Two years on from the shock announcement that London had won the bid for the 2012 Olympics, the London Games is struggling to recapture the public’s imagination. Factors such as spiralling budget costs, the Wembley Stadium fiasco, and that logo have created a degree of public cynicism that has proved markedly difficult to shift.
Despite this, confidence remains high. “At the moment it is quite an abstract concept only mapped out on pieces of paper,” explains Ricky Burdett. “Plans are difficult to understand, but the moment people start to see models, computer flythroughs and things going up on site, they will start to comprehend the scale and ambition of this undertaking.
Burdett is chief adviser on architecture and urbanism at the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), the body responsible for overseeing the construction of venues and infrastructure for 2012. He feels that the job title serves to illustrate the project’s overall approach to design. “My remit is not just concern over beautiful buildings but also how individual elements of the Olympics will fit into the urban whole,” he says.
He is also at pains to stress that the concept of design is not restricted to landmark installations. “It must be conceived as everything from the quality of a handrail to the experience of walking through the Olympic Park” he explains. “Such an approach is fundamental in creating something that will function long beyond 2012.”
To show how such principles are applied, Burdett outlines the ODA’s mechanism for commissioning developments. “Each time we decide to proceed with a project – and this applies to anything from stadiums to kiosks – a process is triggered that ensures three things happen.
“Firstly, the brief will always put design on an extremely high threshold, alongside deliverability and functionality. We then go out and find the very best talent available for the job, regardless of profile. Finally, we have mechanisms in-house that ensure design quality is always balanced with restrictions such as time and budget.”
The sourcing of designers is particularly interesting. “The whole point of the Olympics is to focus the minds of the next generation and allow people to accomplish their dreams,” says Burdett. “That should apply to everything: art, architecture, design. We will be working with some established firms, but it will also be a question of promoting emerging designers.
“This will be a great leap forward in terms of their careers and, more importantly, the ODA will benefit from the energy and creativity that comes with an emerging practice.”
London is not alone in taking this approach. While lamenting LA’s philosophy in 1984 – “I can’t remember the name of a single architect, design or building associated with the event” he says – Burdett cites the Barcelona Games in 1992 as the benchmark for showcasing emerging talent.
More crucially, the Catalan capital is also the torchbearer for a seamless integration of an Olympic site post-games. “The process of designing the Olympic village gave something back to the whole city,” he adds. “The village and port are now part of Barcelona’s DNA.”
A similar philosophy was crucial to London winning the 2012 bid. Over the next 15 years 20,000 to 30,000 new homes will be delivered and a completely new part of the city created.
“Once the whole area is built out,” explains Burdett, “we must ensure that the Olympic village is fully integrated and does not turn its back on neighbouring communities. Schools, health centres and other key community facilities are interspersed throughout the site, and the park is vitally important.”
Sustainability at a social and economic level is only part of London’s commitment to running a sustainable Games. “It’s a key objective of the whole Olympic project,” Burdett explains. “We have a wind turbine providing 6% of village energy and two combined heat and power plants going up on site.
“Every single project is setting very high environmental thresholds and we are also being extremely vigilant with regard to importing material from abroad. There’s a lot of material already on site that can be used in the project itself.”
‘TARMAC AND PLASTERBOARD’
But raising the standard of environmental performance costs money – as does everything else; since winning the bid in 2005, the budget for 2012 has more than quadrupled to a staggering £9.35bn.
Burdett seems unperturbed. “The design and construction budget has basically remained the same,” he says. “The escalating costs are more to do with regeneration and security. It remains a challenge, but a good designer is one who can be creative in finding cost effective solutions.”
But this bullish stance has not been sufficient to appease everyone. The president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Jack Pringle, has already voiced his fears of a ‘tarmac and plasterboard’ Games, with deliverability and budget coming before design considerations.
The forced redesign of Zaha Hadid’s Aquatic Centre, the first of the park’s ‘big four’ projects to be commissioned, has been cited as a prime example of this rather negative approach.
“Every design has to go through a degree of editing,” Burdett counters. “The role of people like myself is ensuring that the overall concept – in Zaha’s case, the sweeping roof – is not eroded. The strategy we have in place at the ODA balances design concerns with other considerations.”
In light of this approach, I ask Burdett which project he finds the most exciting. “It has to be the VeloPark,” he replies instantly. “It’s the second permanent structure to be commissioned and Hopkins Architects’ integrated approach towards engineering and architecture will create a startlingly beautiful building. Beyond that, the building will occupy a very important part of the site right next to the Olympic Village. It will be connected to the city and has the potential to relate to its surroundings in a similar way to the Royal Albert Hall and Kensington.”
The Olympics may have failed to fully capture the public imagination thus far, but Burdett and his team are certainly talking a good game. As the Olympic Park starts to take shape, they will hope to demonstrate to the cynics and naysayers that the race is a marathon, not a sprint.