wanted a kind of moving narrative. You start under this great domed canopy that sits above you, almost ominous darkness, sucking you in. Then you come up slowly to light. At the top, there is a room with two very large concave mirrors, bringing the sky in, as if you are in the lens room of a telescope. There are moments, walking round, when it looks a jumbled mess, and then at certain points you might see little harmonies and clarity. That is the kind of thing we wanted, not something that gave itself away all at once."

Kapoor and Balmond can talk about their creation in this way because they have had to. But they prefer simpler notions really. "It was just an attempt to answer the question: how do you go up if not in straight lines?" says Balmond, who plans to watch the 100m final from the top. Kapoor, meanwhile, sums up his sense of his creation with a final laugh. "Don't you think it's just amazing that they actually let us build this?" he asks, with undimmed incredulity. And the more you look at it, the more you agree.

The Orbit opens on 28 July, with tickets available to those who already have tickets to Olympic events, and after the Games to the general public. www.arcelormittalorbit.com


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January 28 2011

Games pool in danger of being expensive hole to fill

The Zaha Hadid-designed Aquatics Centre provides the wow factor for London's Olympics but its legacy is contentious

Its striking undulating curves will be the first thing seen by ticket holders entering the Olympic Park. Those building the venues that will house the largest sporting event on these shores are hopeful the Zaha Hadid-designed Aquatics Centre will be one of the defining images they take away.

But the body faced with the difficult task of ensuring a long-term legacy for the venues are more concerned that it does not become a monument to the hubris of those who bequeathed them the facility. The £268m structure, which has soared in cost from the £73m originally cited in London's bid book, will contain two 50-metre pools, a 25m diving pool and associated training facilities, and will fill a gaping hole in the provision of elite facilities for swimmers in the capital.

The tit-for-tat over the future of the Olympic Stadium has obscured the fact that the body responsible for deciding its future this week slipped out an invitation to tender for the Aquatics Centre. Thrown in at the deep end, Margaret Ford, the Olympic Park Legacy Company chair pondering offers for the stadium, is well aware the fractious debate over the future of the park will not end when either West Ham or Tottenham Hotspur get the nod.

For an event that was largely awarded on its legacy promises, the next few months will be key to deciding whether the 2012 Games will usher in the bold regeneration of London's East End and a string of first-class elite sport venues or an increasing drain on the public purse propping up a mixed bag of facilities.

The Aquatics Centre is the last venue to go to market and is potentially the most challenging in terms of making it work as a facility that can meet the needs of elite athletes and community users as well as bringing enough punters through the doors to pay its way.

"The difference between this and the Olympic Stadium is that there is a revenue stream from the stadium that enables us to make a loan," said Kim Bromley-Derry, the chief executive of Newham council.

"The aquatics centre needs a bit more work for us to ensure there is a revenue stream to ensure that we don't end up not just with a white elephant but one that costs us an awful lot of money to keep."

Following the Games, when capacity will be reduced from 17,500 to 2,500, the Aquatics Centre is not due to reopen until January 2014 and will cost an estimated £1m a year to run. According to its supporters, it will be a much-needed facility in a capital where Olympic-size pools are shamefully thin on the ground, acting as a magnet for the new generation of swimmers who will be inspired by the exploits of Rebecca Adlington and co, and as a facility for the wider community.

To its detractors, it risks being a beautiful but underused folly that will require a deep pool of public subsidy to operate and will not provide the means to attract the 800,000-plus annual visitors that the OPLC predicts in its memorandum of information.

The Aquatics Centre has a backstory as undulating as its roof. Envisaged from the start as the venue that would provide the "wow" factor the functional, clean lines of the stadium lacked, the costs began to soar almost as soon as the Hadid design was accepted. The design was inherited by the Olympic Delivery Authority, which immediately found it was too big for a constrained, contaminated site. The ODA has admitted that it has proved the most challenging of the venues on the Park, such is the complexity of the design and the difficulty of marrying that with the demands of Olympic organisers.

The cost increased by another £11m in the three months to November according to the latest figures, bucking the downward trend elsewhere on the Park.

A key bone of contention has been the provision of leisure facilities that might attract local users. Newham council was keen the ODA build into its design the possibility to add wave machines and slides. But because of the increased cost and the constraints of the building, the plea was ignored. Instead, those bidding for the pool will be asked to consider how they could provide "portable" leisure features to make it more attractive to families. "The existing plans for the Aquatics Centre have significant community facilities in them including two 50m pools, with moveable floors and booms to allow for teaching, a 25m diving pool and 2,500 seats," an OPLC spokesman said. "In addition, we are seeking an operator which will also provide a range of portable water features and inflatable equipment to maximise the leisure offer within the building."

David Sparkes, British Swimming's chief executive, said: "What we know is that to have some leisure water can be helpful but what is far more important is to have flexible water where we can change the depth. It [leisure water] would have been nice to have but I don't think it's critical to make the difference between it paying for itself and not."

The OPLC has accepted it will have to cross-subsidise the pool in some way, while ongoing funding will be required on an annual basis. Some of the £217m that Ford secured from the government to pay for post-Games conversion work may have to be offered to help sweeten the deal. But Sparkes cautions against a gloomy prognosis: "There is a cost to pools in the same way as there is a cost to libraries and museums. It's a public asset. There was never a moment when we didn't believe we would need a subsidy for the pool. Every public pool needs a subsidy."

