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London Aquatics Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects

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Stirling Prize 2014: A visit to the Olympic Park’s swimming pool is about as real as it gets in Stratford, home of the branded townscape, writes Rory Olcayto

You’re not meant to call it a swimming pool. You’re meant to call it the Aquatics Centre. Its architect doesn’t bother with either of these terms: Zaha Hadid calls it her ‘sea-life creature’. Boo-boys and girls call it a ‘shocking waste of public money’. But they probably haven’t had a swim there yet.

Maybe they have a point: it cost more than £240 million to build Zaha’s Olympic pool. That’s more than triple the original estimate, pegged in 2005. Why are we so rubbish at predicting costs? Why do we always get it so wrong? The Scottish Parliament. NHS patient record systems. Your wedding. That holiday. Your phone bill … Still, it only costs four and a half quid for a swim: that’s less than the price of a pint of lager.
If you take a dip, you’re in for a big surprise. The Aquatics Centre is our building, your building, London’s local swimming pool. One of the best new public spaces anywhere in the just-about-still-United Kingdom.

If you book the 8.30pm slot on a Sunday night, until 10 o’clock you can butterfly, breaststroke, backstroke or crawl up and down the 50m lanes. It’s quiet time. You might even have a lane - there are 10 - all to yourself. Backstroke. It has to be backstroke. That roof - that ceiling - is a marvel to behold. Goggles on or off, it will blow your bobbing mind.

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How do you get there? Take the Underground to Stratford, London’s fertile new town. Stratford is an experiment: a wild urban garden sprouting property section ‘luxury towers’ (‘first phase sold out!’), Costa-del-student housing blocks (‘all inclusive bills, wi-fi and 24-hour security’) and Westfield.

Make sure to walk through it on your way. Westfield is ‘Earth Style’ - that emerging, generic shopping-leisure aesthetic that makes London look like Singapore, and Istanbul like Moscow. Forget Modernism, Postmodernism, Deconstruction, Brutalism, Gothic and Romanesque. Earth Style rules them all.

Westfield intoxicates with pseudo-authenticity. Restaurants strive to be ‘real’. The Real Greek promises ‘an extraordinary Mediterranean dining experience’. Wahaca offers ‘Mexican market eating’. Yet both are chains, housed in aluminium-clad ground floor units fitted with brise-soleils, and closely resembling office space.

As pedestrian Westfield frays, the Olympic Park begins. You’ll cross a road and enter another car-less zone: a bound gravel promenade - expansive, lit with LEDs, lined with stripling trees. It is another new kind of London, another kind of Earth Style. Is it authentic? Unique to here? It does feel English, in a monstrous summer fete, village green kind of way. The Olympic stadium, straight ahead, a big top; the red steel knotweed Orbit tower alongside it, a freakish, corporate maypole; and just a few steps away now, Zaha’s ‘friendly alien’*.

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It glows. The glazing facing Westfield is like a huge open eye (long grasses at the threshold, like eyelashes). That world-famous roof dips down and hovers over the gravel. It feels like a porch. This should be the entrance. It’s not. The sloping glass that rises from the ground to meet the Stetson soffit does indeed have a door, but it opens onto a room overlooking the pool, a leftover, an extravagant example of Koolhaas ‘Junkspace’. Its future lies in venue hire.

Instead, walk on, until you come to the steps. They lead down to a reception, and the pool itself. Beneath your feet: tiles. Above your head: concrete, then timber, with impossible sea-creature curves. Around you: space. Lots of space. Too much space? It feels … retro. Like Saarinen’s terminal for TWA, or its parametric cousin. But forget all that. Forget architecture. Forget Earth Style. Forget too, the Stirling Prize. Just float on your back and look at that roof. It weighs more than 3,000 tonnes.

* Friendly alien is the name given to the Graz Kunsthaus, a parametric-style glass blob, by its designers Peter Cook and Colin Fournier

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