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Viewpoints: Ellis Woodman on London after the Olympics

Ellis Woodman

‘The transformation of 500 acres in east London into the Olympic Park may be the event’s most obvious built legacy but it is far from the only one’

During the past five years of economic maelstrom, preparations for the current Olympic and Paralympic Games have provided the British construction industry with a sorely-needed life-raft. The transformation of 500 acres of contaminated land in east London into the Olympic Park may be the event’s most obvious built legacy but it is far from the only one. From hotels to galleries, railway stations to public spaces, the past months have seen London complete a slew of projects for which the Games have provided the deadline and in many cases the impetus.

And now the boom is over. For this Londoner, accustomed to a never-ending churn of redevelopment, the sight of the city’s skyline denuded of cranes has come as a rude awakening. London may be in no danger of abandoning the grand ambitions − the pursuit of density and height; the expansion to the east − that have governed its recent development, but a hiatus of some years lies ahead.

The question of what we are to do in the meantime presents itself nowhere more starkly than in the Olympic Park itself. The key commitment that distinguished London’s Olympic bid from those of its competitors was the city’s determination to ensure that the Games serve as a tool of urban regeneration. Where Olympic parks of the past have tended to take the form of isolated campuses, London’s has been embedded in one of the city’s most deprived areas with the express intention that it serve as a catalyst for renewal. The process of designing a facility that would answer the Games’ needs has therefore been undertaken in parallel with that of imagining how the park might serve as the focus of an extensive programme of development once they were over. As many as 8,000 homes are set to be built around the edge of the park − a process that is going to prove crucial to ensuring its successful integration with the existing city.

A timeframe of 20 years has been mooted for this work but given the torpid state of the UK’s housing market it would come as little surprise if it were to take longer still. The considerable difficulties of managing the park during that period were impressed on me by a recent visit to the site of Barcelona’s 2004 Universal Forum of Cultures.

Located, like the Olympic Park, in a peripheral neighbourhood that is still to undergo substantial redevelopment, this is another expanse of public space populated by buildings designed by some of the world’s most celebrated practices. Visit during the annual Primavera Sound festival or La Mercè, the annual festival of Catalan culture, and you will find yourself among a crowd of up to 100,000 people. Head there most other days of the year and you will all but have the place to yourself. The atmosphere is bleak, not to say hostile, with vandalism and inadequate maintenance in plentiful evidence.

Securing temporary uses to keep the Olympic Park animated over the coming decades is going to prove crucial if it is to be prevented from declining into a similar condition. That is an exciting challenge: in a city that is among the world’s most expensive, marginal economic activities, such as the work of artists and other creative practitioners, can all too quickly get priced out. Here, at least for a few decades, they might be provided with a home. Sustainable industries might also have a role to play. Once the Games come to an end, demolition work will produce a huge amount of building material in need of recycling. Creatively addressing that challenge onsite could serve as a valuable means of generating local employment, while serving an educational function too.

And can anything of architectural worth be made of such interim uses? The highly inventive temporary structures built by firms such as Assemble and Practice Architecture certainly suggest that there is an emerging generation of British architects that is ready to try. Indeed the suspicion must be that we are entering a period of architectural history when the temporary structure offers architects a means of creative development that they will struggle to find in commissions for permanent buildings. The mid 1920s was such an era, giving us Konstantin Melnikov’s Moscow street market (1924), Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret’s Pavillon de L’Esprit Nouveau (1924) and Mies and Lilly Reich’s Silk exhibition (1927) to name but a few. If the coming decade proves so fruitful we will have no cause for complaint.

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