‘The velodrome is beautiful’

Tim Abrahams fascinating essay on the London Olympics stadium shows us that grander, premeditated political narratives will always be eclipsed by sport.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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When I interview Tim Abrahams, writer and architectural critic, London 2012 is still a few weeks away. As everyone else was to become, he is enthusiastic and excited. But not just about the prospect of the sport. As the author of The Stadium, an essay about Olympics stadia and the 2012 stadium in particular, he is equally as enthusiastic and excited about all the accompanying stuff, too, from the basketball stadium to, yes, the cable car.

‘There are these crazy, fun things like a cable car going across the Thames’, he says before having a swipe at some of his more priggish colleagues. ‘There’s a lot of po-facedness about architectural criticism. And some things are crap. But other things are fun. And the cable car is fun. One should be wary of justifying things entirely in terms of social utility, in the case of the Olympics, whether it will bring more people into or sport or not. But you know what, why not build a really good sports facility for people that want to use it? Participation levels might rise slightly, or they might fall, but does it matter?’

Not that he’s incapable of a bit of architectural lyricism, as he showed when regaling me with the beauty of the London Olympics cycling venue. ‘Because the Velodrome is a banked track, and it’s got an inverted back track around it, as you come up the A12, you go round the Velodrome, so you’re almost doing an inverted little swing round it. So it communicates speed. And up close, because you see the track above you, it gives you a bit of vertigo, so there’s already a double momentum, because you’re thinking about what you’re about to see. It’s pretty sophisticated actually. Its symbolism is ostensibly simple – it’s a wheel shape – but when you’re up close you realise how clever it is. It communicates speed, but it does so using wood, a kind of hi-tech/low-tech paradox.’

That was of course a few weeks ago. With the Olympics now a happy memory, and the Paralympics currently drawing London 2012 to its close, thoughts are now turning to the future. And it is that site of so much drama and glory in the Lea Valley that will become the focus of speculation and no little anxiety. What, in short, is to become of the stadium?

The funny thing about official, legacy-framed anxiety in relation to the Olympics stadium is that rarely has the what-happens-next been built into a stadium, from conception to completion, to the extent that it has been for London 2012. Right from the start, it was designed to be adapted for a post-Olympics future. Conceived with just 25,000 permanent seats and a further 55,000 for the games itself, the stadium was originally to serve after the event as a downscaled athletics venue. But it seems the best-laid plans are in the process of creating the worst-hatched future. Now it is probable, explains Abrahams, that a stadium with neither a roof nor sufficient facilities will become what everyone, from Lord Sebastian Coe to the former London mayor Ken Livingstone assured everyone it would not: a football stadium. Which is not a bad thing by any means. It is just that there has been almost too much planning, too much official construction of a future that will now not come to pass.

And this is one of the many reasons why Abrahams’ essay is so fascinating. Tracing the history of a variety of modern Olympic stadia, from the classical facade of the London 1908 stadium to the demonstrably non-classical theme of the 1972 Munich stadium, Abrahams repeatedly shows how futile it is for political leaders to try to secure, to map out, the future they want for their stadia. And the reason is that the use and purpose of Olympic stadiums, indeed their meaning, changes as the particular society in which they have their meaning changes.

Take the Olympiastadion in Berlin built for the 1936 Olympics. The motif was neoclassical, a nod, Adolf Hitler hoped, to Germans’ supposed roots in ancient Greece. At the end of the stadium stood the marathon gate and, on a platform, the cauldron for the Olympic flame. ‘The provision of a platform for this ceremonial set-piece further accentuated the link with the classical past’, writes Abrahams. ‘The facade, with its low-storey colonnades featuring 136 pillars, is a bombastic version of classicism, invoking not just the Greeks but also the might of the Roman Empire, which the Nazis sought to surpass.’

But this attempt in stadium form to somehow lend glory and ancient majesty to the Third Reich was shortlived. The Olympiastadion still exists of course, and has played host to two World Cups, but it has been changed. ‘Hitler’s special box – the honorary stand – has been truncated by a metre – and subsequent roofs have been added… The adaption of the Olympiastadion is an affirmation that German society can live with its past.’ Abrahams continues: ‘Berlin is the Olympic stadium par excellence partly because the original structure of the stadium in Berlin still exists in its entirety and partly because of the accretion of adaptations that treat the stadium as an urban function: a useful space for holding events that its original architects could never have predicted.’

The conclusion to be drawn, argues Abrahams is that sport, like its buildings, resists grander, premeditated politcal narratives. Something that London 2012’s layers of officialdom could have done with recognising.

Of course, when it comes to London 2012, it is the official fear of the stadium’s meaninglessness, its uselessness, that has seemingly been embodied in the legacy-conscious design. This is partially understandable as a pre-emptive response to all those anti-Olympics types who, citing the stadia used for Athens 2004, bang on about so-called ‘white elephants’. Yet Abrahams is not convinced that such concerns were ever very helpful. ‘On one level’, he tells me, ‘you will always have to accept that Olympics stadia will always be white elephants because they are no longer fit for purpose. Because of the athletics track, the only thing they’re fit for holding is an Olympics. It is the only time that athletics is watched on that sort of scale. London, as a city of 8million will only muster 20,000 for an annual athletics event. So if you’re talking about a utility, if you’re looking at it pragmatically, an Olympics stadium is useless.’

But the white-elephant argument is also overplayed, he argues. ‘The idea that the Athens stadium was a white elephant is rubbish. It was a pre-existing stadium; it’s got two football clubs in it – I don’t know how much more useful you want a stadium to be. It may be a 75,000-capacity stadium housing on average 30,000 football fans, but it is being used.’

More striking still was the attitude of the Chinese state to the stadia for the Beijing Olympics. Thoughts of the future were trumped by the state’s desire to celebrate its present. ‘As for the Birds Nest, officials clearly thought, yeah it’s a white elephant. So let’s make it the most beautiful monument in the whole of China.’ Something Abrahams believes has largely been achieved. Using 1110,000 tonnes of steel, ten times the amount used for London, it was never meant to be efficient or useful; it is primarily art, a symbol of modern China. ‘It is the greatest building of the twenty-first century so far’, writes Abrahams.

So what of London’s stadium? With its roots in the tradition of adaptive and so-called high-tech architecture, wherein the buildings are designed to meet the expansion of people’s needs, it certainly draws upon a progressive architectural moment, argues Abrahams. Yet because it has not been built to encompass an expansion of man’s needs, but rather to meet their contraction, ‘the Olympics stadium… stands as a disappointing coda to the aspirations of the UK’s pre-eminent architectural movement of the late-twentieth century’.

Yet, as the modification and change in purpose of countless other Olympics stadia indicates, there is reason to be upbeat, too. ‘There is one aspect of urban living Seb Coe omitted to consider when proposing a scaled-back stadium. Cities progress.’ Abrahams concludes: ‘The earlier design flaws of the stadium may yet be reconciled as the stadium expands to meet the ambitions and desires of a new city.’

Tim Black is editor of the spiked review of books.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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