The Tower and the Glory

The venues built for the London Olympics may be controversial, but do they make an artistic statement? And what will their legacy be?

Olympic Stadium, the Aquatics Centre, Water Polo and the Orbit. (Photo by Anthony Charlton, courtesy London 2012)
Olympic Stadium, the Aquatics Centre, Water Polo and the Orbit. (Photo by Anthony Charlton, courtesy London 2012)

London 2012. Very much the People’s Games.

Twenty Twelve (BBC TV)


What do a newly minted 50-pence coin, camping equipment, a Guy Fawkes mask, a poetry site, Art Trees, and Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières have to do with the XXX Olympiad? You might well be thinking that how much the games will cost would be a more interesting question. You would be right: the cost has gone colossally over budget, from an estimated $3.8 billion in 2007 to $14.7 billion today. More to come on the items above, but they all have to do with the setting in which these 2012 Olympic Games are to take place this summer between July 27 and August 12. The games will be held in East London, specifically at an old industrial site specially purchased and redeveloped over the past five years in boroughs around Stratford. But what about the wider view? What will these particular games mean and what are the various interested parties hoping they will mean? To put it bluntly: What is the spin?

Given the much-discussed, debated, deplored, and even reviled global financial crisis, Britain’s current mood toward the Olympics seems to be that of a manic gambler in a mythical Last Chance Saloon who wants desperately to put all his dwindling resources into the one bet he not only hopes to win but also expects to put everything right in his life, once and for all. Certainly, no one could think the plight of Britain’s economy is an exaggeration, and the impact on the nation’s mood is inevitable. So who cares what’s happening with the preparations for the forthcoming Olympics? Not me, mate, can’t afford the tickets, even if you can get ’em. Or so the Man on the Clapham Omnibus might say. Although he might well have trouble getting tickets, he cannot complain that he has not been informed. Indirectly, the government and, directly, the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) and its alphabet soup of acronymic offspring have bombarded the country with every single detail all along the way, using all media, but supremely via virtual communication. A year ago, this already established PR frenzy sparked an outrageously funny BBC TV “mockumentary” series called Twenty Twelve. Still, despite any well-deserved cynicism about the spin, it is an achievement that Olympic Park will be ready in good time come summer and visitors will be in no danger of sitting down on wet paint.

Naturally, the infrastructure for the Olympiad has been a field event for architecture, and—this being the country where the future monarch Prince Charles, like his esteemed great-great-great-grandfather Prince Albert, has an abiding interest in construction sites—you would imagine there has been lively public debate. In his lecture to the Institute of Civil Engineers at the beginning of February, the prince described modern architecture as “enormous, energy-guzzling glass boxes.” He should be happy to see that there are no such boxes in evidence in Olympic Park; still, he will no doubt have been dismayed by the results. Paul Finch, chairman of the Design Council Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, who headed ODA’s design committee, expressed himself firmly and clearly that the traditionalists championed by the prince were never going to get a chance: “One of the good things about the London 2012 Olympics is the realization that we have a set of buildings produced not by Quinlan Terry, Robert Adam, John Simpson [championed by Prince Charles], but by Hopkins, Hadid, Populous, Make, Heneghan Peng et al. … None of it endorsed by the Prince of Wales, none of it to do with heritage.”


Now what can be wrong with heritage, I wonder? Along with sustainability, the heritage or legacy of the Olympics has been a vital aspect of planning and design by these anti-traditionalist architects and planners. Both the venues and Olympic Park itself are intended to be of use after the competition. They are required to be environmentally friendly, contributing to the Olympiad’s green values, and expected to bring in future income to offset costs and development. I detect nothing visually controversial in the $760-million main stadium designed by Populous, albeit in a modernist Meccano (AKA erector set) style; indeed, from a distance—the closest you can come at present—it does not look especially new, compared with Ai Weiwei’s innovative “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics. Still, it is 75 percent lighter in its steel use than normal and uses low-carbon concrete consisting partially of industrial waste, and the seating at the top is surrounded by surplus gas pipe. These seats can be dismantled later to reduce the capacity from 80,000 to around 60,000. There are 16 bidders for its post-Olympics function, which will possibly be as a soccer stadium for West Ham United. So, how much greener can you get? And yet how traditional!

