‘The kind of place planners have dreamed of’: the London Olympics site 10 years on | Architecture

What have the Olympics ever done for us? Nothing, apart from the 226-hectare park that attracts six million visitors a year, the magnificent sporting facilities, the tens of thousands of new jobs, the decontamination and opening up of ex-industrial land, the schools, the cultural institutions currently under construction, the new homes, some of which are affordable in a meaningful sense. Not to mention the national feelgood factor while the games lasted, and a more enduring raising of the profile and pride of its location. “We suddenly felt we were part of the story,” says Rushanara Ali, Labour MP for the nearby constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow. “If you came from east London, if you came from different backgrounds, you felt part of it.”

Apart from that, nothing.

Ever since the 2012 London Olympic bid was launched early in the century, there has been understandable scepticism – that it wouldn’t live up to its promises, that it would trample on local interests and character, that it would be taken over by corporate interests. Some of this has been justified: hopes to “inspire a generation” with a national sporting renaissance, for example, have largely foundered.

But if you now visit the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London, 10 years after the games were held there, you will see a beautiful and largely well maintained landscape that skilfully exploits the web of waterways and the changes of levels previously on the site. It runs a pleasing range, from shaggy meadows and wetlands to more kempt lawns and terraces. You will see large numbers of people enjoying it who have reached it from all directions. The atmosphere is relaxed, welcoming, inclusive, mutually tolerant.

The Lee Valley VeloPark, originally the Olympic velodrome. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Guardian

You will see the graceful curved roof of the velodrome and the more rambunctious curved superstructure of the Aquatics Centre, perhaps the BMX track, the hockey and tennis centre, and the Copper Box multi-sport arena, all modifications of the original Olympic facilities. If you wander into some of the residential districts at the edges, you might find quiet mews-like enclaves, and pleasant streets with accessible and well used open spaces, including playgrounds available to any family that might want to use them. If you arrived at the park from the public transport hub at Stratford you will probably have passed through the Westfield shopping mall, a work of corporate gigantism to be sure, but one crowded with people from near and far who seem happy to be there. And which, contrary to expectation, has not killed the older and more everyday shopping centre in the middle of Stratford.

Other sights include the zone called East Bank, where buildings for the Victoria and Albert Museum, University College London, the London College of Fashion, Sadler’s Wells and the BBC are taking shape, and Here East, a prospering innovation and technology business campus that was once the media centre for the 2012 games. You might also see, outside the boundaries of the Olympic site itself, neighbouring areas such as Hackney Wick thronged with life, and canal towpaths busy as never before. For the next five years the demountable hexagon of the Abba Arena, home to a virtual concert residency by the famous Swedes, will stand at the southern end of the park.

Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre.
The ‘rambunctious’ curved roof of Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre. Photograph: Bradley Taylor/Alamy

This is the kind of place that planners have dreamed about for decades, but rarely achieved, with a multiplicity of uses – culture, work, homes, education, shopping, sport – where no single facility dominates. You can shop in the mall if you want to, but you don’t have to spend money in the park to enjoy yourself. There will be high art and commercial entertainment, but neither dominates. It has achieved at least two things usually thought difficult: the creation of a thriving new urban district, and the making of a large new park to which people actually come.

The location of London 2012 is also a world away from the sites of most other Olympic Games – Atlanta, Athens, Beijing, Rio – where the hulks of great sporting buildings stand marooned in expanses of open space, forever unable to attract the crowds that filled their brief lives as Olympic venues. It is, as the London expert Dave Hill writes in his new book Olympic Park, a rare feat of political cooperation, in which national and local leaders, and figures including the left-wing London mayor Ken Livingstone, the centre-left minister Tessa Jowell and the former athlete and Conservative politician Sebastian Coe worked together in a common cause.

The 2012 legacy, it must be said, has its flops. Foremost among these is the 115 metre-high ArcelorMittal Orbit, a big red piece of public art by Anish Kapoor, the engineer Cecil Balmond and the architect Kathryn Findlay. It was conceived when Boris Johnson, after his election as mayor of London in 2008, seemingly wanted to make his mark, like a dog urinating on a lamp-post, on the achievement of his predecessor, Livingstone. It is a structure whose pointless tangles and contortions of steel are, in hindsight, an apt metaphor and warning of Johnson’s future governance of the country. Promises that it would pay for its upkeep from ticket sales to eager visitors have proved hollow, even after the addition of a crowd-pleasing slide that runs from top to bottom.

