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Velodrome by Hopkins Architects

I thought it was going to be just another self-conscious icon. In many ways it is a one-liner… But what a line, says Edwin Heathcote

Well, that was a rotten thing to do. I’d always been quite happy to dislike Hopkins’ entire oeuvre. I tried to like the Lords stand once, really tried. But it was just too fussy, too over-engineered and too English. I don’t even like the idea of Glyndebourne, let alone the building. I didn’t try quite so hard with Portcullis House’s Tudor hi-tech; I just never saw it.

And then this: the Velodrome. It’s almost painful. Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre is still a stunner, but is visibly compromised by cost cutting, by those temporary ‘ears’ sticking out of the sides, and by weak entrances and weedy public and circulation spaces.

And there’s that Velodrome; a pure, gorgeous sculptural object. A piece of real architecture. The thing to make clear here, is that I think the entire Olympics is a colossal waste of money and that there should have been some effort to create a kind of austerity games like the one after the war - Wembley stadium was carefully and thoughtfully designed by Foster + Partners specifically to be easily converted into an athletics stadium.

Whenever I say this, I am beaten down by someone countering that this land would have never been regenerated without the impetus of the Olympics. Well, that’s nonsense.

It would have, but more slowly, and at less expense to the taxpayer. The current masterplan and landscape looks like Guangzhou, with all its pointless parkland and horrible housing. This would have been an opportunity to look seriously at a site and perhaps attempt some kind of radical new urban plan.

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Perhaps something more improvised, inspired by the projects in Latin America, where architecture plays second fiddle to society and the thoughtful fostering of an entrepreneurial, bottom-up culture of community involvement.

Instead we get the kind of buy-to-let crap that has already proven disastrous in almost every way, from our townscapes to the construction of an artificially-inflated rental sector that provides the wrong kind of accommodation for a growing city. That the first building to open on the site is a shopping mall is a national embarrassment presented as regeneration. It is exactly what the area doesn’t need.

Looking at the buildings individually seems strange to me. The austerity stadium that has been so heavily praised still cost half a billion, which doesn’t seem such an extraordinary achievement even if it was delivered on time and on budget. The Media Centre is banal beyond belief and the best things on site are the ancillary structures; Nord’s little power station, John Lyall’s sewage pumping station and a couple of scattered miscellaneous service buildings. But, whatever my reservations, the Velodrome is good.

It manages to express the function of the building, its structure is as tense and taut as a cyclist’s muscles and it is as light, streamlined and functional as a pared-down racing bike.

When I first saw the Pringle roof, I thought this was just going to be another self-conscious icon, a pre-prepared shape with an off-the-shelf narrative, a one-liner. In many ways, that is exactly what it is - a one liner. But what a line. The walls cant outwards as if to counteract the angle of the cyclists as they go round the track inside, the timber casing is exactly right; smooth, unfussy, elegant.

It is lifted off the ground in exactly the right kind of Modernist way, this is a building with no cellar and no cultural subconscious, just clear, rational space.

When Herzog & de Meuron’s Beijing Olympic stadium was completed there was almost a sense of relief, as if it was accepted that there was no point trying to top it. Frei Otto, Kenzo Tange, Pier Luigi Nervi, Herzog & de Meuron - that’s Olympic architecture pretty much wrapped up. Hopkins have, to my amazement, proved that there is always something left to be achieved.

I may not be their biggest fan, but my hat is firmly off and, unless there is some extremely compelling scheme with a profound socio-political message deep in its heart, I find it difficult to see this one losing.

Edwin Heathcote is architecture critic for the Financial Times

Q+A - Mike Taylor, Senior partner, Hopkins Architects

Describe your design concept for the Velodrome?
Our philosophy was to design for legacy and convert for the Games, rather than the other way round. Our concept was to create a building inspired by the efficiency of the bicycle which would be as sustainable as possible. We also wanted to express the geometry and drama of the track in the outside form of the building.

How did you consider sustainability in the design process?
Sustainability was integral to our thinking from the outset. The building functions for elite events, with the light levels required for hd tv and high temperatures when required. The rest of the time the building has a number of measures to save energy: plenty of natural light, high levels of insulation, and natural ventilation, with a mechanical boost if required. Embedded carbon is kept to a minimum with a very lightweight structure, thereby reducing the enclosed volume, and the amount of heating required.

What lessons from past schemes did you bring to this project?
We had never built a Velodrome before, so this was a new challenge. Nonetheless, you can see a connection to our other work in the integrated design and the way the details come together. It has many hallmarks of a classic building by Hopkins Architects; expression of structure, form relating to function and an honest use of materials.

Did you feel you could challenge the brief at the early stages?
Yes! We even moved the building on the site, resubmitted for planning and redesigned the layout of the cycle circuits. There were good reasons for all these changes and the client supported our vision.

Explain your vision for how the building would serve the local community in ‘legacy mode’?
A young child from the East End will be able walk right up to the Velodrome, put his nose to the glass and see athletes like Chris Hoy training. That will hopefully open up the sport to a new generation of future champions with Stratford becoming a major new hub for cycling in the uk.

What are the pressures of building a scheme in the media spotlight?
Everyone working on the project, right across the team, went the extra mile to make sure the project stayed on budget and on schedule, as everyone wanted to do their bit for the Games coming to London.

What would winning the Stirling Prize mean to you and the practice?
It would mean an awful lot. The practice was nominated once before for the Evelina Children’s Hospital. Although it picked up the public vote it didn’t win, so it would be very satisfying to win outright this time. There are many people who worked across the Velodrome project team who would be absolutely thrilled if it won.

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