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SPORTING CHANCE

ajenda - An unlikely collaboration of architects is working on a far-reaching bid for the 2012 Olympics that could regenerate east London, writes Ed Dorrell

Architectural collaborative teams, especially those where the members are drawn from bigname practices, are too often an exercise in how not to work together. Given that most major practices have different design philosophies, it is hardly surprising that when architects from different offices are forced to collaborate, it can end in tears.

For this reason I was intrigued to be offered a look at the way that the four chief designers for London's bid to host the 2012 Olympics have been working together, and the concept designs they have generated.

Alejandro Zaera Polo of Foreign Office Architects, Derek Wilson of HOK Sport, Jason Prior of EDAW and Bob Allies of Allies and Morrison make up this eclectic group. And they seem more comfortable with one another than you might expect.

One reason for this could be the fact that they have been working together so closely.

So closely, that at one point they were running a collaborative office for up to 70 members of staff, bringing together disparate groups of architects, landscape designers and engineers.

As one member of the team put it: 'It was not how I had expected. We would hit a problem, or something that needed to be decided, and we would sit down and make an almost immediate decision and then move on. The atmosphere was amazing.' With this kind of enthusiasm and commitment, could the London 2012 design team go wrong? Let's be honest. The answer to this question is yes. Quite easily. With the British track record of bringing major construction projects in on time and budget erratic to say the least, almost anything could have gone pear-shaped.

However, this is not the impression that comes across when I meet the four relaxed design chiefs at the offices of EDAW. It may be that I am biased - I am desperate for London to win the bid for both sporting and architectural reasons - but I am completely sold on their proposals. Being an east London resident myself, I can understand the thinking behind the project and the significance of the way that it proposes to knit into the urban fabric of four of Britain's poorest boroughs.

It is easy to understand how the combined planning authorities were talked around in such a short period of time. Put simply, there is an awful lot in it for them.

The first thing that strikes me when the design team start chatting is that this is as much a regeneration project as a sporting complex.

This is deliberate. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) - the ruling body which will decide London's fate - is increasingly keen to see the Games will have a tangible and immediately positive effect on a host city's poorer areas before it decides on a successful bidder.

Games legacy Another reason is that this group of architects would not - and probably could not - work in any other way. They are not the kind of people to chuck together a few stadia and say: 'Bish, bash, bosh - here's an Olympic venue!' They are too good for that.

The central theme around which the whole project is based is that of creating a new park for east London. The team shows me a selection of images demonstrating how, after the end of the Games, the entire Olympic zone will morph from a sporting hub into an area of relaxation for London's population. It really is impressive.

This new park - and the site of the 2012 Games if London's bid is successful - will be centred around the 'recreation of the ecology of the river Lea'. This waterway, and the surrounding streams and canals, form the backbone to design proposals, triggering the linear designs and the strata of the elongated site. Running the length of the site will be a series of massive concrete walkways, capable of supporting the huge number of visitors the Olympics would attract.

The most impressive engineering feat will be a collection of huge bridges spanning the various waterways. Each of these walkways could be converted into narrower paths through the new park when the Games are over.

As a tool of regeneration, the IOC will be left in little doubt that this park will trigger a sense of economic and social well-being that has been missing from this incredibly poor area of London for hundreds of years.

Regeneration is all very well, but an Olympics is nothing without a series of striking and, using the word advisedly, iconic sports venues.

Talking to the four it becomes apparent that these are the work of Zaera Polo and Wilson.

The first images to flash up when Polo starts discussing the concepts are a series of photographs of muscled athletes in sporting poses. The stadium will, if this design team gets its way, be inspired by the 'grace and athleticism' of professional sportsmen and women. The visualisations do not let you down - it does not take a genius to see the stadium rippling in the sun like a swimmer's hairless body waiting impatiently at the beginning of a race.

However, there is one caveat here. All the design contracts for major buildings and structures on the site will, if the bid is successful, be open to competition. On the one hand, this can be seen as good news - a possibility that the 2012 Games could become a showcase for the very best of British and, possibly, global architecture. On the other, there is a sense that the current design team has created an integrated scheme that could be compromised by bolting on efforts from other practices. The four architects in front of me do not let on that this is a major issue, and insist that they will compete to win individual design briefs.

Key to victory It emerges during the course of the presentation that the key to victory, rather surprisingly, could be the Olympic village - the massive new residential development that every host city has to build to house the thousands of athletes that will descend on it to compete in the Games.

Apparently this is the one area that the bid leader, Olympic medallist Sebastian Coe, keeps stressing to the design team. According to Coe, athletes who arrive at a Games are at the peak of their sporting lives and the bid city should do everything in its power to make sure they feel comfortable and prepared for competition. The site of the London Olympic Village is therefore ideal, because the accommodation will be nearer to the sporting venues than ever before in Olympic history. The concept designs - which were largely drawn up by the Allies and Morrison team - will allow competitors to 'wake up, look out of their windows and not have to worry about how they get to the venues because they will be there already'.

This area of the project - which resembles other high-quality residential developments in the capital - will knit in with the masterplan for Stanhope and Chelsfield's Stratford City. It will add a sense of townscape for the athletes as well as profitability for the local development giants; a neat arrangement in mutual support.

The key to what will hopefully make the Olympic village attractive to the IOC is its geographical location.

However, what the IOC will make of these designs, which seem quite wonderful to me, is anyone's guess. Unfortunately, not only is the IOC notoriously fickle in the way it works, but there are also other factors beyond the architectural proposals that have to be taken into account when it decides which city will bask in the Olympic sun in 2012.

Let us hope, at least for the sake of architecture and regeneration, that it sees these designs and decides that, of all the competing cities, London brings the most to the table.

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