Landscape architecture, garden design, planting design and management - Rowland Byass

Olympic Park Landscape

15/08/2012

I managed to get tickets for the 3m diving semi-finals last week, but what I was really interested in seeing was the landscape of the Olympic Park. Most of us had seen nothing of this 100 ha site since it disappeared behind an 11 mile long blue fence in 2007.

I arrived in the morning by bicycle, a method of transport of which the organisers must surely have approved (although not to the extent of actually providing bicycle parking facilities). Rather than being funnelled through the delights of the new Westfield Mall at the park’s main Stratford entrance, I entered near Victoria Park along the Greenway, a path over the Northern Outfall sewer that runs past the southern edge of the Park.

This is East London: on the margins of the ParkThis is East London: on the margins of the Park


The transition between the scrapyards and warehouses just outside the Park and the Park is abrupt. On the other side of a 5metre high electric fence, the scrappy, urban landscape of east London suddenly gives way to something else altogether.

Security on the Lea. They're not taking any chances here.
They're not taking any chances with the security.

Once inside, a meandering path leads up and down embankments and bridges and past vast temporary hospitality buildings, to the concourse around the stadium. This concourse was the focal point of aerial artists’ impressions of the Park before construction – lit in that golden light that you find in Romantic paintings depicting heaven or the like. I always thought it looked rather a bleak expanse of tarmac, lapping around the stadium like a grey puddle. And it is.

Artist's aerial view of the Stadium before constructionArtist's aerial view of the Stadium and its concourse before construction

The Stadium concourse at ground levelThe view on the ground, after construction

Of course, given the huge numbers of people moving through the Park during the Games, such unrelieved expanses of hard landscape are a practical necessity. Nonetheless, there’s something about the form that they take – amorphous amoeba-like spaces – that gives the pedestrian experience of moving through the Park a similarly amorphous experience.

They preclude a sense of transition or arrival between different zones, a sense of ‘here’ and ‘there.’ This is a tendency of much large-scale contemporary public landscape architecture. It looks nice on plan, and it’s efficient. But it does leave you feeling like a human particle, your movement programmed through space by the unseen hand of the design software.

The landscape of the Park takes three types: the vast expanses of buff tar and chip concourse around the venues and the routes between; the sports venues and temporary buildings housing food and drink vendors, shops and hospitality buildings; and the landscape of paths, sculpted valleys and hillocks, meadows and trees threaded through the site along the river. It’s a good job this last one is there, and that it has real aesthetic richness. Without the Park would be unrelentingly bleak.

Tent City, backed by Stratford high risesTent City: entry checkpoint with Stratford high rises in the background


Except for the Stadium, the Aquatic Centre and the Velodrome, the site’s buildings don’t have a great deal of aesthetic merit. But this isn’t the point. The point has been to stage a sustainable Games with (that word) a legacy after the Olympics and Paralympics have taken place. So most of the buildings will disappear, the Aquatic Centre will lose its graceless wings and the Stadium will shrink to accommodate the smaller crowds of the football club who, it is hoped, will buy it. The hard landscape and parklands along the Lea should outlast all the existing buildings.

Along the Lea riverLandscape along the Lea, with marginal reeds and stands of native birch and willow


The meadows and swathes of perennials and grasses along the river have been designed to represent four global regions that have formed the sources for Britain’s horticultural heritage: Western Europe and the Mediterranean, the Temperate Americas, the Southern Hemisphere and Temperate Asia. These plantings are the best thing about the Olympic Park. Thanks to assiduous preparation and a fortuitously cool early summer, the planting has been at its peak for the two week period of the Games.

North American prairie plants with the Aquatic Centre behindNorth American prairie species with the Aquatic Centre in the background

Complex, dynamic, with subtle modulations of form, texture and colour as you move through it. The planting and landscape design along the river in the Olympic Park is everything that the architecture is not.

