Monday, 7 April 2014

Olympic Park revisited

Off to see the Olympic Park, on the weekend that the south part of the park opens to the public on completion of the work that transformed it from 'games mode' to 'legacy mode'.

There is plenty to admire and a few things to carp about, but in general terms the two most striking aspects of what has been achieved are (1) the fact that it has happened at all, and (2) the fact that it has been carefully designed and properly funded, with no obvious signs of 'value engineering' (but neither is there pointless extravagance).

With London under huge pressure to grow within its borders, it is very hard to find opportunities for new open space of any size, let alone such a large expanse as this - and it only happened here because of the enormous funding made available to clean up a century's worth of pollution, ill considered infrastructure and then neglect over much of this area - which in turn only happened because of the Olympics, but which has delivered a major public asset in a place where it is needed, and effectively in perpetuity, in a way that has not often been achieved as a result of Olympic games elsewhere.  Compare the scale of what has happened here with the open space on offer in other regeneration areas - usually at best a 'linear park', for which read a slightly wider than usual street with some shrubs in it.

My principal general criticism of the approach taken here to the design of the new park is that it appears over-programmed and over-designed, with not enough space left as simple expanses of grass and trees available for quiet enjoyment (and relatively cheap to maintain) - a mistake avoided at one of the first and still one of the best of a new wave of 'regeneration parks', the Parc Andre Citroen in Paris, where the more complicated and programmed elements are arranged around a big lawn.   At the Olympic Park it feels as if they have put too much thought into just what kind of fun you ought to be having.

It is pleasing to see Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre as it was meant to be seen at last, without the bingo wings that it displayed during the games. The nearby helter skelter - presumably, I hope, temporary - did make me wonder at first why she couldn't have been persuaded to turn her hand to a version of this funfair attraction.. But when you compare her Aquatics Centre with Hopkins Architects' Velodrome, you can see that it is they who should have been asked to handle the pure geometry of the helter-skelter; Hadid would be your choice for the Big Dipper.  Horses for courses is an important subject in architect selection.

It was disappointing to find that while the roads through the park, some quite busy, have been engineered in the modern, enlightened, pedestrian-friendly manner, with no barriers and straight line crossings, one finds as one gets close to the Westfield shopping centre to the east of the park that things change within the space of a few metres.  Here one finds oneself in a zone where a completely different set of old-school highways rules have been applied, with a forest of posts and clutter denser and more instantly mature than any of the new planting in the park could hope to be - and the pedestrian relegated to second class citizen, as they used to be.

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