After all, the first modern stadium (after the Greeks) is happily still with us, albeit in millennial retirement. In Rome in A.D. 72, architects for the Emperor Vespasian followed the Romans’ ingenious plan of joining together the shapes of two semicircular Greek theaters (usually built into a hillside) to create a single freestanding stadium with an elliptical shape. It was called an amphitheater, meaning a theater on both sides. Not only has the basic design lasted to the present day, but throughout the millennia the Colosseum has even ticked all the boxes required of the modern architect: flexibility, sustainability, reusability (read heritage or legacy), friendliness to the community and the environment, commercial viability, and last but by no means least, opportunity for working with the arts. Indeed, its very name was taken from the Colossus of Nero statue that once stood outside it. After the heyday of Rome’s bread-and-circuses, the Colosseum was variously used for housing and workshops, as well as a fortress, quarry (a good deal of the stone was lifted for building Rome’s many other monuments), and religious shrine (possibly the most significant reason for its survival). Given the huge variety of beasts it housed, together with straw and fodder, the site came to have a unique flora that was catalogued by a physician and herbalist in 1643; over time it has seen a total of 684 plant species, of which 242 survive today.

The latest of the Olympic Games’ many controversies is the proposal to encircle the stadium in decorative plastic wrap, which is to be provided free from Dow Chemical. The project has attracted criticism because in 2001 Dow acquired Union Carbide, which was responsible for the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India. Critics point out that Union Carbide has not yet cleaned up 425 tons of hazardous waste at the site, which is in the middle of the city of Bhopal. Others say that connecting the disaster with the Olympics is, like the plastic wrap itself, stretching a point.

The only actual building that has caused controversy is Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre. Modern architecture has delighted in exploiting advanced technology to overturn not only traditional styles but also traditional construction methods. But here, as with much else in the park, basic form has been governed by function. How can an Olympic swimming pool not be what the sports legislators want? It has to be a rectangle, 50 meters long by so many meters wide. How this space is covered and how the stands are arranged are the significant areas for original development. Many epithets have been given to Hadid’s vast and weighty covering, which is supposed to reflect the two different pools, swimming and diving. Most commentators have described it as a wavelike structure. Others see it as an “upturned turtle” or a “UFO crash” and feel that its intended associations with speed and light are clearer in the Hopkins Architects’ impressive cycling track, the Velodrome. Other minor venues have been criticized for their cost or lack of potential for post-Olympics use, but not as architecture, since they hardly qualify as such. Indeed, along with parts of the stadium and the Aquatics Centre, the structures for water polo and basketball will simply be dismantled and perhaps set up elsewhere if a buyer can be found.

In 1948, when the Olympics were last staged in London, there was a quiet reassertion of the values that had been so strenuously fought for in World War II, namely doing things well in a positive manner and for their own sake. Competitors were still amateurs, until this requirement was phased out in the 1970s. One has to admire and look with some sadness, too, on the fact that those athletes did not have to seek corporate sponsorship or employ a vast array of technical and training support staff, but participated because they wanted to excel in the sport for itself. And what was wrong with enjoying the agonistic spectacle of these courageous people (and today we must salute the Paralympics competitors as well)? This sort of enjoyment is no longer possible: not only has the competition become obscured by the hype of staging the Olympics, but now the games seem less about individual accomplishment and more about contests among nations and sponsoring corporations. The hype has even spread to the general public. First you have to show your enthusiasm. The official website has a heading for it: “Get Involved Now.” Until last December you could submit a noncommercial project to the site and receive a special accreditation and sticker: “Inspired by London 2012.”

