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Stop moaning, our Olympic stadium deserves a gold medal

The London Olympic Stadium will be far too beautiful to dismantle after the games are over, says Frank Duffy

After the bombast of Herzog & de Meuron’s Beijing Bird’s Nest, it seemed sensible that the Olympic Stadium for the 2012 London Games should be capable of being neatly dismantled and tucked away when the razzmatazz, fireworks and flag-waving are over. After all, how many 80,000-seat stadia does London really need?

What kindled my interest in this issue is not expertise in sporting matters. In 2006 I was appointed chairman of the Design Review Panel for Stratford City. When the London Olympics became a reality in 2007, as well as having the Olympic Village on my patch (not to mention the huge new Westfield shopping town) I became ex officio a member of CABE’s review panel for the adjacent Olympic Park, containing, among many other features, Populous’ (formerly HOK Sport) Olympic Stadium as well as Hopkins’ VeloPark and Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre. By an amazing piece of luck, I had been handed a ringside season ticket to the London Olympics construed as a series of architectural exploits.

Which is why I found myself last week on a bus full of CABE luminaries driving round the rapidly emerging Olympic Park. I had seen the stadia and other structures rapidly rise up from a distance, and was impressed by the highly organised construction activity over the whole, enormous site.

I had, of course, seen the designs develop through the medium of drawings and models. Until I saw the Olympic Stadium close-up, though, I had not realised with what calm and assurance this elegantly designed structure sits within its parkland site. It commands the emerging landscape without squeezing any neighbours.

But it is the interior that will win the architectural gold medals. As the bus drove slowly round the track – the nearest I shall ever get to the four-minute mile – it became apparent how beautifully shaped and well proportioned, how Roman in grandeur but how surprisingly intimate, is the stadium’s bowl. The secret is the separation of bars, kiosks and entertainment suites from the stadium proper and into external pavilions. 

The day after my epiphany on the CABE bus, Baroness Ford, the newly appointed head of the body responsible for managing the Olympic legacy, publicly disagreed with the original plan of cutting back the stadium to accommodate only 25,000 people after the games. Whatever economic or operational logic moved her to express this opinion, architecturally the baroness is right on the money – it would be a terrible mistake to diminish what will be for ever a magnificent space whether occupied by a roaring crowd of 80,000, by a few hundred spectators on a wet Saturday afternoon, by a solitary tourist like Edward Gibbon in the ruins of the Roman forum or, indeed, by no one at all.

Frank Duffy is a partner in international architectural consultancy DEGW and a former president of the RIBA

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