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London Zooming Toward 2012 Summer Olympics

February 22, 2010

By David Sokol

As Vancouverites enjoy the wealth of new venues realized for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Londoners are beginning to see a host of sporting venues, transit links, and other facilities spring up for the 2012 Summer Games.

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Unlike the halting, delayed construction that characterized Athens’s preparation for the 2004 event, London’s £8 billion Olympics building program is moving along at a humming pace. “We are right on track and budget,” says Jerome Frost, head of design of the Olympic Development Authority (ODA), “and the skyline of east London is already changing.”

Since mid-December, for example, commuters on Britain’s Southeastern rail line have been alighting at the glassy Stratford International in east London. There they are getting one of their first tastes of the 2012 event: The train station will serve as the terminus of the seven-minute-long Javelin shuttle transporting sports fans between downtown and the Olympic Park, located five miles northeast of the City of London.

Stratford International looks upon the Lower Lea Valley, where the 608-acre Olympic Park is quickly taking shape behind a winding great wall of plywood sheets painted cobalt and grass green. Within days of the train station’s December 14 opening, the cable-net roof of the Olympic Stadium was lifted into place; Populous’s scheme for partly covering that armature in fabric will come to fruition this spring. The double-curved roof and concrete diving pool of the Zaha Hadid–designed Aquatics Centre are already complete, and the 17,500-seat facility should be ready for test events in 2011. The curved wafer topping Hopkins Architects’ velodrome building, which expresses the geometry of the bicycle track, also is nearing realization.

Moreover, the first apartment block in the Olympic Village—comprising 300 units and designed by development manager Lend Lease’s in-house architect panel—is structurally complete. Ultimately the village will house 23,000 athletes and officials in 11 buildings, and those dormitory units will be converted to 2,800 homes after the Games.

The primary electrical substation was the first building entirely completed, in late October, and it is now supplying power to the site, while the totemic Energy Centre by John McAslan + Partners—which, among other things, will warm Olympic Park venues using biomass boilers as well as heat recaptured from electricity production—is under way. And currently more than 300,000 wetlands plants and semi-mature trees are being cultivated off-site for inclusion in the landscape design, for which LDA Design and Hargreaves Associates was selected in spring 2008.

The project also will bequeath numerous building improvements and other changes outside both the park and city limits, and the ODA is consistently meeting those construction deadlines, too. Expansion of the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy and Portland Marina, which will host the Olympic and Paralympic sailing events, has been complete since November 2008. More recently, crews finished driving foundation piles for the whitewater canoe facility in Broxbourne located an hour’s drive north of London. 

The ODA has stressed efficiency over spectacle, opting for buildings that not only meet today’s timelines but also promise to last for the long haul. “Seventy-five pence of every pound of the ODA’s budget is being spent on long-term improvements in the area, whether this is for brand-new sports facilities, new roads and bridges, new utilities, new transport links, or new housing,” Frost says of the Olympic Park. “The project is already acting as a catalyst for change on a huge scale in the Lower Lea Valley.”

As a result, the organization has forced repeated cutbacks on the Aquatics Centre, which was selected by competition in 2005. “London, it seems, is taking no chances,” Guardian architecture critic Jonathan Glancey wrote in 2007, upon the unveiling of the “safe, sensible and pragmatic” Olympic Stadium design.

Frost has said, “You have to be very, very rigorous to make sure that you are not building something you can’t afford,” and he has called Herzog & de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest for the Beijing Olympics “inappropriate” for the British economy. London’s cautious attitude toward its Olympic venues echoes the design decisions made in Vancouver, and foreshadows the investments that will be made in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Sumemr Games, where more than half of the sporting facilities are preexisting — suggesting, too, that Beijing’s wonders may have marked the tail end of an architectural comet.

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