The silly season is alive and well at the Olympic Park
It is not often that The Times pontificates about architecture. So last Saturday’s third editorial, which by tradition is often ‘light’ in tone, was a double surprise. It was a vehement condemnation of the Olympicopolis cultural and residential project, by O’Donnell & Tuomey/Allies & Morrison, located near the Aquatics Centre on the Olympic Park.
The editorial didn’t beat about the bush: it called on London Mayor Sadiq Khan to call in the planning application in order to throw it out and order a re-design. We cannot tell whose aesthetic sensibilities have been offended by the emerging design, since the editorial was unsigned. But whoever it was should surely have reflected on the foolishness of this proposed abuse of Mayoral planning powers, better regarded as responsibilities.
Images of the design are what seem to have triggered the editorial outburst, and as ever it is disappointing when otherwise intelligent people start making pronouncements on the basis of two-dimensional images – the moronic like/don’t like binary prejudice system at its worst. Perhaps it is the height of the two residential towers that triggered off the reaction, and it is certainly the case that their scale relates to generating the funding necessary to complete the development.
However, this is not without precedent in London. The obvious example of a mixed development of this sort is the Barbican, that magnificent Brutalist landmark which is an intense version of what is planned in East London, combining as it does culture with housing, landscape, education and local business. However, the circumstances of its development were quite different, deriving from a desire on the part of the City of London to prove you could build a council estate on a quite different model to anything seen anywhere else in the world. And it worked, even though it is now a hymn to private ownership rather than rent.
By contrast, Olympicopolis (or the Cultural and Educational Quarter as it is being referred to by people with a tin ear for language and a determination to ignore the housing element) is an example of public-private funding, triggered by an act of generosity on the part of the former Chancellor, George Osborne. He offered a gigantic grant to then Mayor Boris Johnson if the latter could produce a scheme before the last election, ie in a matter of a few months.
At this point I should declare an interest, since I chaired the selection panel for the project – on behalf of the London Legacy Development Corporation – which reached its decision the night before the last election, just in time to claim the funding chunk on offer.
The procurement of the project was unusual, partly because of the time constraints, and partly because in order to achieve the necessary overall funding, a substantial residential element was always part of the equation. This was never going to be a re-run of the South Bank Centre.
It also meant that the selection panel needed to include representatives of all the institutions minded to take space in the complex – University of the Arts, V&A, Sadler’s Wells and the Smithsonian (at the time). This was in addition to folk from the development corporation, the GLA and independent panellists.
Since each of the institutions had a (different) favoured architect among those competing for the job, the task of the jury was unlikely to be straightforward and so it proved. It is fair to say we had to have a little heat before light, but our minds were focussed on the absolute requirement to reach a decision on the day, or evening as it turned out. In the end everyone left the room slightly dissatisfied, but not utterly fed up. For me, this was a good result.
My observation to the panel, that the team we chose would not end up building exactly what they had designed, unsurprisingly turned out to be accurate. In any event, I think the architecture being developed is of a high standard and The Times is wrong.
I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’m saying it anyway.