http:/Much as I gawk at the gigantic folly of Boris Johnson’s loss-making, pet art project in the Olympic Park – Anish Kapoor’s Arcelor-Mittal Orbit – which was always intended to be a giant helter skelter, and is now making fun of itself, I have to admit that his other inspiration, the Olympicopolis is a stroke of genius.
Boris was always determined to bring a world-class higher educational offer to The Park, and continued doggedly to explore this option even as the overall masterplanning for the whole park site stalled in 2009. That this idea then morphed into a much more ambitious vision for a mixed offer of educational and cultural institutions shows how in sync Boris was with the ambition of Baroness Margaret Ford, Chair of the Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC), who was resolute in her determination to make the Olympic Park a London visitor destination to rival the attraction of West London’s popular museum cluster. Reaching beyond that vision, and creating, in the Olympic Park itself, a new museum and cultural cluster for the 21st Century, Boris Johnson has left a lasting legacy in East London.
Churlish, as ever, Olympophobes, like Sir Simon Jenkins, decry the Olympicopolois development, now renamed the Stratford Waterfront Culture and Education District. Sir Jenkins has nothing to say in favour of the development, because its proposed architectural form speaks of ‘1960s Brutalism’, rather than the organic development of institutions placed in relation to more recognisable urban landscape, like city streets, but his distaste speaks only of his determination to disagree in general with the Olympics and the Olympic legacy in East London. Unfortunately, this reveals a more general ignorance in the press about the seriousness with which the challenge of delivering London’s legacy has been taken.
The new cultural quarter is controversial not because of its architecture, but because it replaces a use for the Stratford Waterfront part of The Park that was originally designated for housing. This further reduces the housing offer in a scheme that was always intended to meet the strategic purpose of the London Plan to provide additional housing for a rapidly growing population. It is because it replaces the plan for housing that the new cultural quarter must prove its worth; it will do this easily, because it introduces, into the overall mix of what The Park has to offer to East London, an incredible combination of high-end cultural attractions and educational opportunities that will mean a new generation of young people, and already youthful population, will not need to travel to West London to partake of the best the city has to offer. Instead, young people from East London will be able to benefit from the excitement of a dynamic new cluster of creative institutions comprising V & A East – the new outpost of the Victoria and Albert Museum in West London; a Sadlers Wells Dance Theatre, and new campuses for the London College of Fashion and UCL (University College London). The only thing missing in the mix is a Museum of East London, which would marry the new cultural quarter to its industrial and cultural context.
Much as I am loathe to praise Boris Johnson, because of his Brexit betrayal of London’s Olympic vision of a progressive multicultural future, a future which London itself embodies, and nowhere more so than in East London, I cannot deny that his capacity to dream up schemes and quickly realise them will, in the case of The Stratford Waterfront, yield dividends. The development will compliment well the other dynamic and exciting development - the technology and innovation centre - Here East – on the Hackney side of The Park that is the transformation of the former Olympic Media Centre. Here East is the outcome of a very different kind of planning history, one in which the long struggle of Hackney Council, and a community planning partnership, in collaboration with independent media advisors, led, in the end, to what had always been planned - pre-Olympics – for the transformation of Hackney’s post-industrial land into a creative industries hub providing new employment and training opportunities for local people.
This is a history that proves the point that only an in-depth knowledge of the whole story of London’s Olympic legacy planning operation can make possible a rigorous critique of the long term – 30 years evolution of London’s plans. So far, my sense is that the recent trend for anti-London-Olympic-legacy journalism fails the public, because it is based on superficial knowledge and it comes from a perspective, for the most part, that has decided in advance that the only good story about London’s Olympic legacy is a bad news story. This does not mean that bad news stories are not there; there are plenty, such as the displacement of Europe’s largest concentration of artists in Hackney Wick, or the failure to keep the promise to fully reinstate to The Park the allotments of the Manor Gardens Society. However, the desire to keep on damming the Olympic Park as a temporary festival site that was only ever intended for its purpose as the stage for the Olympic circus to pass through town, is an ill-informed impression of a planning operation that always meant to harness The Games to the Ken Livingstone’s broader purpose, which was the regeneration of the whole of the Lower Lea Valley.
The reason all of this matters so much is because the Olympic movement itself is in jeopardy, and with good reason. The travesty of the failure in Rio to use The Games as the means to address rather than to repress urban inequality is only the latest example of the scandals that are creating a growing sense that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is losing its legitimacy. The withdrawal of Oslo from the bidding for the 2020 Winter Games, and of Hamburg and Boston from the bidding for the 2024 Summer Games, show that cities of the world are increasingly less likely to want to take the political, financial and reputational risk of bidding for The Games. In this sense, the game is up, and good. It is about time. This really means that the only excuse for hosting an Olympic Games is the opportunity to address urban inequality and to deliver a lasting legacy to the host city and its population. This means so much more than the IOC’s attempts at reform – Agenda 2020 – set out, which is why that agenda has largely been ignored. Hence, the IOC is now in crisis. And, unless that crisis is taken seriously, the Olympic movement will fail or reform too late. My suggestion is that London has lessons to teach the world about what it means to take the challenge of planning for Olympic legacy seriously, but who is listening?