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'Tivoli it ain't': new public realm at the Olympic Park struggles to convince

Overall, James Corner Field Operations’ Olympic scheme lacks cohesion, says Hattie Hartman

During a recent visit to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, landscape architect James Corner - of James Corner Field Operations (JCFO) and designer of the New York High Line - likened his south plaza design to Tivoli Gardens. The helter-skelter atmosphere of Copenhagen’s amusement park is an apt starting point for comprehending the latest addition to London’s Olympic legacy, which opened to the public last month.

Located in the shadow of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the 10ha site sits between the Aquatics Centre and the Olympic Stadium. Add to these three disparate megastructures the lighting masts-cum-wind turbine and catenary lighting of perforated metal spheres inherited from the Olympic Games, and the design challenges of the site are readily apparent. Not to mention the expanses of beige resin-bound aggregate paths (also familiar from the Games) necessary to accommodate future West Ham football fans making their way to the stadium. Corner’s task was to create a sense of place in this object-strewn landscape.

James Corner Field Operations

The defining idea is a broad tree-lined walk which follows the arc of the adjacent waterway and links this southern plaza with the wilder park to the north.

When I ask about the choice of materials in the hard landscaping, Corner replied ‘they’re cheap’.

The bulk of the limited budget has gone into planting: 140 new canopy trees (pictured), hundreds of smaller trees and a ‘ribbon’ of tall grasses, perennials and bulbs designed by Dutch horticulturalist Piet Oudolf. Once established, this planting will reach 1.5m and enclose a series of outdoor rooms with different play attractions. There seems to be one of everything: a fountain, a climbing structure, a playground. Benches abound, including several over-sized timber ottomans similar to those which have proven popular at the High Line.

And then there is the context - or lack of. Corner refers to the entire park as ‘an act of erasure’, necessitated by the contaminated site and its post-industrial past. The best bit of the design is the one place where a remnant of the past remains: a stepped timber amphitheatre from where viewers peer down into Carpenter’s Lock. Especially welcome is the sense of enclosure heightened by several mature Scots pines, which help screen out the Stratford cityscape beyond.

Overall, the scheme lacks cohesion. The London Legacy Development Corporation was entrusted with £300 million to ‘transform’ the park and ‘stitch’ it into the surrounding city, yet the approach from Stratford station remains painful. Large, raised planters installed on the massive bridge leading past the Aquatics Centre are a half-hearted gesture. Once there, what looks like the entrance to the Aquatics Centre actually leads to the mezzanine, while the entrance to the swimming venue is around the back. Better basic wayfinding is needed.

The intention of the park’s planners to ensure a sound business plan and adequate footfall in London’s latest park before its neighbourhoods are even complete and its residents arrive is laudable. Yet the quality of the public realm has suffered from an overtly commercial focus.

Tivoli it ain’t. Like at the Games, the planting is likely to steal the show, but it will take time to mature. As JCFO associate partner Richard Kennedy suggests: ‘Visit again this summer, or better yet, summer 2015.’

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