Paul Finch’s Letter from London: London’s memorable permanent buildings and magnificent historic venues will provide a televisual feast for viewers, says Paul Finch
First a correction: last week a memory lapse led me to attribute the tower design that preceded Renzo Piano’s Shard to BDP, when in fact it was Broadway Malyan. Apologies to both practices.
I can also correct a misunderstanding in another publication, which suggested that CABE commissioners gave Piano’s design special treatment by reviewing it themselves rather than it being reviewed by the design review panel in the normal way. In fact, the panel saw the design first, and on several subsequent occasions, but because the tower was so controversial, it was thought sensible for the whole commission to be given a presentation, ensuring nobody at the public inquiry could suggest there was a difference of opinion between the panel and commissioners. A point of detail but worth putting on the record to avoid erroneous repetition.
On to more controversy and the little matter of the London Olympics. The basic facts are that nobody will get into the venues without going through airport-style security. You don’t need 10,000 people to carry out that task, and the distinction between real security staff and general helpers seems to have been entirely lost in the (understandable) furore about G4S.
I have never thought much of Group 4, as they started life, since hearing its then-chairman boasting about how it was winning contracts to run prisons, including catering. When asked what the company knew about catering, he replied ‘Nothing’, but said it didn’t matter because they could just hire people in. Apparently nothing changes.
Happily for the Games, we can assume that security will work as far as is humanly possible, and that it will be stand-out performances, including that of the venue and London itself that will be remembered. From this point of view, and despite my recent cavils about some meanness around the edges, London is going to be a triumph. It has truly memorable permanent buildings as well as magnificent historic venues that will provide a televisual feast for viewers around the world, particularly the equestrian events in Greenwich, and the beachvolleyball on Horse Guards Parade. It will be amazing.
Of the permanent buildings, Ken Shuttleworth’s handball arena is an elegant copper shed, which will become a community sports hall in legacy, and was designed as such, without the budget or brief to be an ‘icon’. It is a homage to spare, smart design.
Three others have cost plenty, but have the quality to justify the expenditure. Hopkins’ Velodrome is an outstanding piece of design in the round and is a tribute to collaboration; it was deprived the Stirling, but did win the Prime Minister’s Better Public Building Award, and deservedly so.
Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre has not been submitted for awards yet as its true character will only be evident when the temporary spectator wings areremoved; its stunning interior will be matched when that happens.
The third major permanent building, the Stadium, has aroused mixed responses. Designed by the team that produced Arsenal’s Emirates stadium - Populous and Buro Happold - it is in many ways the most innovative proposition produced for the Games. That is because it has completely reinvented the Olympic stadium as a building type. The possibility of reducing capacity from 80,000 to 20,000 - 60,000 has never before been addressed. While its new owner, the legacy company, wants the higher end of that spectrum, achieving this will be perfectly possibly because of the design and structure.
The team has delivered that rare thing: a design that anticipates the unexpected. I hope it makes the Stirling shortlist.