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Victory in our sites

As we enter the latest phase of public consultation over London's Olympic Games bid for 2012, Ed Dorrell meets Jason Prior, regional vice-principal of EDAW, the project's lead consultant, to find out whether the capital should brace itself for a fate wors

Is this the man who will win the Olympics for London? Can he really do it? What a weight of pressure it must be to have so many ordinary people's hopes and dreams resting on your shoulders.

You would expect EDAW boss Jason Prior to look like a man under a lot of pressure: working nights; talking to important decision-makers in the worlds of both business and politics; managing a design team made up of an eclectic group of architects and consultants; and, at the same time, continuing to co-run one of the most important offices of one of the world's biggest commercial landscape firms.

Add to this the fact that Prior admits his head is banging because of an 'unusually' heavy night the evening before and you really would assume he would be looking a little jaded.

But no, Jason Prior looks well. Very well indeed. He has the bouncy aura of a man who is really enjoying life. If this is how Prior behaves when he is suffering from a 'banging head' and an unpleasant hangover, we can only imagine how cheerful he'd be after a quiet night in.

Dressed in a loud but acceptable shirt, Prior sports his shaggy mane as if it is the most normal haircut in the world. As our interview unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that if there is one thing that really makes this man tick, it is the idea that London must host the Olympic Games - and there seems little doubt that he is convinced he is the man to masterplan it.

Who in their right mind would do such a thing to themselves? Why would you take on a project that is, by Prior's own admission, 'second only to going to war in terms of organisation'?

Prior does not look like your average sports buff. In fact, he does nothing in the 40-minute slot to suggest that he is a sporting fiend. When asked whether he would be watching 'tonight's game' (it was the morning before England's calamitous penalty shoot-out with Portugal), he said he would be but did not look exactly animated.

So why get involved? One thing that Prior clearly believes is that a successful bid is what London should be doing. 'We are a world city and it is important that we do things like holding the Olympics. We need to be seen to be involved, ' he says with a rather determined glint in his eyes.

Team games Prior's firm EDAW is the lead consultant in this project and is being ably assisted by an unlikely collaboration of that most understated of London firms, Allies and Morrison, and the Rem Koolhaas acolytes Foreign Office Architects (FOA).

'We have an extraordinary team working on this, ' he says. 'They are very different in their outlook, but we would not have got together if we didn't all know that we could work as a team - we have worked on projects jointly before now.' The make-up of the design team could in itself be used as a marketing tool when the powers that be decide between the remaining cities left in the race to host the 2012 games (New York, Paris, Madrid, Moscow and, of course, London). You have in the offices: an Italian and Iranian from FOA who have both worked in Holland; EDAW, an Americanowned firm working out of Chicago with offices all around the world; and, in the form of Allies and Morrison, a quintessentially British Modernist firm.

The idea of Alejandro Zaero-Polo of FOA sitting down to a design strategy meeting with Prior himself and Graham Morrison of Allies and Morrison is certainly a strange one.

Prior explains that the three firms had gathered together a 40-strong team under one roof when they decided last year to enter the competition to design London's bid. 'It was simply fantastic that within a couple of weeks they were working together so well - it was almost impossible to tell who was from what company, who was supposed to be working on what part of the scheme, and what equipment belonged to who.

'We have a great team that will produce what can only be described as an extremely important regeneration scheme, ' he adds, looking genuinely excited.

But what is it that they are producing?

This is surely the key to whether Britain wins the Olympics for the first time since 1948.

The key to the scheme is the use of the massive brownfield site that is the Lea Valley in east London. Interestingly, the proposals focus on the idea of rediscovering many of the waterways in the area that have been hidden for so long. The project aims to create an Olympic park that uses these streams, rivers and canals as a tool for regenerating the area and providing landmarks for locals, visitors and spectators alike.

Dotted around this new water park will be many of the sporting venues that are key to the Olympics' success, including an FOAdesigned athletics stadium and the massive Olympic village, to house both the thousands of athletes and the surrounding media frenzy.

Interestingly Prior insists that he originally looked at the scheme back-to-front. 'We decided that the best way to develop the project was to regenerate the area first and then decide how you would fit an Olympic bid into it, ' he says. 'The priority is the area's regeneration.' Although Prior never actually says it, this is one of the major advantages that London has over the current front runner, Paris. Although the French bid is all glitz and organisational prowess - nobody really doubts that it could deliver a competent games - it fails to take advantage of the full regenerative possibilities. For example, the French have no interest in building a new centrepiece stadium and plan instead to use the existing Stade Franþais.

The Lea Valley is not a small site. Situated between the famous Hackney Marshes and the Thames, this is one of the biggest brownfield sites in Europe.

And this comes with one serious undertaking, of a kind that would not make any architect envious: lodging a single planning application with four separate local authorities. Look at Terry Farrell's proposals for the Lots Road Power Station site in west London, which straddles the border of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea. Some three years after the original application, Farrell is still no nearer to planning success than he was in 2001. And this is with just two sets of planners telling him what to do.

Sleepless nights To be fair, the local planners have attempted to make life a bit easier for Prior and his team - it is after all very much in the interests of local people to see a successful Olympics - by setting up a joint team made up of planning officers from the four different boroughs.

But this is far from the end of the story.

As Prior points out, the four authorities have different political agendas and very differing ideas on what local people should get from the bid and the associated regeneration. Everyone knows what a nightmare planning This masterplan illustrates the water park and sport venues that will make up the Olympic site applications can be - this seems to be the stuff of a lifetime of sleepless nights.

If persuading planners to give the goahead to a project is bad, there is surely only one thing that could be worse: try putting yourself and your colleagues through a month of public consultation with east London's finest. Almost the first thing Prior says, as the photographer is snapping away, is that he is preparing himself to be 'out every evening in the next fortnight at public meetings'. These can apparently vary from meetings with 'one man and his dog' to huge gatherings.

Many of these meeting are about quashing rumours. The rumour mill surrounding the Olympics is an example of Chinese whispers at its very best. There is, for example, a pub in north Bethnal Green where the locals are convinced that the nearby London Fields park will be transformed into a car park if the EDAW masterplan gets the go-ahead.

There is not even a nugget of truth in this, but almost nothing one says can persuade them otherwise. 'It can take just five minutes to start a rumour on a project of this scale and over a month to quash it, ' Prior says, for the fist time looking a little worn out. Or perhaps it is the hangover finally kicking in.

Masterplanning London's Olympic future might be a massive honour but who would seriously envy this?

One of Prior's most impressive facets is how successfully he manages to pull off looking relaxed and personable while remaining totally on-message. This is best exemplified when the issue of transport comes up. Many commentators have warned that the entire Olympic bid will collapse if the long-awaited Crossrail and East London Line Tube extension are not up and running by 2012. Currently the Tube proposal is gathering dust, due to a completely predictable financial shortfall, and Crossrail is expected to be complete two years too late for the Olympics.

Prior seems completely unphased by these concerns. 'This is one of the bestserved areas in London for transport and it is very important to realise that we do not need these infrastructure projects for the games to be a success. We have carried out all the transport studies that we need to and we are fine as we are, ' he emphasises with a slightly evangelical look.

There is clearly absolutely no room for doubt if you are masterplanning an Olympic bid. However, there would be little point in taking on such a massive venture if there were.

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