The legacy planning had shown a "clarity of thought and purpose," he said. There are plans underway to bring the 2016 European Championships to London and Sparkes is convinced that the pool will prove a magnet for swimmers from the immediate vicinity and across London.

"This is without doubt, the finest pool in the country. It will be the Twickenham of swimming for many years to come. Where you build a fabulous facility, you drive people to that facility," he said.

"We want to be at the heart of this. Our challenge will be to manage that facility with the minimum cost to the public purse."


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November 15 2010

Fancy an Olympic ride?

Want to see what it'll be like to whizz around the velodrome at the 2012 Olympic games? Here's a 360-degree view



November 14 2010

Olympic dream takes shape

The debate about the cost and 'legacy' of construction will outlast the 2012 Olympic Games, but no one can deny the new venues are a bold addition to London's landscape

The seduction of construction is a powerful thing. It is the way that the sheer fact of building, the churning of mud and materials into frames and buildings, and the choreography of workers and machines, convinces us that something is being dealt with or transformed. Before the purposefulness of building, doubts recede about the purpose of what is being built.

There is no better place in Britain to experience this effect than at the east London site of the 2012 Olympics. Here, 10,000 people are working over nearly 250 acres to turn billions of pounds into an array of large, singular buildings. Yet more are working on the adjoining site of the Westfield Stratford City shopping mall. Platoons of cherry pickers extend their long mechanical necks towards the sloping wall of the velodrome, so that its impeccably sourced timber cladding can be installed. Hills of spoil rise and fall, as mud is removed from one place to another. A forest of scaffolding fills the void beneath the aquatics centre's big, wavy roof. The miracle of completion is beginning to occur, in which pristine finishes emerge from the seeming chaos, looking as predicted in architects' drawings made some years ago.

Modern buildings are built in packages – concrete, steelwork, glazing and so on. This is a landscape made in packages, a series of huge dollops of construction, each with its own intentions and aesthetics, and with no great connection with its neighbours. What they do have in common is their Olympic purpose and a project-managed smoothness; most buildings have a certain stylishness, without being provocative or awkward. They will also be held together by the accommodating greenery of the Olympic Park at the centre.

Thus there is the shiny, white, shrink-wrapped basketball arena, a temporary structure that will come down after the Games. There are the two waves of the velodrome and the aquatics centre roofs, one a trough and the other a peak. There are the glitzy wrappings over the brute forms of the shopping mall and its car parks, and the ranks of un-villagey blocks of the "athletes' village", more dominating and assertive than most new housing has, in recent decades, dared to be. There is the black brick box of the critically acclaimed electrical substation by the architects Nord.

Most conspicuous is the stadium, now looking almost as it will be when the Games open. It has a simplicity rarely seen in modern arenas, which are usually engulfed in corporate facilities and conference suites. On the outside, it is a triangulated structure of big, black, steel struts, through which the underside of the concrete terraces can be seen. Inside, it is a simple bowl, albeit jazzed up by patterns of black-and-white seats based on the Olympic logo's "shattered" look. One reason for its directness is that it is designed so that the steel superstructure can be dismantled and put up somewhere else, leaving a smaller stadium just for athletics. This plan is now unlikely to go ahead: the most likely option seems to be to convert it to a football ground, with occasional athletic use.

Most convincing is the 6,000-seat velodrome, whose architects Hopkins and Partners say that they wanted the "tautness and energy" of race cycling to be realised in their building. Its roof, made of a net of cables and plywood panels, is crafted to keep materials and scaffolding to the minimum, allowing more of the budget to be spent on the detail. It also admits copious daylight and connects easily with the surrounding park. At its centre is the timber track, a marvellous sloping and curving thing, which inspired in me a (previously undetected) desire to watch cycle races.

It's plain that the architecture of the London Olympics will be less spectacular than that of Beijing – there will be nothing like the Bird's Nest stadium – but the spaces in between will be less bleak. There will be a park, rather than a vast apron of paving. 2012's values are delivery, efficiency and quality, uplifted by a public art programme and the architects who thrive best are those, like Hopkins, who make something positive out of the constraints. True, Anish Kapoor's big red Orbit sculpture, now under construction, strives to inject a steroidal boost of excitement, but it remains to be seen how successfully.

The Games site is well run – it has a good safety record, in contrast to the Beijing Olympics where the number of deaths were almost certainly more than the official figure of six. Many of its venues are ahead of schedule. It is also on budget, once you accept the audacious hike to £9.3bn from the original £2.4bn. Usually, clouds of bad press swirl around the Olympics, about escalating costs and time overruns. Similarly with British public construction projects like the Scottish Parliament. London 2012 might therefore have been doubly cursed, but it is proceeding with extraordinary serenity, a triumph of both project management and PR.

For the sake of posterity and future bidders for the Olympics, certain things can't be said too often: that it is insanely wasteful to spend this much money on a fortnight's fun, or that the Games usually depress rather than boost tourism in the host city. That supposed regeneration benefits only come about with the help of yet further funding. That things of value, like the gentle wilderness of allotments that once stood on this site, get destroyed.

But, barring unforeseen disasters, there is every reason to suppose London 2012 will be a success. Crowds will come and there will be the usual dramas and hyperbole. Such events generate their own momentum, and even the calamity-hit Delhi Commonwealth Games managed to leave behind a vague feelgood factor. I'll hazard a guess that most people in Britain will feel moderately pleased that the Games happened here. Whether it will be £9.3bn-worth of moderate pleasure is debatable, but by then few will mind any more. It will be a question for another city.


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