Olympic Legacy?


From the Guardian website, a CGI of how the Olympic Park might look, with new homes sited right next to the Velodrome. ©LLDC

I have just seen this article from the Guardian in which Guardian journalist and architecture critic Rowan Moore seems pretty positive about the potential architectural legacy of the London 2012 games.

No mention is made, quite understandably, of the municipal sports ground of a stadium, the least ambitious stadium of modern times, the status of which remains in limbo (see here) but the potential of the broader site is much lauded.

My relationship to the London 2012 Games has been rather rocky. I remember in 2005 thinking that London having won the right to stage the Games was a great opportunity and that the Stratford site could benefit hugely from some inward investment. Then the blue fence happened.


Two chairs and big blue fence of Stratford

It wasn’t just that a hoarding went up, it was a building site of epic proportions so yes, a fence was needed to protect people from falling debris, etc. It was the scale of the intrusion the totalising presence of the big blue fence, the Stratford Wall (in reference to the Berlin Wall) or whatever one wanted to call it. It cut through public footpaths, overrode ancient rights of way, canals, rivers, public green space that had been accessible for generations were kettled. The project itself swept away allotments, (ironically) community sports fields and access to wild un-park-ified natural environments and left people confused and disconnected from environments they had known all their lives. Another article from the Guardian by Andy Beckett tells part of the story of the blue fence of Stratford as does the 2011 film ‘Edgelands’ by Sally Mumby-Croft.

Here are a series of perhaps surprising screen grabs from the film showing some of the less obvious spaces in the Lower Lea Valley prior to it’s clearance for the Olympics.


The blue fence reflected in the surface of one of the many canals and river branches of the Lower Lea Valley

A world that, thankfully Mumby-Croft documented, has now gone. As Iain Sinclair says speaking in the film “buried under tarmac”.


One of the many expanses of water of the Lower Lea Valley


The blue fence along a canalside

The blue fence and the affect the Olympic project had on the functions, the residents and the uses of the Lower Lea Valley was profound. This is ably documented in this report by LSE geographer Juliet Davis from 2008.

These images in particular of the area enclosed by the blue fence.


This image shows the uses, particularly open space, in the Lower Lea Valley prior to redevelopment. the red line encircling the site is the big blue fence. © juliet davis

The functions removed to the edges of the site :


This image shows the local relocations to other areas of the Lower Lea Valley prior to redevelopment. The red line encircling the site is the big blue fence. © juliet davis

And those removed somewhat further afield:


This image shows the much further away relocations to other areas of London and in number of cases to the Home Counties. © juliet davis

These images give us a real sense of the fact that there was a lot going on in Stratford prior to the Olympics, it was not dead waste land it was a “place” with a life of its own. A life that has now gone.

Mumby-Croft has here revealed the essential lie at the heart of the Olympic regeneration (although I feel the word ‘gentrification’ is perhaps the more accurate) project the idea that Stratford was a dump and needed demolishing. This is also addressed by Moore in the above article , he quotes Daniel Moylan new chairman (and going by the image on his website, a proud roller-of-his-own) of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) the body in charge of the “legacy”, such a big selling point back in 2005. Moylan “..challenges the common journalistic denigration of Stratford: ‘This place is not a dump. There are lots of people who are entrepreneurial and enthusiastic.’ ”

This is perhaps the key to the redevelopment of the Olympic site the bunker mentality of the big blue fence, the copyright stormtroopers, the bunker architecture of the Athletes Village must be broken down lest Stratford becomes a semi-detached part of east London. Moore refers to this himself saying:

“Most critically all this has to be done in such a way that the new wonderland doesn’t turn its back on its surroundings but genuinely connects with them. Early in the Olympic project, the neighbouring areas were seen as destitute wastelands be erased or shut out, and the main weakness of what has already been built is its lumpiness – the tendency of elements such as the Westfield shopping centre and the athletes’ village to turn their back. It would be relatively easy, but a complete failure, to make an exclusive residential idyll here.”

For me the real overriding issue here is one of consumerism and the corporatisation of our cities.

What is at stake in the redevelop mean of the Lower lea Valley for the Olympic Legacy Project is the public accessibility of the site. It has been for many years a private and privatised space patrolled by private police. It is now time to hand the site back tot eh people of east London. the people who had their leisure space and in some cases their homes destroyed by the Olympics deserve to be given this space back. There is an opportunity as Moore cites for more housing to be created, but this MUST, I really do mean MUST, be for multiple forms of tenure and different levels of affordability. It MUST have rented, for sale, shared ownership and self-build available. The Lower Lea Valley could be a massive opportunity to allow people to live in different ways, to build in a capability so the regeneration allows many dwelling practices to take place in this new space that has been created.

Although I may have somewhat romanticised the former Lower Lea Valley, much of the site was undoubtably derelict and in need of regeneration. As much as I feel a piecemeal approach wold have been more suitable than some post-Olympic masterplan, masterplans need not be totalising visions, although there is a distinct danger the LLDC could fall into this trap as Moore says:

“How kindly will the big house-building companies take to alternative models to their preferred way of doing things? What if progress is seen to be going too slowly and pressure grows for quick results? It’s too early to say. For now we can only observe that the masters of Olympic legacy are saying the right things, and wish them good luck.”

If the market imperatives get a hold, as they did for the Olympics themselves, we may have a Barratt built Noddy Town.

the Olympic corporatisation was no better demonstrated than the arrival at the site. The image below what greeted people as they emerged from Stratford Mainline Rail Station during the Olympics. The Westfield Stratford Shopping City. This route is the only way to get from the station to the stadium.


The view from the footbridge leading from Stratford Station to the Olympic Park, via the Westfield Centre

Again you can see below, the image of the Olympic site as it looked earlier this year from Google Earth. In relation to what was being said in Sally Mumby-Croft’s film there is an apparent erasure of history taking place.

olympic site early 2012

The Lower Lea Valley Olympic site in early 2012 ©GoogleEarth

In an attempt to find a counter image to this all Google Images would show me…

What you get from a Google Images search for “lea valley aerial photo”

Hundreds and hundreds of photos of the regenerated lower Lea Valley.

It is only because I own the book getmapping.com, (2004) London: ThePhotographic Atlas, London : Collins. that I’m able to show you this image (below):

Lower Lea Valley

The Lower Lea Valley circa. 2000 from London: ThePhotographic Atlas (London : Collins 2004) ©getmapping.com

Because the book is of still, printed, fixed photographs it is a snapshot in time, an historical document in a way that Google Maps can never be.

The impact of the digital age on or reading, and most importantly the documentation, recording and history of our urban spaces in profound and potentially shattering. The city of the past is accessible to us, to degree, through psychogeographers such as Daniel Defoe, Thomas De Quincy, observers and diary writers like Prince Pückler-Muskau and Samuel Pepys (see my lecture from my teaching on Manchester School of Art second year contextual studies unit “Urban Spatial Cultures”)

For our age we have Will Self, Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd for if it was left to Google our urban story would be obliterated every few months with the latest update of GoogleEarth.

All my posts on this site also appear on my personal blog at http://aviewfromtheinterior.net/


About Michael Coates

Michael is a Principal Lecturer for Contextual Studies at the Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University, and a PhD student in architecture history at the Univeristy of Sheffield.

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