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‘Dull as ditchwater’ – Cook, Alsop and Ritchie slam Olympicopolis design

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Allies and Morrison defends its architecture as leading architects Peter Cook, Will Alsop and Ian Ritchie blast the practice’s Olympicopolis masterplan

‘Dull as ditchwater’, ‘under-amplified Vivaldi’ and ‘tried and tired’ – these are some of the words used by three leading British architects to describe the latest images of Olympicopolis in Stratford, east London.

Peter Cook and Will Alsop both spoke out in the wake of an editorial in The Times newspaper at the weekend, which heavily criticised the latest design images of the proposed new cultural quarter on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

This group of buildings readily sinks into the soft corners of one’s brain

Released last week, the images were drawn up by a team of architects led by Allies and Morrison, including O’Donnell + Tuomey and emerging Spanish talent Arquitecturia. The new visuals sparked immediate criticism in the newspaper from fellow architect Ian Ritchie and architectural commentator Simon Jenkins.

Describing the latest design images as ‘bland, square and dreary’ – as well as comparing the V&A’s new outpost to a ‘game of giant Jenga gone wrong’ – the newspaper’s editorial called on London mayor Sadiq Khan to reject the plans.

Peter Cook, who recently hit out at the brick-dominated architecture of what he called the ‘biscuit boys’ at the AJ100 Awards, called the Olympicopolis designs ‘calculatedly innoffensive’.

He added: ‘This group of buildings readily sinks into the soft corners of one’s brain in the same way that under-amplified Vivaldi can be fed to you in a gift shop.’

While praising O’Donnell + Tuomey for the ‘high creative level’ it achieved with its Stirling-nominated LSE student centre, Cook added that the Irish practice ‘seems to have retreated into circumpsection’ at Stratford.

It’s what the new London vernacular is expected to be. Unchallenging, unremarkable

He added: ‘I am gradually becoming aware that the last time we had a similar architecture it was referred-to as “Neo Georgian”, and throughout Britain there are “Civic” and “Official” buildings in that mannerism that, at best, were well proportioned and at worst were deadly dull.

‘I lay the blame at the feet of Allies and Morrison who, within the mandate of soft talk, reliability and a certain piety of calmness, seem to have influenced their colleagues here and laid over them a terrible British amnesia that obviously reassures committees and will do nothing for Stratford except bulk it up.”

Alsop – whose Peckham Library won the Stirling Prize in 2000 – meanwhile blasted the design as ‘expected’ and ‘as dull as ditchwater’.

He said: ‘It’s trying to create a new place, which is going to challenge the former dominance of west London, and a decent place to live. But I see no invention. It’s not really beautiful.

‘It’s just expected. It’s what the new London vernacular is expected to be. Unchallenging, unremarkable.’

Like Cook, Alsop appeared to place some of the blame on Allies and Morrison’s architectural approach.

He said: ‘When Allies and Morrison started they were quite inventive and I was very supportive of them. But they got into this mindset, which is you do good-quality, very standard, unremarkable buildings. They were very much against the likes of Zaha, Peter Cook and me I suppose.’

He added: ‘If you keep it boring it’s architecture, if it becomes more interesting it’s not architecture.’

Ritchie, who designed the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Courtyard Theatre, told the AJ that the proposed Olympicopolis buildings were ‘old fashioned’ and ‘tried and tired’.

He said: ‘Masterplans are about ensuring a coherent urbanism with an architecture that understands what its contribution is to this vision.

‘The individual buildings do not strike one as being particularly interesting, nor as a group, though the use of brick is clearly back in fashion.

‘Perhaps deep down among the architects there was an idea of individual buildings set in a park, rather than all cheek by jowl together alongside a narrow waterway.’

Plans for the scheme at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park include a new outpost for the Victoria and Albert Museum, a Sadler’s Wells dance theatre, a new home for the London College of Fashion and a campus for University College London (UCL). It will also provide 6,800 new homes within the park by 2031.

In 2014, former chancellor George Osborne announced that the Treasury would invest £141 million in the project.

According to the AJ’s columnist Paul Finch, who chaired the selection panel for the project on behalf of the London Legacy Development Corporation, the funding was promised to then London mayor Boris Johnson if he could produce a scheme before the general election in 2015. Finch said that the scheme was only finalised the night before the election itself.

US museum the Smithsonian had been expected to take up its first permanent residence outside the US on the site but later pulled out. The museum is still expected to have some involvement in the project at a smaller scale – the AJ understands this could be in the form of temporary exhibition space in the V&A’s outpost.

Responding to the criticism, Allies and Morrison strongly defended its design choices.

Architecture where you can see it all as soon as you arrive … can actually be quite dull

Showing the AJ around its Olympicopolis masterplan, co-founder Bob Allies said that the choice of brick was partly a ‘London thing’, but also was a way of ‘uniting the buildings’ and simultaneously giving ‘each of the buildings their own individual identity’.

He said: ‘Some schemes merge the identity of buildings and begin to see it as a single thing. We always thought it would be more interesting as a place if each building had its own identity.’

Allies also hit back at architects preferring eye-catching, rather than practical, buildings.

He said: ‘They’re not trophies for people, they’re not flash [things] that somebody has to have. They’re about these serious institutions getting stuck into this making work and showing work.

‘In a way, they’re not lauding it above everyone else; there’s a certain utility about them. That’s part of their atmosphere.’

Jillian Jones, an architect working on the masterplan at Allies and Morrison, also defended the scheme using the layering of large brick blocks on O’Donnell + Tuomey’s V&A East as an example.

She said: ‘It’s about buildings that aren’t obvious. It’s about layering the complexity.

‘Architecture where you can see it all as soon as you arrive, and you can see the whole idea behind it, can actually be quite dull. The next time you visit, you’ve seen it all. There’s nothing more to reveal and to discover.’

Last year, The Guardian estimated the overall cost of the project at £850 million – a combination of private-public funding. Money is expected to come from a number of sources, including the Treasury; the GLA; residential land sales and Olympicopolis partners. UCL is also investing £270 million in its campus.

The scheme is projected to create 3,000 jobs, bring in 1.5 million visitors a year and boost the local economy by £2.8 billion.

Planning for the Olympicopolis scheme is expected to be submitted in December this year. Construction is expected to start on site in 2018 and it is hoped the scheme will be completed in 2022.

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