There is also the stadium, where immense sums of public money, from national and local government, including ongoing running costs, have effectively gone to subsidise the rich Premier League football club West Ham, partly owned by two former pornography barons, which is now based there. The architecture of the stadium was spare and intelligent, well suited to Olympic athletics events, and came with a plan for reducing it in size after the games. The problem came when it was belatedly decided to make it a football venue, for which it was not designed, and required expensive adaptation.

V&A East, with the London College of Fashion rising behind.
V&A East, with the London College of Fashion rising behind. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright

There are big, wide, space-eating roads scything through parts of the park, built to meet Olympic technical requirements. There are ragged and disconnected parts of the plan, where one part doesn’t join convincingly to another. The default architecture of the residential districts is one of benign alrightness, a bit bland and dull, with occasional outbreaks of big, lumpen stuff where developers have grabbed the chance to make some extra money. There is the question of the businesses formerly on the site, removed elsewhere so that the Olympic construction could start, 31% of which had closed down by 2015. As, however, this is similar to the national rate of closure over a period that included the 2008 financial crisis, it’s hard to know to what extent their relocation was to blame.

And there is the question of new homes on and around the Olympic site, 11,380 of which have been built out of the 30,000 to 40,000 promised early in the Olympic project. Of those, 15% are classed as “intermediate”, a category of homes below market price but out of reach of many who live in surrounding areas, and another 13.5% of the total as “low-cost rent” and “social rent”. The London Legacy Development Corporation, which directs regeneration of the post-Olympic zone, says that the amount of housing has been reduced by reallocating land to other beneficial uses, such as East Bank, but that nonetheless 33,000 new homes will have been built in the area under their purview by 2036. They also say that percentages of affordable housing are often set by old planning permissions that they can’t control, and that they are hoping to increase them in the future. You could say, if you wanted to be a little generous, that on this subject the jury is out.

Above all, it’s moot to ask whether the Olympics can truly take credit for everything that now stands in and around the former railway lands of Stratford. Since the 1990s the area has also been saturated with public investment in the form of transport infrastructure – the Jubilee line extension, the Docklands Light Railway, a station on the High Speed 1 rail line built to serve the Channel Tunnel, the Elizabeth line – which had already prompted proposals for a huge redevelopment before the London Olympic bid was made and won. A park, housing and shopping centre were part of this plan. Many of the area’s goodies, such as the cultural facilities of East Bank, are funded by budgets additional to the £9bn spent on the Olympics.

What the 2012 games achieved was to speed up these developments – Professor Tony Travers of the LSE has estimated that without them “it would have taken until 2050 to 2060 before the area became fully regenerated”. The Westfield shopping centre, in the wake of the 2008 crash, would certainly have been put on hold if there had been no Olympics in prospect. 2012 also added an extra level of quality and magnificence to what was built, and intangibles of excitement and local self-esteem.

The ArcelorMittal Orbit tower and the London Stadium
‘Pointless tangles and contortions’: Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit tower, right, and the London Stadium, now used by West Ham United. Photograph: Richard Barnes/Alamy

The truth about the Olympics in general is that it costs many billions just to put on these short-lived festivals of sport, with no guarantee of any additional benefit to the places where they are held – the fact that investment is poured into a place and large structures built does not in and of itself lead to long-term regeneration. This is embarrassing both for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and for host cities, and in the processes of bidding for and holding games, which requires cities to make optimistic pitches both to the IOC and to their general publics, promises about legacy and regeneration are made that are rarely kept afterwards.

The rare trick that London pulled off was to overcome the flaw at the heart of the Olympic project, and make many of the promises of legacy come true. There’s some sleight of hand here, as it didn’t all happen because of the games. An assessment that took into account all the additional public investment on trains and schools and culture may or may conclude that the outcome is value for money. But it is there, and it does many good things, and it is broadly popular, all of which are achievements to be celebrated.