With less than a year to go before the 2012 Olympics in London, how is the park shaping up – and what difference will the multi-billion-pound project make after the athletes leave? Kieran Long looks at what it tells about how the British make cities.
I write this as I sit in the View Tube, a small cafe that overlooks the London Olympic site from the south. Its first-floor terrace is the best public vantage point from which to watch progress (at least until the Westfield shopping centre opens in September). To the left is the stadium; in the middle, Zaha Hadid's aquatics centre with its hideous temporary wings. To the right are the housing towers with coloured balconies lining Stratford High Street. In the distance I can see the recently completed BMX track and a glimpse of the velodrome roof.
To get here, I walked along the Greenway, the walking route on top of the Northern Outfall Sewer. This masterpiece of Victorian engineering by Joseph Bazalgette has been a public route for a long time, reaching from Beckton up to Victoria Park and beyond. It has recently been subtly improved by architect Adams & Sutherland, exhibiting an aesthetic completely opposite to the slickness of the Olympic venues. Right now, it has a pre-Games feeling about it – litter, some signage missing.
I have little sympathy with the writer Iain Sinclair's miserabilism about the Olympics (his fascination with decrepitude in the book Ghost Milk seems a dead end to me). But the state of the Greenway is a little like a memento mori: something that looks suspiciously like human excrement smeared on the floor next to one bench, empty bottles of vodka scattered nearby. Did the person who left these get a ticket to next year's event, I wonder?
This litter-strewn thoroughfare raises a prosaic point about the ability of the boroughs to maintain the massive public spaces of the Olympics after the Games. Perhaps David Cameron's National Citizens Service could provide a workforce to keep the site in the style to which it will become briefly accustomed next year.
But there is a more serious underlying point. Does the optimistic Olympic Park plan, and the legacy masterplan that will be built over the next 30 years, include those who spend their nights haunting the Greenway?
The Olympics, with its association with physical achievement, is an elite business. The park offers opportunities to get healthier by doing sport, while the proposed residential and commercial neighbourhoods are aimed at families, the creative industries and shoppers.
It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that there are people who fit into none of these categories – that the event's potential to improve us as people is much less than regeneration's potential to clear away those who don't fit into a desirable demographic. Theoretically, these people should be able to play badminton at the multi-use arena or swim in Zaha's pool – but we know they won't.
This is not a problem unique to the Olympics; it is inherent in the way we do regeneration. The site at Stratford – sealed to visitors, but with poverty all around it – merely makes this clear.
In view of recent events, I have found myself asking whether it is a good thing to make a piece of city where rioting is impossible. The Olympic Park, even in legacy mode, seems to be built for this purpose. All public places are plazas and green swathes; there is no high street and no representative public space. The park is super defensible. Canals and the River Lea provide natural barriers, and the bridges are critical links that can easily be controlled. It's the perfect place to house a football team like West Ham – you could maroon their more violent fans on an island, if required.
"Overlay" is an unfamiliar word to those of us used to writing about cities. But this is not a city – it is the Olympics. As I have watched this once-in-a-generation enterprise develop, this is one of the few terms that adds some conceptual clarity to the way the place is changing.
Overlay is the world of temporary seats, tents, kiosks, sports equipment that will be built in and around the venues. The park today is a calm place, the stadium surrounded by manicured hectares of flattened rubble. This is because the work of the Olympic Delivery Authority is drawing to a close, and that of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games is beginning. The ODA hands over venues to LOCOG and the overlay is, well, laid.
To me, this concept is the cultural heart of the endeavour. It is the classic form/content division writ huge – the idea that the things we build are neutral containers for the things that happen in them. It is the software/hardware dichotomy applied to the built environment – something that developed from modernism and is keeping mainstream British architecture callow and somehow vacuous.
Think back to 2006, when London's plans for the Olympics were thought to be a little underwhelming after Beijing. The Chinese Olympics was a show of strength of almost military grandeur. It was a fire-and-forget money-vomiting exercise that had the power to shift global commodity prices. The Beijing Watercube has now been converted into a water fun park – surely the most expensive in the world. And the legacy? Well, it exists only in the memories of the billions who watched the three-week event. Whatever happens to the venues afterwards isn't important.
As London unveiled its Olympic architecture, it seemed to be a bunch of superannuated modernists doing their thing, coming up with cheap looking buildings that weren't, in fact, particularly cheap. There was lots of talk about how it would all go away afterwards – that this "austerity Olympics" would tread lightly on the ground. Temporary, demountable structures were the order of the day. As such, we ended up with an Olympics promising "legacy" as the focus, building a temporary basketball arena costing £60m for three weeks' use.
Although the basketball arena isn't strictly part of the overlay, it is in spirit. If "pop-up" is a feckless way of exploiting a location without really having to transform it or invest in it, overlay is this at a huge scale. It is the formalisation of the complete rending of form and content; the final separation of the ground and the activity that happens on it.
