A Critical Analysis of The London Stadium and Surrounding Development

Modified: 17th Dec 2021
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In this essay I will be critically analysing the building and surrounding development of the London Stadium. I will analyse the journey the building has taken, from being the Olympic stadium to now the new home of West Ham Football club, the London Stadium.

The Olympic stadium began construction in May 2008 and ended in March 2011. It was opened on May the 5th 2012 for the London Olympics. The Stadium is located in the Olympic Park in Stratford, London, on a 40 hectare, island that resembles a diamond in the south area of the Olympic park. The site consists of factories, railways, power stations, gas works, houses and flats. The stadium was designed by Populous who are specialist in sports venues.

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The stadium is one of the most environmentally friendly Olympic stadiums ever to be built. Sustainability was an important role in the design, less steel and concrete were used on the construction, having one quarter of the steel required in comparison to Beijing's Bird Nest Olympic stadium. The steel used in the roof was from old steel tubing in gas pipelines and Police guns. The cost of this project was £498 million which came underbudget and was completed one year early, winning many prizes even before the Olympic games had begun.

Figure 1: Layers

The design of the building was to create a compact, flexible and lightweight design embracing the phrase reduce, reuse and recycle. In terms of the design it had an elegant and light tubular white steel roof that contrasted well with the black steel that supports the upper seating tier. 'Embracing the temporary' was a key theory that was embraced in the design to achieve a balance between the short and long term use of the stadium. This is why the structure consisted of two parts: an elliptical sunken concrete bowl built into the ground allowing for lower seating rows. In addition, an independent structure that was comprised of the upper tier and roof, all planned to be temporary construction. One of the key forms throughout the stadium was V- shaped steel supports that act as bracing, while carrying the steel truss structure. A series of cables hold up the lightweight roof membrane and in terms of the small details bolted connections where preferred to welded connections.

Figure 2: Steel Structure

Figure 3: Section, diagram

The roof of the stadium is made up of 112 membrane sections, individual elements made up of PVC-coated polyester fabric. This allowed for a smooth, crease free layer allowing well placed openings for cables, pipes etc. The wind flow in the stadium, lighting, viewing angles, heat movement were all thought about and influenced the design to create a world class venue for athletes to perform at their best, as well as a great viewing experience.

The main features of the Olympic stadium are firstly the bowl – a sunken bowl was built into the ground to contain the field of play and was meant to bring spectators close to the action. The seats were a key part of the stadium as the idea was to have a demountable seating plan. 25,00 seats are permanent and 55,000 are demountable. The roof as shown above and described will cover two thirds of spectators. Around the stadium a fabric curtain will wrap the inside structure. This will add protection and shelter for the spectators.

Olympic legacy

A legacy plan was promised to rejuvenate the area of East London when London won. The bid to host the Olympics. Using past Olympic failures such as Athens the project wanted to redefine the site creating a vibrant new community. The 2012 Olympic games were a sporting success, but the success of the legacy is arguable. All eight permanent venues in the Olympic park are open and functional, some venues were removed. The Olympic Park now renamed to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is 2.5 square kilometres of parkland used well by the locals and is used for events throughout the year.

The Olympic stadiums legacy has not been fulfilled to what was imagined. Instead of being used solely for athletics, it has become the home of Premier League football team West Ham, which I will talk about in greater detail further on. The Copper Box arena has been a success and is a leading example of how to design a venue. Many events can be held in the area due to its structural flexibility unlike the Olympic stadium.

Figure 5: Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

The Aquatics Centre has been transformed into a public swimming pool, where it has been reduced in size, but still is viewed as the world's most impressive swimming pools. The Velodrome has been reopened an is a public venue specific to bike racing, BMX and mountain biking.

A key part of the plan was the addition of residential housing. The Athletes' village has been converted into what's called the East Village, where 1,439 homes out of 2,818 are affordable. Five more neighbourhoods are planned to be built where 75 per cent are designed for families and a third are going to be affordable. A new school has been built called Chobham Academy that used to be a gym and security hub during the 2012 Olympics. More plans for housing are in place as well as other functions for other spaces. Positives are that around the stadium there are new rail link and roads, Westfield shopping centre and the use of a brownfield site. The public can now travel to work easier; tourism has increased in the area as well as jobs in construction which has created a multiplier effect. The industrial zones have been replaced with landscaped greenery. Derelict rivers and canals are now functioning with many tour boats and swan shaped paddle boats.

From a general view the legacy after the Olympics has been positive but slower than expected. Using 'Spaces in Between' lecture there must be attention paid to the spaces around the buildings to create urban areas that are sociable, vibrant and healthy. At this present time this has not been fulfilled; many homes have been built but increasing prices and affordable targets not being met had caused many residents to move out.

Figure 6: A render of Stratford Waterfront, part of the park's new Cultural and Education District

Looking at the legacy from an outsider's perspective, Paris who will be hosting the 2024 Olympics have taken inspiration from the London Olympics. They will have only 3 permanent structures built. For example, "London was very inspiring to us, for sure," and "we really wanted to have the same impact of change in the local area", Marie Barsacq.