'Olympic Gold' annual meadows around the Stadium, with Prairie tickseed, Corn marigold and cornflower
'Olympic Gold' annual meadow around the Stadium, with Prairie tickseed (Coreopsis tinctoria), Cornflower (Centurea cyanus) and Pot marigold (Calendula offinalis)

Yes, there are some buildings of merit. Zaha Hadid’s Aquatic Centre is spectacular. But for all the digitally-modelled organic geometry, none of them can be called subtle, and none bear much relation to their setting or to one another. These starchitects’ creations have the feel of something beamed down from another planet. By contrast, the landscape architecture is practical and self effacing. Seating is well provided for. There are nice details, like the bridge supports faced with steel cages of recycled demolition waste and glass ‘boulders’, like postindustrial drystone walls. This stuff will outlast the creations of starchitects.

Gabion-like cages of steel bars containing concrete rubble face all the bridge supports in the ParkGabion cages of steel bars with concrete rubble face all the bridge supports in the Park


The tree planting in the park is impressive in its scale and confidence. The aim has been to reproduce woodland typologies according to habitat, using large quantities of a few key species, as occurs in natural woodland. So there are stands of white willow (Salix Alba) along the river, and birch woodland on the mounds and hillocks. Even the leftover ‘weeds’ of mature sycamore trees have been retained to give the landscape character and maturity, something too rarely done in new developments. The trees were largely planted two years ago at an already advanced size. It’s a mark of how well the soft landscape has been done that it feels so ‘natural’ and bedded in.
Olympic pastoral: looking across the Lea towards the Hockey ArenaOlympic pastoral: looking across the riverside parkland to the Hockey Arena

Bar the retained trees and the river, nothing in this Park was here five years ago.  The technical standard and detailing of the landscape architecture is of the highest standard. Although I do have to wonder whether the designed landform of gently contoured hillocks and valleys along the riverside had to be so pseudo-English landscape garden – another version of the artfully contrived ‘natural’ style of landscape design seen in country house parks up and down the land. The planting design says something: about place, about ecology. It shows us that habitat-rich landscapes for wildlife can also be rich in meaning and beauty for people. By contrast, the choice of landform has on the whole, no such content. This is a missed opportunity. It might have been possible to build the landform out of geometrical forms that announced themselves as manmade, and still have had the woodland and meadows draped over it. Such a contrast would have been more exciting, and more conceptually stimulating.

From time to time, east London looms in on the site in one’s peripheral vision. But the Park is so cut off, physically and mentally, that the tower blocks looming over the perimeter fence and the vast new box of the Westfield Mall merely form a slightly surreal backdrop which can be safely ignored until it’s time to negotiate the world outside. There are no axes or vistas connecting with focal points outside the Park, natural or designed. This is the challenge now that the Games are over. How to tie in this Olympic island to its surroundings in a meaningful way? Tom Turner, writing in 2007, argues that the Olympic Park must be urban in nature if it is to cohere with its surroundings.

‘Let the Olympic City be interlaced with greenspace and sports facilities, by all means, but DON'T LET IT BE A PARK WITHOUT A CITY.’

I agree - the lesson of other Olympic Parks is that the Park has to be connected to the city, and part of the city, if it is to remain used and valued after the Games. If it’s too isolated, or if it doesn’t find new uses to host, it becomes a wasteland.

The recently unveiled masterplan for the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park does seem to be in this spirit. 'State-of-the-art venues and attractions will sit alongside homes, schools and businesses amongst green open spaces and pieces of art in the heart of East London. This will be no ordinary park.' There is cause for hope.

 

More on the Olympic Park:

Pastoralympics: nature and landscape in the London Olympics

Landscape proposals for the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park by James Corner Field Operations

No Ordinary Park: masterplan for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

 

Landscape design:

LDA Design: Olympic parklands and public realm

 

The planting in the Park:

Professor James Hitchmough: the planting concept and regional gardens

Professor Nigel Dunnett: annual meadows




 

 

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