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Overlay crafting: Eton Manor Sports Complex

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With its temporary Games overlay destined to be swept away for very different legacy uses, Eton Manor Sports Complex called for a sophisticated design strategy – and that is what Stanton Williams provided, writes Felix Mara

It can be all too difficult for an architect to do the right thing: doggedly address programmatic requirements, while keeping a cool head and avoiding peripheral distractions. Many of the architects of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games venues faced challenges of this type, along with distracting pressure from the understandable clamour for buildings with memorable images and strong identities.

It’s true that many of these venues had relatively straightforward briefs for singular building types or typologies, such as indoor arenas, although their architects did successfully grapple with complex operational demands and requirements for full or partial demountability. But some London 2012 projects involved a higher level of complexity, as in the case of Zaha Hadid Architects’ Aquatics Centre (AJ 18.08.11), intelligently planned to have a fundamentally different post-Games configuration, with temporary seating stripped away and radically different circulation routes through and around the venue.

Most demanding of all was the brief for Eton Manor, which forms the northern gateway to the Olympic Park and has the largest footprint of all the projects. With its fundamentally different Games and post-Games facilities, a problematic site and plans to integrate with communities nearby, it called for the formulation and execution of a sophisticated strategy, and this is exactly what its architect, Stanton Williams, has provided.

‘Eton Manor has all the bits the client couldn’t fit in elsewhere,’ says Stanton Williams associate Rawden Pettitt. ‘ “Legacy” came first and we knew the end-user on day one.’ During the Games, the complex will include wheelchair tennis courts, as the only dedicated public Paralympic venue on the Olympic Park, along with extensive Olympic and Paralympic aquatics training facilities.

Conceived as a temporary overlay, much of this will be swept aside to be redeployed offsite after the Games, leaving only the wheelchair tennis centre court’s field of play, which will be modified for use as a porous hockey playing surface, together with a portion of its spectator seating, six outdoor tennis courts and a two-storey structure which will be converted from athlete and Olympic family accommodation to a sports hall for indoor tennis courts, retaining the adjoining spine structure which runs through the complex like a datum.

Five-a-side football pitches, additional outdoor tennis courts, an extra international standard hockey pitch, mountain bike trails and allotments, all owned and operated by Lee Valley Regional Park Authority (LVRPA), will then be slotted into place and existing war memorials, temporarily removed for the Games, will be reinstated. Stanton Williams has threaded additional site improvements into this strategy, using 40,000 tonnes of soil taken from elsewhere on the Olympic Park to establish a satisfactory and more accessible transition of levels across its terrain, helping to heal the rift between Eton Manor and its surroundings which was introduced a railway and the A12, now acoustically screened off by vegetation, by  driving through a clear and legible route with wide bridge links.

Efficiency, an unsung British virtue, has been the hallmark of much of the architecture of London 2012, not least at Eton Manor, originally the sight of a boys’ club set up by philanthropic Old Etonians in 1907 to provide sports facilities for locals, who referred to its setting as ‘the wilderness’. It was then operated by LVRPA from 1975 to 2001. Gratuitous blanket construction and every form of waste have been studiously avoided at Eton Manor by rigorously following a ‘build it once’ strategy, involving minimum transformation of Games facilities, but significant post-Games additions.

Which could all have been deadly dull as architecture, given the context of design and build construction, budgetary restrictions, requirements for sustainable, accessible and flexible design and the general scale, feel and lack of finesse which pervades many London 2012 projects. Eton Manor could have been a dour muddle of outbuildings and other facilities, devoid of interesting to 1:50 scale full size detail.

But Stanton Williams, an inspired choice of architect and master planner, broke the mould, giving each facility a distinct architectural identity and resisting pressure to design the main block as an A-frame structure by proposing a flexible, naturally ventilated and daylit rectilinear box instead. Stanton Williams  anticipating the limitations of design and build procurement by specifying concrete surfaces which are board-marked, grit-blasted and in some cases painted, because these finishes involve lower standards of workmanship and are more forgiving where stent aggregate is used as a sustainable substitute for Portland stone. ‘The thing is to be helpful to the contractor, rather than coming across as being a nuisance’, says Pettitt.

Stanton Williams produced detailed documentation and focussed on five simple details which were crucial to the quality of the design and the look and feel of the complex, working with a limited palette of materials. This quality is all-pervasive, but particularly striking when you enter the ground floor reception, where the scale steps down and the detail is unusually fine for a London 2012 project.

The washrooms have delicate mirror surrounds and smart circular concrete rooflights and the sports hall has glass balustrades capped with circular stainless steel sections, with tidy glulam beam connections designed by Stanton Williams. This space takes the evolving language of engineered timber construction to new levels of refinement, demonstrating an interesting tectonic affinity with concrete construction and carefully integrating services whose routing was proposed by the architect. Interestingly, Pettitt notes that, as the design of the complex is Part M-compliant, it needed few enhancement to satisfy requirements for Paralympic use.

Externally, the main hall is timber clad, like Hopkins Architects’ Velodrome and Faulkner Brown Architects’ White Water Canoe Centre in Broxbourne, also LVRPA post-Games venues. The compositions, proportions and textures of the main hall’s facades are tempered by subtle adjustment to the modules and details of its western red cedar cladding, visually interlocked with and in dialogue with concrete surfaces and generously scaled aluminium rainscreen panels in dark grey and deep red, used for public areas, which have an abstract expressionist quality.

The use of bold colours and patterns for the playing surfaces and  external seating, described as ‘purposeful’ by Pettitt, has similar artistic qualities, in an integration of art and sport which, along with the Aquatics Centre and the ArcelorMittal Orbit, is true to the spirit of the original Olympics. The Poet Laureate, Carol ann Duffy has written a poem to Eton Manor, commemorating its history, as part of London 2012’s Winning Words Scheme and this can be read on panels which have been integrated into one of the concrete walls of the wheelchair tennis centre court, which will form part of the post-Games hockey stadium.

Eton Manor will, of course, be an exit from the Olympic Park as well as an entrance, at a point where it merges with its surroundings. Some will discover it as an unexpected treasure and, in more ways than one, it lies at the opposite pole to the high profile architectural events and fireworks at the main entrance - a gentle critique, not so much of the architecture of London 2012, as the expectations surrounding it. But most remarkable of all, it is a characteristically well-executed Stanton Williams building- not an easy trick to pull off on the Olympic Park.

AJ Buildings Library

See full project data, photographs and drawings for the Eton Manor Sports Complex by Stanton Williams

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