“To the traditional sounds of an English summer…”

After the first weekend of the Games, it’s already becoming clear that the relationship between the city and the event is working well. This is partly because half the population of the British capital has apparently been scared into going on holiday, making the DLR and Jubilee line relatively clear for Olympic tourists. This generous act has left the rest of us and the visitors free to enjoy the sport and, for the design geeks amongst them, see how adaptable architecture has been embedded into the city with subtlety and no small amount of humour (in contrast perhaps to the main stadium itself – see this for more details!). Indeed, I would argue that the main stadium aside, the 2012 games is a triumph for temporary and adaptable structures. London is seeing 270,000 temporary seats used, more than the last three Olympics combined and in doing so the organisers have created what I want to argue is an uniquely British experience both to the TV viewer and to the spectator and one which grows out of and capitalises on our culture of sport and entertainment.

Using the Olympics to present an image of the host city has come a long way since the poster for the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, United States. This simply showed a map of the USA with an arrow on it pointing to the words Lake Placid. It was, however, the first time the Games had been used as a tool for tourism – a notion that is now an integral part of the Olympic package and for which the language of spatial design forms a key component. The aim by designers has been to place key events within the working heartland of the city so that select images of London’s architectural highlights will be beamed to audiences all around the world.

Back the bid campaign using Thames Flood Barrier.

London is of course already well known to the world. In 2010 5.7m people chose to holiday in the city, a fact which makes the art of presenting it in a fresh way a challenge: something more sophisticated than hurdlers photoshopped jumping over Tower Bridge or diving of the Thames Flood Barrier which were used by London in the bid for the Games. The answer, and the key to the genuinely innovative approach ultimately used by the organisers in London, is in the judicial use of temporary structures placed within the existing urban fabric – far beyond the Olympic Park itself. The brilliant Shooting venue by Magma architecture takes an event to Woolwich. This structure will be taken down and rebuilt in the East End of Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games in 2014.

Woolwich Shooting Venue, by Magma Architecture

The idea is a development of the way that previous Games have used the host city as the backdrop to an event but with fresh, and more deeply developed, flourishes. During the diving in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics a camera tracked a divers fall, effectively giving the audience at home a of tantalising view of the city’s downtown sights. Architects and master-planners Populous, the team in charge of overlay for London, has deliberately used a series of temporary structures to reconfigure famous backdrops for different events.

Diver, Barcelona Olympics, 1992.

They’ve placed a 6,000-seat auditorium within the confines of Lords Cricket ground, where the archery event will be held, so that the apertures between the stands deliver a view that juxtaposes the famous old Lords pavilion and the futuristically styled Natwest Media Centre, designed by Future Systems. It takes one of the most celebrated pieces of modern architecture in the city the first all aluminium, semi-monocoque building in the world and sets it in a new frame. As such, temporary structures reframe London for a global TV audience.

The Archery venue at Lords Cricket Ground in London

Jeff Keas, a sport facility designer with Populous, asserts that the design team for the temporary structures were interested in creating structures that have “integrated memories of the city”.  This idea reconciles two elements that have traditionally been very distinct in tourism campaigns for visiting London: the historical and the very modern. It is concept that Danny Boyle continually riffed on throughout the Opening Ceremony in terms of music and costume, (Victorian urchins running around metal beds to a Mike Oldfield soundtrack) but has rarely been acknowledged in terms of the visual image of the city’s architecture. Presenting the ancient and modern together, in close juxtaposition, is a fairly honest and fair reading of what makes London special as an urban experience. Though it is not necessarily an easy message to communicate quickly to a global audience.

The temporary architecture of the Games, therefore, reconciles the potential contradiction of London. Rather than attempting to explain how this complexity makes the place exciting, the organisers are physically showing it. It’s for this reason that the modern, sexy game of beach volleyball is taking place on historic Horse Guards 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. More than just a gimmick, it is a means of using space to explain the intoxicating, slightly disorientating contrasts that make the British capital so unique. Indeed, what is so clever about the tactic is that it has been rolled out with some consistency while exhibiting no small respect for the past.

Greenwich Equestrian Venue. Canary Wharf in the background.

Keas describes the thinking behind the equestrian arena at Greenwich, “one of the underpinning elements of this site is the grand axis [a central boulevard around which the architecture is symmetrically arranged], which was established in the 1600s when [British architect] Inigo Jones built the Queen’s House, and the Royal Naval College was built around that.’ Although it has taken a great of effort in terms of respecting the existing historical fabric, the temporary structure has been aligned on this grand axis. The main camera view of the open-ended equestrian venue will have the Queen’s House in the foreground and Canary Wharf behind. The modern and the ancient: London at its best.

This approach of exploiting and emphasising the urban layers of London is derived from looking at both traditional and modern stadiums. The amphitheatre at the Acropolis was open at one end, as was the first Olympic stadium of the modern era in Athens. The Pirates Baseball stadium in Pittsburgh, USA, is another example. In each of these stadiums, ancient and modern, the city was brought into the field of play without obviously detracting from the sport itself. The buildings drew attention to the city, rather than operating as expressive objects themselves.

Pirates Baseball Stadium, Pittsburgh, USA.

In the case of London, the result is a series of structures that act as framing devices: a means of orientating and allowing the TV viewer to “read” the city around the buildings. It is an approach that places a duty on the viewer to read a complex image quickly. Given our increasingly sophisticated appreciation of images of different cities – particularly through facilities like Streetview – it is, I think, a real success. Using unspectacular architecture to make a spectacle of architecture.

What is it like visiting this TV strategy in reality? Equally dramatic in terms of the view and strangely reassuring otherwise. As I and my family have experienced this weekend, there is a peculiarly English quality to temporary seating. They are strangely familiar to us. Not that I have been to it but the Badminton Annual horse trials for example, 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,  such as 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. The more popular the sport, the more permanent the structure.

Indeed the London Live viewing spaces introduce the Festival infrastructure to the viewing of sport. Huge areas of public parks blocked off with security fencing with stages and burger vans inside them. In Victoria Park, the last 3 summers have hosted music events on the very site where the free TV screens now stand. Some would question what the value of passing through ‘airport standard security’ as the tannoys boast to stand and watch TV in the invariable damp. However, they exist due to a co-opting of the rental and organisational systems that deliver music festivals. The London Olympics is being delivered by a massive ramping-up of the rental market that festival and small scale sports events are used to buying into.

So as the song says: “over the past few years to the traditional sounds of an English summer, the droning of lawnmowers, the smack of leather on willow, has been added a new noise.”  The clang of high heels on metal struts, the gentle shuffling of the queue, and the occasional beep of the door frame metal detector. To this clumsy, clanging kit we are used to, a new high-tech system of security has been added. It is the world of the posh portable toilet writ large. Basic, modular structures but 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 chance to queue. It’s not the most progressive way of doing things. It doesn’t take the chance to reinvent how a system operates, but I like the pragmatic reinvention of something that already worked well in an unofficial culture on a smaller scale.


About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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One Response to “To the traditional sounds of an English summer…”

  1. Pingback: The Traditional Sounds of an English Summer « citythreepointzero

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