The Posh Loo Olympics

There is a peculiarly English quality to temporary seating. The Badminton Annual horse trials require around 14,000 tiered seats including half of which is covered. The Queen allows around 5,000 temporary seats on to her land for the Royal Windsor Horse show. Tennis tournaments at Queen’s and Wimbledon are augmented annually by temporary seating. Take any so called ‘elite sport’ i.e. one normally played by a very few rich people, which is granted a moment in the sun, such show-jumping, rowing, polo, and you will find a home for temporary seating: the more rarefied the guest, the more likely that their annual hurrah will be hosted on temporary seats.

Indeed the clang of high heels on metal struts is as much part of our sporting summers as rain, champagne and a fleeting interest in sports normally reserved for a wealthy elite. This is the culture that gave us the posh portable toilet – basic, modular structures with Kardean flooring, solid wood doors and toilet partitions with oak skirting, Mozart piped-in to a plastic box. Posh loos don’t just provide luxury they also provide a frisson, a polite means of introducing lavatorial humour. Very very English.

The designers of what the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games calls the overlay, i.e. the temporary structures will have to face down the posh loo question in the coming months. Temporary facilities will be one of the most striking factors of these games compared to others. 270,000 temporary seats will be used at the London Olympics, that’s compared to150,00 used at Sydney and 60,000 used at Athens. In fact the Games will see the largest number of temporary seats used at an event ever, more than the last three Games combined. There is a very English reason for this and it isn’t the one being put about by LOCOG which features the two dread words of these games, ‘sustainability’ and ‘legacy’

Although Britain is going to become a Titan of temporary seating, this isn’t the reason either. It was estimated in 2007 that the existing stock of temporary seating was between 120,000 and 130,000 seats. Temporary seating owners feared that the Organising Committee would buy up stock and then release it back on to the market afterwards, creating a huge glut of stock and a sharp drop in profits. Quietly LOCOG have been working with seat manufacturers to the degree that the entire stock of temporary seating in the UK will be overhauled in line with demands of the Olympics. Britain is hoping to turn its love of posh loos into a major export industry.

The real reason is that, like we did last time the event was hosted in London, we are thinking of optimising the income of foreign currency. We are never going to make a profit as we did in 1948, given that we’re spending around £10billion on a major regeneration project, but we can still pull in a few tourists to off-set the loss. Allies and Morrison’s design for the equestrian venue in Greenwich Park is an absolutely brilliant example. Set on the main axis that Inigo Jones created through the Park, just above the Queen’s House that he also designed, the temporary seating is open on three sides, providing an impeccable view of the equisite Palladian setpiece, for the TV cameras. Canary Wharf looms high in the background. It is less an act of architecture more like an act of photography; telling the lens which way to look.

It’s being done to brilliant effect at other venues. At the Lords Cricket Ground, archers will be permitted to shoot over the hallowed wicket with temporary seating banked up on either side of them. Given permission by the International Archery Federation to change the rules regarding the orientation of the range, the stands will sit in the outfield with the camera directed towards the Future Systems media centre and the traditional pavilion. Temporary seating is being used to create a TV image of London as an interplay of the old and the new. For the same reason we will have Beach Volleyball on Horseguards Parade. Like Greenwich, it’s the Palladian and the Modern, except here the modern is provided by bikinis rather than towers by Pelli, Foster and HOK. It’s the aesthetic of the posh loo on a grand scale.

And why not? Individuals like John Barrow from Populous, Paul Appleton at Allies and Morrison and Alex Lifschutz are rather excitedly looking at how to host a party during the Olympics. They are looking to the Badmintons and Wimbledons for ideas: as well as street parties like The Mayor’s Thames Festival, as well as how to create spots of entertainment with temporary awnings, screens, and yes, loos within a huge park. Given the debacle with the stadium, it is exciting to hear about the fun-focussed design of genuninely temporary facilities, rather than structures that look temporary but aren’t.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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