The Sunday Review on Monday: the Olympic park

by Julianne Marriot

A day out in the Olympic park is a bit like being at a brilliant blockbuster exhibition, but with a niggling feeling that you forgot to pick up the guide.

The 2.5 sq km (about the size of 350 football pitches) Olympic park is the backdrop for the business of the day; watching 15,000 people become Olympians and Paralympians. The legacy plan (or is that sustainability?) is that the athletes “inspire a generation” and the park grows into a world-class visitor destination.

In a reversal of history, à la Boyle, the turf here was laid, rather than rolled away. The dark satanic scrap yards were junked and pylons demolished. Meadows, waterways, frolicking ticket holders and “art and culture” were created.

For a park there’s a lot of hard surfacing, but the greenery goes a long way. It neutralises the functional concrete flyovers and the goods trains, cutting through the park, seem congruent, like being in the countryside and spotting a steam train in the distance. Near the Orbit, people bend down to touch the perfectly tousled luxurious grass and admire the regimented randomness of the banks of yellow gold flowers.

Massive screens are anchored into the de-canalised river Lea, watched by people sunbathing or sheltering under umbrellas on the sloping manicured lawns. In the far north of the park the “culture” on offer at the bandstand goes largely ignored. It could be because people aren’t here to see musicians, or these particular musicians, but many probably don’t know it exists. It’s a really secluded spot.

The determination to create a relaxed atmosphere, with a lack of officious “keep off the grass” signs and corridor monitors, allowed people to make little shortcuts through the wild flowers to reach the elevated Olympic rings. Crowd control barriers now corral the wild flowers. The non-interventionist approach is laudable, but trusting people to go the long way round seems naïve. A few extra paths and some gentle reminders may have stopped the destruction.

The narrow, but exuberant, strip of the 2012 gardens, opposite the aquatics centre, is divided into temperate regions. The signs are discreet, so discreet it’s unlikely that most people notice them or the concept.

Looming behind Gary’s shoulder, the blowsy, Marmite, 115m tall Orbit doesn’t need signposting, although it could perhaps do with explaining. RUN, by Monica Bonvicini is less ambiguous. The chunky, nine metre tall, mirrored letters can be seen across the park. But up close they’re subtle, with unexpected reflections that just a handful of people are playing with and capturing for prosperity.

Mirrors are a bit of a theme. They clad the sides of one of the 30 new bridges on the park. Everyone likes to wave at themselves, but they really need river traffic to bounce reflections down to the water and up again. Further along the bridge, attached to the wall, are what look like the brass dials and barometers on a ship, even after googling it’s not clear if they capture actual or “abstract” finger prints. Nobody seems to notice them.

The brief was to embed the art and culture into the structures and for it to resonate with the park’s industrial heritage. The substation won a RIBA award, the tiles on the head houses (shafts for accessing tunnels) were inspired by “what the park looked like before” and poems by Lemn Sissay are carved into an unassuming wooden perimeter of an electricity transformer. Alongside City Mill river, the planting follows the footprint of the demolished buildings.

But what’s never quite clear is whether that industrial history is being celebrated or commemorated. The rhetoric of the area is that it was a Victorian vanguard of progress, where petrol and Parkensine (nearly a plastic) were invented, but by 2005 had become derelict, unused, a wasteland.

It certainly wasn’t pretty. But it’s not true that it was derelict.

Recreations of the sides of red telephone boxes, sunk into the soil along the curving paths, record the (negative) landmarks of the former industrial park: the strangely beautiful fridge mountain and the 52 pylons that used to loop along the Lea. But it was the Mandeville (or it might have been a Wenlock) that people were queuing up to photograph.

After dark there’s a new park. The stadium looks like a fairground ride, light shines through the honeycomb walled substation and seven tall wind turbines are transformed into attractions. RUN is lit up, from the inside, but again there are just a handful of people close up, some pressing their nose against the mirrors, trying to work out where the magic come from.

As thousands of tired but happy punters stream out of the park, across Stratford walk, a few notice the waterfall of words underneath and head down for a look. Illuminated words, from live news feeds, are somehow formed in water and dropped back into the Waterworks river below. It’s mesmerising. And it feels like a privilege to be part of a small group of people, stood under a bridge, watching a word exist for just a second.

All across the park, much of the art and culture seems to go unnoticed; thought not necessarily unappreciated. There’s little attempt to call people’s attention to it. The map, which isn’t dished out automatically, has green dots showing you where there’s an “art in the park installation”, but nothing more. There are few announcements or labels, no audio guide and the London 2012 app gives very little away. You have to go out and discover it for yourself.

And it’s all the better for it. The role of the Olympic park is that of a support act for the world’s greatest sporting achievements, not to be the location of an art trail. It’s up to you if you want to discover it, but it’s fine to get a beer and watch the sport.

And if people feel that they’ve missed out on something, well that’s got to be good news: they’ll want to go back.

Julianne Marriott is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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4 Responses to “The Sunday Review on Monday: the Olympic park”

  1. Peter Watt says:

    I’m going on Thursday and I’m
    going to find that waterfall!

  2. The thing that really struck me was the sheer scale of it. It is enormous and feels so. I’ve been looking at it for months from the ViewTube on the Greenway and never really considered its size once you were in. A real experience. I fear though that it will inevitably be converted into a theme park at some point….

  3. Atul Hatwal says:

    Went on Saturday and for me, the park was a really important part of the experience. As an environment (both the human organisation and physical space) it helps create such a welcoming atmosphere. It was one of the few (only?) times been at something where strangers happily chit chat throughout the day, without any sense of awkwardness or artifice.

    Agree with Anthony, in terms of size, has the feel of a theme park in waiting. Though at least that would guarantee footfall….

  4. Matt says:

    Are the former allotments commemorated?

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