The park itself – during and after the Games – is designed to be attractive, to lure visitors with the spectacle of sport, with the architecture of the venues, with a beautiful landscape to walk around. I recently interviewed Eleanor Fawcett the head of design for the Olympic Park Legacy Company, and she told me a series of events and temporary uses would be planned for the vacant sites in the park in the years following the Games.
It is attractive. When you're there, you can see how this will provide connections in a part of London long-dismembered by the industrial heritage of the Lea Valley. The landscape itself has the hyper-real topography of a children's TV programme, but I'm sure it will be well used, and a great place to walk around. You get pleasant views from bridges at high level, down to marshy wetlands below you. A maze of cycle tracks and paths divide one planted hillock from another. I'm less convinced of the qualities of the south of the site, where a grand plaza occupies the ground between the main stadium and the aquatics centre. This will be the place designed to attract crowds to big events – where large-scale events, concerts and festivals will take place, filling this strange ground with communal celebration.
Of course, this concept of "attraction", of excitement, of anticipation of an event and the payoff of attendance is the same logic used by retailers to attract customers. It understands people as demographics, as target audiences; it provides opportunities for them to be part of the brand.
The clearest expression of this is the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower. It is more than halfway to its full height now, looking like a melted tripod from War of the Worlds and sitting in the central plaza like the comedic campanile to the demountable cathedral of the stadium. My metaphor is over generous, though, because a monument like this is nothing to do with the city – it has no symbolic meaning. It is a mere spectacle: something eccentric (or unique, depending on your point of view) that give the visitors attracted to the area something to do.
It is as vacuous as the London Eye, which to me represents Thatcher's ultimate insult to London. The South Bank was once a powerful symbol – between 1922 and 1986 the home of London democracy in County Hall, and after the Second World War a cultural complex (designed in the architecture office that still sits empty within County Hall) that rose, phoenix-like, from the bombed, depressed capital. The London Eye, with its ticket office colonising the ground floor of the building, succeeded in categorising the South Bank as a leisure landscape rather than a political one; as a place of attraction rather than culture.
I remember my first trip on the London Eye, then called the Millennium Wheel, in 2000, just after its completion. I shared a capsule with colleagues from the magazine I was then working for, and as we rose above the rooftops of the Palace of Westminster, someone cried out, with real excitement: "I can see Shooters Hill from here!" I thought of this as a fantastic thing – that someone would come to the world heritage site of Westminster, ride a machine made specially for looking at it, and then spy on their nondescript suburb in south London.
Those who climb the ArcelorMittal Orbit will surely look west, towards the centre of the city, or towards wherever it is they have come from.
That we can think of no richer institutional or physical topography than one of attraction and footfall is revealed by the other stated aim of the Olympics: social inclusion. You only need to have a programme for social inclusion if you have excluded people with what you are doing.
And the Olympic site does this. Perhaps the starkest example of this is the new Chobham Academy school, one of the central parts of the Olympic Village masterplan. I have spoken to many mayors and politicians working on large-scale regeneration projects who know the score – a top-class secondary school and reasonably priced family housing are two excellent ways to attract middle-class people to an area. On the fringes of the Olympic Village, most of which will be developed into housing for private rent and sale by Qatari Diar, is Chobham Academy (designed by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, who designed the poster-boy Westminster Academy, nominated for the Stirling Prize but now subject to a protracted legal case for failings in its ventilation and heating systems).
The sell to prospective residents is clear: rent a flat here, and you will have comprehensive shopping at Westfield, a quick way out of Stratford via the Central Line or Eurostar, and somewhere good to educate your children.
Meanwhile, in Waltham Forest, the cuts to the Building Schools for the Future programme have left children being educated in Portakabins. The Labour-controlled borough is fighting through the courts to get the money they were promised out of the government.
Students from Waltham Forest will be bussed to Chobham Academy to use the playing fields of the new school, and given an intimate experience of what they cannot have for themselves.
Regeneration in this country resides in a nexus of steadily increasing land values and an economy of attraction. Attract potential homebuyers, they will be middle class, they will bring up the tone of the area. The Olympic site is a city in our society's image. It is tuned to an acquisitive (Westfield) middle class, which is competitively in search of unique experiences (Orbit), vain (sport and fitness), and paranoid about their personal safety and the security of their family's future (new school).
If all this sounds cynical, it shouldn't. This is just how we make cities these days. It is a euphemistic urbanism, an architecture of fear deeply suppressed, of pretense about capitalism and of safety and health.
It is positivist, parts of it will be beautiful, it will provide the amenities that residents need. We can imagine nothing more today. The Olympic site will be a carpet of statistical generalisations and demographic assessments.
It is not what a great city should be: a differentiated institutional and social structure inherent in its public spaces. It is overlay: cheerful, provisional, meaningless.