By looking at the Principles from CABE 'The Councillor's Guide to Urban design' we can apply these principles to the Olympic project:

  • Character - A strong sense of place and history
  • Continuity & Enclosure - A place where public and private space are clearly distinguished
  • Quality of the public realm - A place with public spaces and routes that are lively and pleasant to use
  • Ease of movement - A place that is easy to get to and move through
  • Legibility - A place that has a clear image and is easy to understand
  • Adaptability - A place that can change easily
  • Diversity - A place with variety and mixed uses and communities

The London Stadium

Lars Lerup – 'Accept that we will get it wrong'

  • 'Human action is a complicated matrix with unknowable combinations '
  • 'Our understanding of how behaviour may change is imprecise'
  • 'As designers we have to become comfortable with this'

Instead of becoming a dedicated athletics venue, the Olympic stadium has controversially become the home of Premier League team West Ham United. Renovation had to be done to make the stadium suitable for football, which cost £323M and subsequently reduced its capacity from 80,000 to 54,000. The original roof and light paddles were inverted, a brand new redesigned, permanent roof that covers every seat, not two thirds, in the venue was installed. The new roof also has been designed to improve the acoustics, reflecting the noise from the fans onto the pitch. Keeping the idea of demountable seating an innovative retractable seating system was installed. This allowed for the stadium to be used for athletic events, also being able to host football matches and bringing the fans closer to the pitch. New facilities where added that are needed in a football stadium that encircle the stadium. The stadium has now turnstiles at entry which were originally put away from the stadium. Now there is public access around the stadium allowing the surrounding area to be used by the community throughout the year. The roof is the largest gravity supported cantilever in the world, as well as having Europe's largest screens.

Approximately 5,000 people worked over 2 million hours to complete the transformation. The stadium has hosted a variety of sporting events since the 2012 Olympic games e.g.: five Rugby World Cup matches, athletics events and rugby league internationals. The capacity of the new stadium is nearly double of that of Boleyn ground, West Hams old stadium.

There are many issues with the stadium that are acknowledged by various perspectives, architects, football fans, engineers etc. Some say that "The sensible decision would have been to level it and start again, but nobody had the courage". In 2013 West Ham struck a deal to pay £15 million towards the overall renovations plus £2.5 million rent per year. Many critics believe that without West Ham taking over the stadium it would become a white elephant.

The initial cost of installing a new roof and adding in 21,00 retractable seats was £95 million. This increased to £160million then £272million and now £323million. All these expenses meant that the stadium essentially was rebuilt inside out and serious changes had to be made like the foundations.

Some major problems that have had a great effect on the fans is the:

  • Atmosphere
  • Views
  • Distances between home and away fans

The club is carrying out ways to create a bigger distance between home and away fans, to reduce friction. But one serious design problem appears unfixable– the views from the stands. 'Athletics track in a football stadium doesn't work, as the sight-lines are all wrong.' It can be said that the costs of conversion could have been reduced if the original plan for legacy use had been identifies at the beginning, whereas others say designing a stadium suitable for both an Olympics and Premiership football was just simply impossible. An expert on stadium design has said that 'The geometry needed for an Olympic Games is like a colosseum. It will never have the steeper angles that football requires to bring the crowd closer to the action.'

The architects were also adamant to retain an athletics track, despite evidence of the unsuitability of stadia configured in this way from across the world. Those who led the project were focusing on providing and delivering a spectacular Olympics in a short timeframe. All these issues could suggest that maybe West Ham FC will not remain for the full 99 year lease.

The above can be linked to the principles from 'The Single House' - Lars Lerup, 'Building the Unfinished' (1978), (from the lecture of Process not product):

From synchronic to diachronic:

  • Synchronic - concerned with how things fit together at one point in time
  • Diachronic - concerned with how things develop over time
  • Buildings have to be seen under a range of different timescales

Part of this lecture I found this quote relates well to this project: "A building is not something you finish, a building is something you start" (Stewart Brand) – "we should embrace adaptability, include for user expansion and learn as we go." This is something that you would say is the complete opposite of the situation of the Olympic stadium. The stadium during matches has become almost like a theatre or a museum. The fans are so far away from the pitch and the structure of fans is not acceptable in a football stadium. The stadium cannot adapt entirely to the needs of a football stadium reiterating the idea said that 'The sensible decision would have been to level it and start again, but nobody had the courage'. Similar opinion to Andrew Boff who says: "At the end of the day this all boils down to one political objective – and that was to keep the running track at the Olympic Stadium. If we'd said we weren't going to keep the running track, this could all have been avoided. Instead we have hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayer's money being burned in front of Londoners' eyes".

To conclude the journey of the Stadium has been a long and rough one with many changes been put into place. This shows how architects need to a certain degree anticipate all the possible future needs of a building. The building must be able to adapt to the function needed.


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