In the summer of two years ago, blessed by an unusually warm weather, London hosted its first Olympics since the sombre affair that took place in 1948. I didn’t follow them much, being hard at work as I was, but I recall them being a resounding success, not a small feat giving the bad omens that circulated around them on the eve of the event: the ticket farce, the much-inflated budget, the fears about whether the infrastructure would take the hit and the usual terrorism threats.
Today, two-and-a-bit years after the Olympians and Paralympian athletes packed up and left, I visited for the first time the Park, named – as with many other things ’round here – after the Queen (no, not the pop group). I was acutely aware of how late I was, but that was done on purpose. I had no intention of going – and paying – to the Park at the height of the celebrations; rather, I wanted to see if the city was succeeding in making the Park part of its texture, and how.
Getting to the Park from the Overground is akin to getting to airport gates after security, for it entails a traverse of a plethora of shops, restaurants and other establishments designed to part you of your money also known as Westfield Stratford shopping centre. As with its forerunner in White City, Westfield Stratford is a prime spot for religious looneys bent on a conversion mission: today’s menu features one of the many Evangelical sects.
The London Olympics concentrated most of the venues in a bit of what could only be described as prime, pristine East London wasteland. A great focus was made on leaving a lasting legacy and not a crumbling behemoth that no-one would ever use again, possibly one of the reasons why London won the bid: less grandeur à-la Beijing, and more stuff that people could use afterwards. This is, I guess, why some of the venues looked unfinished or outrightly ugly, such as the basketball grounds, which seemed to have been covered in wrapping film spray-painted white, or the Riverbank arena, quite possibly built by using Meccano sets, or the preposterously horrid water polo arena. Luckily, for a city that already has its fair share of eyesores, all the above buildings have been dismantled at the end of the events, for they were provisionary.
This has left, then, the Aquatics centre all alone to greet the visitors. New offices and houses will mushroom out of the empty lot of the water polo grounds, but for now it’s the sleek Zaha Hadid-designed swimming arena that dominates the scenery as the visitor walks in from Westfield. And what a beauty it is.
The pool has since lost the two, horrendous “flanks” that once increased its capacity to 17,500 and is now sleek, modern and ethereal as one has learned to expect from Zaha. A few elements – the curving structure, stretching above the public road, its sinuosity – made me think of the Space Jockey’s own spaceship in Alien. That’s probably why I daren’t venture inside (and not because a children swimming competition was taking place and I didn’t want to look like a sexual predators to the overly-worried eyes of the Brits).
Looking only at the Aquatics Centre one might be lead to think that the Olympics left only a legacy of stunning buildings and that, even more surprising, such buildings actually got prettier once the Flame was shut down, as extensions and other contraptions designed to increase their capacity were wound down and sold. But this logic doesn’t take into account what follows immediately after the Centre. I’m talking about the Olympic stadium and, obviously, the ArcelorMittal Orbit.
Let’s start with the easier of the two, the Stadium. As Olympic stadium go, it’s quite a pathetic one. Originally supposed to be wrapped by a continuous video screen, it had to make things do with a web of plastic tarpaulins, twisted at one end like curtains, in an attempt to hide the back of the concrete stands from view. Inside, it offered some of the poorest views for a stadium due to the shallow stands, and had a roof that, believe it or not, didn’t cover all of the stands. Now it stands closed behind tall fences as work fevers around it to prepare it for its new occupants, West Ham United FC.
But the worse, unfortunately, it’s yet to come. Yes, I’m talking about the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the tower oh-so-much wanted by Boris Johnson, paid by UK’s wealthiest resident Lakshmi Mittal and designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond, possibly under the effect of strong drugs of the sort that aren’t legal even in the Netherlands, all whilst being affected by snow blindness.
My first reaction upon seeing it, in picture on the Evening Standard, could be synthesized with the question “And now what the fuck is this thing?”. Debate furiously ensued, at times quietened down by the urge to show that the nation proudly – and unitedly – supported the Olympics, but the fact is that this depiction of what could remain after the passage of Godzilla through a building site is nothing but a tribute to Boris Johnson’s ego. It was no one but the mop-haired Mayor, in facts, that wanted it as his legacy – as well as bikes you cannot possibly ride, overpriced Tube and a new fleet of double decker buses that cost twice as much as other used elsewhere – and he, basically, went for it, aided by a generous contribution by Mr Mittal. I and, I’m sure, many others, hoped that this thing would’ve been delivered to the scrapyard it belonged after the Olympics, but it’s still here.
So, as I walked eastwards, my mind was in turmoil. Yes the park was brilliant, including fine gadgets such as the handle-powered speaker below, allowing strong-armed passers by to revive the roar of the crowd on what has since been dubbed Super Saturday, when Britain won 3 golds in 46 minutes, but was that all? A nice park, well used by joggers and families, with a superb swimming pool and cursed by two hideous buildings?
Stay tuned for Part 2… where the Olympic park will redeem itself, a lot.