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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. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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