“I really haven’t the foggiest what it is” said the man standing next to me, “I mean, what’s the point?” We were staring up at the Orbit, Anish Kapoor’s strange metal mixture of helter-skelter and Eiffel Tower that is the big artistic moment in London’s Olympic park. This huge public sculpture arguably represents the paradox of the Olympics from the point of view of cities and their development; here is a dynamic, exciting, engaging and very visual event – but what is the point? The costly dozen days have to promise much to warrant their expense: a huge tourism boost – which is rarely fulfilled; sustainability – generally a downright fallacy; community spirit – which usually proves too expensive for the locals; and most important, a legacy of structure and infrastructure to serve generations to come. Since the 1930s, when the mega-event began to supersede international exhibitions in showing off national cultural prowess, this last promise has been justified so rarely that the usual post-Olympic label involving large mammals and a light colour has become more cliché than idiom. At the very least, then, the city can hope that the legacy of this massive public expenditure will be a flowering of artistic, architectural and civic creativity and, derived from it, a sense of cultural identity and pride.
Standing under the Orbit and wondering whether to pay fifteen quid for a slightly elevated view I found myself wondering whether London has delivered this. It is, in fact, a lot to ask from an event like the Olympics. Part of the problem is simply that many of the games involve arcane sports which will never be of much interest beyond their niche following. The buildings for these – and for the more popular sports such as cycling, swimming and running, tend to be somewhat circumscribed in their programme and requirements. The same can be said of the Olympic Village which essentially exists to house an international sporting camp for a couple of weeks. Compounding all of this is the budget which usually becomes so tight that the host becomes reliant on corporate sponsorship and, in the case of London, ends up with the main stadium wrapped in Bhopal-tainted advertisement.
London has handled this paradoxical opportunity for architectural and infrastructural civic development in typically hit-and-miss fashion. We have Zaha Hadid’s expressive and slick Aquatic Centre where one senses (arguably) the world’s most exciting architect hamstrung by budget and requirements delivering a building whose dolphin-like exterior is caught clumsily between two clunky stands of temporary seating.
Probably more successful is Hopkin’s Veledrome – a building whose spare, crafted construction combines the machined precision of a tuned-up bicycle with the centrifugal speed of the sport. And there are a few un-sung gems in the park – Make Architecture’s useful looking “Copper Box”, the austere park Electrical substation and John McAslan’s “Energy Centre” are considered works that resist the sensationalist form-making and fit easily into their chill East London setting. There is also, close to the Orbit, the View Tube, a fantastic little café whose modest construction materials seems more ingenious than its extravagant steel-gobbling neighbour.
Most eyes will, however, be on the stadium. Surprisingly this rather conventional, taut-looking structure has been nominated to the RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist. Surprising because it delivers none of the “Birds Nest’s” emblematic wow and it turned out to be very expensive; Populous built the much more impressive Soccer City at almost half London’s £486 million price tag.
The argument of cost versus value will rage on in London as it did in South Africa following the World Cup. However for many citizens just a step beyond the hurriedly landscaped park, there remain deprived estates, hopeless high streets, unemployment and the predictions of rioting. In contrast to South Africa’s investment in infrastructure, city planning and national identity, the money and creativity poured into the Olympic park does not seem to have extended far outside its confines. Whether there are benefits beyond its fortnight of fame will become apparent over the years. Until such time and in the absence of any ground-breaking synthesis of cultural identity I find myself echoing the man under the Orbit; what’s the point?