Thursday, 9 June 2011

Visiting the Olympics site

The Orbit, a large-scale sculpture by Anish Kapoor
A tour of the Olympic Park with a group of colleagues. Arriving at Pudding Mill Lane station we go to the reception centre for ID checks. Security is notoriously tight on the construction site: we were not actually frisked, but after the ID check you get on the tour bus and there is no getting out until the end of the tour. These are some of the highlights:

The Olympic Stadium with its white zigzag steel frame is the first thing we see and it dominates the site. Designed by international sports-specialist architects Populous, the design was bland to begin with and more so now the outer skin has been value-engineered out, but at least the emphasis on engineering is unpretentious, and it's becoming instantly recognisable.

Next to the stadium, the viewing tower is going up. Every Olympic site has a tower, and the 2012 Olympics has the Orbit, a bizarre twisted, looping lattice structure designed by the sculptor Anish Kapoor. This will be a continuous loop rising to 115 metres, much higher than the stadium, with lifts and a suspended viewing platform near the top. Kapoor has designed some exceptionally successful public sculptures, especially the Cloud Gate in Chicago, but this seems like a complete departure from the purity of his usual sculptural shapes. Think of the Sky Mirror in Kensington Gardens, or the stretched funnel he installed in Tate Modern. This looks random and over-complicated. Probably it will be very popular though.

By way of contrast, the Velodome is beautifully simple, with its oval plan, suspended roof and sloping sides clad in timber to echo the timber track inside. It was designed by Michael Hopkins and won the AJ Building of the Year Award for 2011.

We got only a distant view of the Handball Arena, a substantial permanent building that will become a local sports centre for Hackney Wick. In the far distance, the Corten rusty steel Energy Centre is easier to see from the canal towpath. The Basketball Arena is spectacular, a massive rectangular building with a white PVC skin stretched over curved steel ribs. It is the only temporary arena on the site.

Last but not least should have been Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre, another flowing organic shape that is displayed in an architectural visualisation on a nearby billboard. There was a change of plan here though: massive temporary banks of seating have been added on both sides, almost completely hiding the building. The part that does show, lolls out of the gap between the temporary stands like a giant tongue. This will be an amazing building when the Olympics are over, with a clear span roof arching from one end to the other, but right now Zaha must be furious.

Altogether a mixed bag from an architectural point of view.

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