The Rise of the Legacy Plan
The master plan for these Olympics, by the giant multinational firm AECOM, with contributions from Populous, Foreign Office Architects, and Allies and Morrison Architects, is, in its long-term ambitions, a sort of anti-Beijing scheme. In China, the ruling party saw the games as a chance to mark the country’s global ascendancy, and the master plan for 2008—by Sasaki Associates in conjunction with a larger urban plan for Beijing by Albert Speer Jr., son of Hitler’s favorite architect—had a totalitarian scale and simplicity; the Bird’s Nest, for example, sits on a wide, spare plaza, adjacent to a broad avenue running on a muscular north–south axis, that brings Brasilia and other examples of high-modern citymaking to mind even as it sets off the architecture to dramatic effect.
When I first saw that stadium, in the spring of 2008 and in the company of two stern media minders, Chinese soldiers were marching across part of that plaza, a reminder that Olympics and geopolitics have always been intertwined.
AECOM’s plan for London—first proposed by EDAW before that firm was absorbed by AECOM in 2005—also has political overtones, at least in the sense that Britain and Europe are hardly in a position or mood to engage in profligate muscle-flexing. What makes the plan unusual among recent Olympic blueprints is the way it knits together park space, transportation networks, and the venues themselves, all in an effort at urban, economic, and ecological regeneration. It is less about telegenic venues and more about the leveraging of Olympic investment to boost quality of life—even if it takes a full generation for those improvements to take root.
The Lower Lea Valley is one of the poorest and most polluted parts of greater London; Olympic organizers commonly point out that for every station one takes east on the London underground, the life expectancy of the surrounding neighborhood drops by one year.
“Historically, the area has been the bastard child of London,” says Bill Hanway, AECOM’s executive director in the U.K., and one of the chief designers of the Olympics plan. His firm has also referred to the site, long clotted with power lines, sewers, roadways, and a polluted river and canals, as “the service entrance for London.”
And yet the Lower Lea Valley has clear potential as well. Just five miles from the center of the city, the area is served by a large international rail station in Stratford, which has been upgraded, and both U.K. politicians and Olympic organizers saw a chance to spread to East London some of the affluence of the city’s west side, which has boomed in the last 15 years.
“East London is a place people have been wanting to fix for a long time,” says Daniel Elsea, the creative director for AECOM’s London office. “And the Olympics was finally the instigator—a great way to get everybody on board.”
That notion of Olympics as urban catalyst is hardly new. Atlanta used the 1996 games as a way to accelerate plans to modernize its airport and add a long-awaited international terminal. A more direct influence for the London organizers was the master plan for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, by Spanish firm MBM Arquitectes. It not only remade the city’s waterfront but sparked a post-Franco surge in investment and tourism in Barcelona. In 1991, on the eve of its Olympics, Barcelona attracted a mere 1.7 million tourists. By 2011, it was welcoming more than 7 million per year.
London hardly needs to introduce itself to potential visitors in the same way. But the regenerative power of Olympic investment in Spain’s second-largest city has been a clear inspiration for the U.K. planners. In 2004, as London was considering mounting a bid for the 2012 games, the mayor at the time, Ken Livingstone, began to see a link between Olympic investment and the future of the area.
“Livingstone said quite publicly that he would only back the Olympic bid if it went to a part of the city in need,” says Ricky Burdett, director of the Cities Program at the London School of Economics and for several years an adviser to Livingstone.
AECOM, for its part, saw a focus on urbanism and revitalization as a strategy that would work for London—and also one that would help it stand out in the master-plan competition that London officials launched in 2003.
“We were on a short list with Foster, Rogers, and a couple of others, and we were the rank outsiders,” Hanway says. “From the beginning, our goal was not to discuss architectural objects but to talk about this part of East London—how to repair some of its fundamental problems.”
The plan that they ultimately produced, once the International Olympic Committee chose London as 2012 host in the summer of 2005, does that in a number of ways. It has aimed to bolster connections both within the neighborhood and between the Lower Lea Valley and the rest of London, lacing the site with new east–west streets and adding pedestrian walkways from the Olympic park to the Stratford station. Power lines have been buried underground, tucked into a pair of 4-mile-long tunnels. The master plan also calls for adding roughly 50,000 jobs and a total of 35,000 housing units to the area; the Athlete’s Village, for example, will be turned into 3,300 apartments, 48 percent of which will be subsidized.
To guide future growth, the London Legacy Development Corporation, a public body that will take control of the entire site from the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) after the games are over, will rely on the Olympic master plan as a blueprint for choosing private-development partners to build new housing and retail. A large slice of the site will become the 270-acre Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park—the biggest urban park built in Europe in 150 years. The landscape architecture team includes the American George Hargreaves and Britain’s LDA Design.