The artistic involvement in the games is even more eclectic. Here again history repeats itself, although not precisely. Olympic medals used to be awarded for architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern games, envisaged an arts competition as integral; the idea of medals came later and was then only sporadically adopted. The most recent Olympics that recognized the arts were London’s “Austerity Games” in 1948, when no Olympic village or additional venues were built and male competitors were housed in old Royal Air Force camps, while the women were put up in London colleges. Unfortunately for the arts, no memorable works were submitted.


The arts have undergone a tremendous explosion since the designation of the five categories above, and the number of projects mirrors this. How much of it is art is a good question; the thing is to get involved and have fun. Poetry and sport go back a long way, of course. The victory odes of Pindar (522–443 B.C.), which hymned the heroic successes of ancient Greek athletes, were performed spectacularly to music long before the first stadium was built in Rome. Just as some of Pindar’s verses were painted in gold on the sides of a temple, London’s Olympic Village will feature a poetry wall project where lines chosen in a popularity poll will be set alongside Tennyson’s inspirational “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” from “Ulysses.” Sadly, there have been few takers to date for the project’s call on its website for more contemporary entries. The Art Trees that will grace Olympic Park’s central walkways and waterways remind us of the lines in the Gospel about how Solomon in all his glory was never arrayed so finely as the lilies. Here the lilies—well, trees—will not be gilded but given a phosphorus bronze or stainless ring of Saturn around their branches. And along the banks of the River Lea, artist-in-residence Neville Gabie has been inspired to re-create in a photograph the image of Seurat’s masterpiece of bathers and bystanders along the Seine, replacing them with site workers in hardhats and visibility vests. Perhaps the most idiosyncratic of many heritage ventures comes from architect Tomas Klassnik and artist Riitta Ikonen, who will create a wildflower garden to reflect the footprints of structures formerly on the site, from junkyards to haberdashers. The Colosseum had a less formal planting of its diverse flora by means of animal and bird droppings.

The preceding paragraph explains two of the items in my quiz at the beginning of this article. The obverse of the new 50-pence piece purports to explain the offside rule. Is this necessary for the potential millions of soccer ticketholders? Camping and the Guy Fawkes mask meet under the banner of protest. But potential campers in Olympic Park be warned: you and your Guy Fawkes masks will not be allowed in. The arts may have intruded into sport, but protest will not be welcome.

The most exciting, if controversial, structure in Olympic Park is now almost complete. Anish Kapoor (who created the sculpture Cloud Gate for Chicago’s Millennium Park) reflects Olympic corporate involvement in his strange and wiggly tower, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, named for the ArcelorMittal steel company. Its chairman, steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, provided the scrap steel for its manufacture (reforged, polished, and painted Kapoor’s signature red) and is footing $25.2 million of its $30 million bill. Kapoor has said that the tower reflects “the sensation of instability”—which just about sums up the wider international climate. Who says artists are out of touch? As to the work itself, already dubbed the “Helter Skelter” or the “Colossus of Stratford,” its engineering cocks a snook at traditional form, showing how clever modern techniques can be. In function, the helicoidal tower incorporating strange loops and Olympic rings is not too dissimilar from Gustave Eiffel’s contribution to the 1889 World’s Fair: a magnificent flagship mast that functions as a viewing platform for the whole Olympic Park. As a post-Olympics attraction with restaurant and other facilities, it is expected to generate $15.7 million per annum.

In a poll of Britons about the Olympics taken in the middle of January, 67 percent said the games would not benefit those living in their own area, 49 percent said the Olympics were not worth the money, and 54 percent said they were not excited about the games. They might rightly wonder about the need for a 29-foot-tall installation in the park called “Run,” which urges visitors to do the same, but with so much going on and all those billions invested, come on, you people! What is wrong with you? Get involved!  

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

N. S. Thompson is a poet, writer, and translator living near Oxford. His most recent poetry pamphlets are After War and Ghost Hands.


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