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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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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