Paul Finch’s Letter from London: The reason we are celebrating our Olympic facilities can be summed up in two words: Ken Livingstone
The formal opening of the Olympic Stadium is a good moment to take stock of an extraordinary building in the context of the phenomenal project that is the Olympic Park. The on-time, on-budget mantra beloved of the Olympic Delivery Authority has proved to be accurate – once a sensible budget had been established.
Because the Olympic project looks as though it will defy the Cassandras who predicted massive time and cost over-runs, the moaning minnies are now complaining about traffic, defence arrangements and other tangential issues. That is the nature of grievance politics.
There are several messages that people might take from the story of the stadium, especially those embarking on other global sporting developments.
The first is that clarity of the brief and of the timelines for decision-making hugely increase your chances of success. In the case of the London bid, it began a year late because Tony Blair wouldn’t come to a decision on it and problems arose as a result. It required a massive effort to get back on programme once we had won the bid.
An obvious failure was nailing down the likely future of the stadium after the games. The planned reduction in size, brilliantly designed in by Populous and Buro Happold, has turned out to be less than ideal, because the brief has now changed in respect of legacy strategies and possible football or rugby use. There is still a question mark, despite the promises made, about the extent to which it will really be a home for British athletics and, if so, of what sort. Conversion work is now planned, which will add to the already significant cost of the project.
In short, there was none of the clarity which informed the conversion of the Manchester stadium built for the Commonwealth Games and then converted for use by Manchester City. In retrospect, this looks like planning of a very high order. One can scarcely blame the designers for the London situation, since they responded to a very precise brief. Nor did West Ham United’s owners do much to help. If they wanted the stadium they should have got their purse out, instead of assuming it would fall into their lap.
Another message, certainly for the UK government, is about the management of costs and risk on major developments. Put crudely, the reason why the Olympic project has come in on cost, leaving aside the question of materials and subcontract savings because of the recession, is that an army of construction and engineering consultants have been paid vast sums, including very substantial personal bonuses, to check the work of the people actually designing, engineering and building the project. In other words, you save money by paying twice.
As ever, the contractual arrangements around this have made the lawyers very happy. It would be an interesting exercise to strip out all the costs involved with oversight, legals and multilayered management in relation to the entire project and see exactly what was actually spent on buildings and landscape. There is probably someone in the Treasury charged with doing just this; let’s hope the work sees the light of day.
The other message is that, at a certain level, these projects are inevitably about politics as much as planning, architecture and construction. The only reason we are celebrating our marvellous Olympic facilities can be summed up in two words: Ken Livingstone, which was why he won the AJ award for his outstanding contributions to architecture three years ago.
He may not have won the mayoral election, but London owes him a debt of gratitude.