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Bronze medal for the Olympics

A panel discussion considers the urban significance of the London games from a variety of perspectives

The same night that the Shard pathetically launched itself upon a hapless populace with a fanfare of green lasers, the Southbank hosted a lively debate about that other great Qatari investment in London: the Olympics. The panel event, organised by the Architectural Association and chaired by FAT director Sam Jacob, approached the urban significance of the Olympics from diverse perspectives.

In essence the questions discussed were: what is London, and what is it becoming? And how are we to understand the terrific and terrifying forces reshaping the urban fabric − both in the physical territory, and the complex socio-political and economic landscape that overlays it? What emerged was a picture of a city consumed by private development, founded on a deeply flawed economic model that is both morally and financially bankrupt. Anna Minton, author of Ground Control (which details the impact of privatising ‘public’ spaces), highlighted the fundamentally undemocratic operation of this system. After the 2008 Crisis, Britain bailed out the Olympics to the tune of £5.7bn. But rather than this public acquisition resulting in public assets, instead what came about were citadels of privately owned and controlled space − closed islands, where strict conditions of access and behaviour curb public expression (from rollerblading to political protest). Whether considering the corporate ownership of the deceptively named Queen Elizabeth Park, or the spec suburb now sold to the Qatari royal family (the Olympic Village), Minton argued ‘the proliferation of these undemocratic spaces exposes the fact we’re not really living in democratic times’.

The totalitarian effect of international finance on the development of East London was poignantly depicted in the photography of Stephen Gill, who has worked in Stratford and Hackney for more than a decade. Initially consumed with images of a post-industrial landscape overrun by verdant nature, as the work progresses the fields of wild flowers are slowly partitioned by signs of their impending transformation: compulsory purchase orders, high-security fences and gleaming fresh roads. Gill captured a city of stark inequalities, of migrant markets in derelict greyhound racecourses, of mountains of old fridges framed by Canary Wharf. Without nostalgia, he catalogued the Londoners exercising their rights to common territory, where today the same land hosts Westfield mall (into which 70 per cent of Olympic visitors will arrive).

The extraordinary corporate power to manifest whole villages in the middle of depressed zones, to possess whole streets, was examined by noted urban theorist Saskia Sassen, who suggested this power is weakening our potential as active citizens. At a national level, the notion of citizenship can seem abstract. But at the city scale we are all implicated in the construction of our identity. The privatisation of the city threatens to transform us from makers of our citizenship into only consumers. Sassen asked, ‘Is this the best way to develop such a vast portion of land? Let’s not even talk about the money, but ask: does it add to the urban capability of the city?’

The final speaker, novelist Will Self, tied the strains of conversation together under a single moniker − the metamorphosis of London’s landscape, the corporatisation of public assets, the relentless marginalisation of democracy and the foothold of power elites to conjure whole villages in the midst of depressed boroughs − saying, ‘In contemporary architecture, form follows finance, and the most ostensible fact about the form of contemporary buildings is their short life spec. For 1,500 years the Colosseum remained the largest constructed space. You can look at the Olympics as our own anodyne version. The Colosseum was open for three centuries; the Olympics will be over in just three weeks.

The Colosseum’s message was one of venal satiation for an unruly mob, the Olympics’ message is veneering over people’s looming sense of inequality in society.’  If the artificial sustenance of these economic and corporate models is allowed to continue (at the expense of democracy and the taxpayer), London may detach from its hinterland, like the UK’s Monaco. And as with Montreal or Athens, the Olympic venues could become decaying embarrassments − London’s new ruins.


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