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Where it all went wrong for the Olympic Stadium

NEWS ANALYSIS: Lack of clarity at the outset about legacy uses of the 2012 stadium is at the root of its present troubles, writes Colin Marrs

West Ham’s move from Upton Park to the 2012 Olympic Stadium has not got off to the best of starts. Images of fans fighting have been a PR disaster for the club. One chant this season sums up the feelings of many fans: ‘Stratford’s a shithole, we want to go home’.

The crowd problems have coincided with anger at the ballooning costs of converting the Populous-designed stadium to football use. Last year, former London mayor Boris Johnson put the costs of reconfiguration at £272 million. Discovering the actual cost will be £323 million, his successor Sadiq Khan last Wednesday (2 November) ordered a new probe, prompting the resignation of London Legacy Development Corporation boss David Edmonds.

In comments made last month to the Mail on Sunday, former Burnley FC chief executive Paul Fletcher – whose University & College of Football Business lost out to West Ham in the competition to occupy the stadium – called for it to be demolished. He told the paper: ‘West Ham have been left a donkey. The only way to get it right is to knock it down and rebuild it.’

The sensible decision would have been to level it and start again, but nobody had the courage

So what has gone wrong and how much is design to blame? Many experts agree that some of the crowd trouble is down to stadium management. The club is instituting a number of measures to create a bigger distance between home and away fans, to reduce friction. Whether this is a problem of design or down to the inevitable problems of managing a new facility is open to debate. But one design problem appears intractable – the views from the stands. As Fletcher said: ‘An athletics track in a football stadium doesn’t work, as the sight-lines are all wrong.’ 

Conservative London Assembly member Andrew Boff traces the problems back to uncertainty about the legacy use for the stadium. The original 2005 bid promised to create an 80,000-seat stadium and convert it into a 25,000-seat mixed-use facility afterwards. But, in 2009, with construction already under way, the newly installed head of the Olympic legacy team, Margaret Ford, proposed that the plan for a demountable stadium able to reduce to 25,000 seats be scrapped. Instead – amid hopes that England might host the 2018 World Cup – Ford wished to keep the full 80,000 capacity to allow the stadium to host football matches. In the end, West Ham signed a deal in 2013 for a 99-year lease on the stadium, slimmed down to 60,000 seats.

Boff says: ‘It wouldn’t have been that difficult to realise that, unless you purpose-built the stadium to be modifiable, it wasn’t going to work. You can’t retrofit stadia. You end up with a crap athletics stadium and a crap football stadium.’

© POPULOUS, Olympic Stadium

© POPULOUS, Olympic Stadium

© POPULOUS, Olympic Stadium

But is Boff being too harsh? Ian Crockford, project executive from 2006 to 2012 at the Olympic Delivery Authority in charge of delivering the stadium, says the original brief should be judged by the circumstances at the time. He says: ‘We didn’t have the legacy secured, so we were going to build the new home of athletics.’ 

By the time West Ham signed their deal in 2011, it was far too late to significantly alter the design of the stadium. Crockford says: ‘We were nearly finished by then. The contract was let and the design was set. The construction was well on the way.’

The architects were hamstrung by the commitment to retain an athletics track

While some argue that the costs of conversion could have been reduced if the plan for legacy use had been known at the outset, others say designing a stadium suitable both for an Olympics and Premiership football was simply impossible. Designer Populous is not commenting but one expert on stadium design says: ‘The geometry needed for an Olympic Games is like a colisseum. It will never have the steeper angles that football requires to bring the crowd closer to the action.’

The conversion of the 2002 Commonwealth Games stadium in Manchester for use by Manchester City FC has widely been considered a success. However, the smaller scale of this project makes any direct comparison unfair. The expert says: ‘At Manchester, you were going from 38,000 for the athletics use to 46,000 for football. It was compact enough to get away with a traditional football stadium geometry.’

Tristram Carfrae, deputy chairman of Arup, worked closely on the designs for Manchester’s stadium. He says removing the athletics track and digging down to install a new layer of seats were important factors in its success.

Boff blames the politicians in charge of the Olympic project for side-stepping the logical decision to demolish and start afresh. He says: ‘The sensible decision would have been to level the stadium and start again, but nobody had the courage. What they have ended up with is the worst of both worlds – a white elephant.’

Ironically, Boff’s label is one that those organising the games were determined to avoid from the outset. But the lack of clarity about the legacy use during the design stage is at the root of much of the dissatisfaction felt by many fans. The architects were also hamstrung by the commitment to retain an athletics track, despite evidence of the unsuitability of stadia configured in this way from across the world. 

Those leading the project were understandably focused on delivering a spectacular Olympics in a short timeframe. This pressure led to a collective willingness at the top level to buy into a form of wishful thinking about the legacy use. How far these issues can be mitigated remains in question but failing to do so will surely mean West Ham FC does not remain at its new home for its full 99-year lease. 

Comment:

Paul Finch, AJ editorial director

’West Ham have been rewarded with a sweetheart deal, having refused to get their purse out when the stadium’s future was being debated. The designers did all they could to respond to the programmes of successive clients who were not aligned; they cannot be held responsible for the repulsive behaviour of a small minority of nut-case fans.’

Readers' comments (1)

  • UnknownEntity

    Very surprised that this could happen in the UK, whose stadia is looked at favourably from other countries such as Italy.

    In Italy, they are now only beginning to see the issues that the Italia 90 World Cup left for stadium usage. As part of the agreement to build new stadia for the 1990 World Cup, athletics tracks were demanded as part of the proposals.

    As a result, the Stadio Friuli, Delle Alpi, San Paolo, San Nicola (designed by Renzo Piano) suffered from terrible sightlines, huge spaces between pitch and stands, as well as a cold unwelcoming atmosphere. There are many more stadiums with these tracks which they are now desperately wanting to get rid of, especially has it has continuously hit spectator attendances.

    What's happened since? The running track at the Friuli has been removed and the stands merged together. The 70,000 seater Delle Alpi has been demolished in favour of the 46,000 seater Juventus Stadium, and there are plans for the San Paolo in Naples to be extensively redeveloped.

    All proof that athletics stadiums reconfigured to football use just don't work.

    The taxpayer won't like this, but if that site in Stratford wants to be used effectively, maybe it is not a bad idea to knock it down...


    www.definingarchitecture.net

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