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Penny-pinching as an Olympic sport

Olympic victory could be ours if we moved past the veneer and encouraged artistry from the core, says Paul Finch

‘The English,’ Nikolaus Pevsner famously declared, ‘will spare no expense to get something on the cheap.’ For anyone who has followed the story of the Stratford Olympics, this aphorism will have some resonance as we enter the last lap of the race to complete the extraordinary park and environs in this mainly unloved part of East London.

Having visited the park last week, I can say without hesitation that it is indeed an extraordinary achievement. The 2012 Games look as though they will be truly memorable, not least because of the scale of ambition on the part of the Mayor of London (who launched the bid), national government, and the efforts of the Olympic Delivery Authority and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games.

The announcement that more than £400 million would be ‘handed back’ to the Treasury because of ‘savings’ sounded alarm bells, however. Savings on that scale suggests there has been some scrimping at the wrong end of the process, i.e. in decisions on matters that were not necessarily envisaged at the outset.

To take one example: Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture (engineer Cecil Balmond, architect Kathryn Findlay) is highly successful in several ways, including the provision of magnificent views, and the success of Kapoor’s original notion of a journey through space and time in which light, sky and movement become one.

External appearance is a matter of personal taste, but it must be said that having spent nearly £20 million on what may well be the longest surviving element in the park, akin to the Eiffel tower, it is regrettable that there is such meanness at the base. The ground treatment is no better than a second-rate playground; the structure rests on concrete pads – meeting the ground in a constructional rather than sculptural way.

You get the feeling that one project manager’s bonus might have been reduced had the Orbit had the same quality of completion at its base as at its summit. It will be interesting to see whether we are ever given the full details of the fees paid to the shadow contractors and engineers who have, to be fair, delivered the entire Olympic project pretty much on time and budget. But this has been achieved at a cost: the cost of paying a whole chunk of construction industry professionals to look over the shoulders of the people actually doing the work.

It is a bit like the problem with private finance initiatives: people who have contributed very little to the project make far more money than those who have actually designed and built it. It’s as though bankers, lawyers and the usual host of cost and management consultants are the real achievers as opposed to box-tickers sucking quality out of everything they can get their dullard hands on. The same goes for the sort of engineers who are proud to profess ignorance or dislike (or both) of designers and all their works and who, almost wilfully, try to splatter their temporary rubbish over carefully considered planes and vistas.

In respect of the money being handed back by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (none of whose ministers have had anything to do with the Olympic success story), a wise government might ask: what could you improve if we were to make a modest amount of extra money available, even at this late stage?

The cost would be minimal but the effect well worth it. The same principle needs to apply to the park and its venues in legacy mode. It is a simple matter of taking design seriously and stopping the grey men in third-rate suits having their third-rate way.

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