East London has been in focus lately, as in preparation for the London 2012 Olympics, a large part of it has been renovated and massive new arenas have been built. The whole city has been transformed for the Olympics. All this change opens up the question of what will happen to all of this when the Olympics are over? How will the new structures and buildings change the Stratford area in the long run? Rather than just considering those three weeks during which the Olympics are on, we should be considering the future of our city.
The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has luckily provided us with an exhibition on what happens after such a big event as the Olympics. In After the Party – The Legacy of Celebration, a comparison is made between the 2012 Olympics and earlier similar occasions when grand buildings have been built: to look to the future, we need to look back. What was a mind-opener for me was how this exhibition places Olympic architecture in a wider context than just comparing it with other sport arenas. This is a celebratory event (hopefully, should Britain win many medals, and so on) and it should be compared with events like jubilees, great victories, world fairs, or expos.
The exhibition starts with a beautiful model of the newly-built Olympic Park and descriptions of its different parts and their functions. It then covers earlier events and their architecture, and takes visitors through not only British design, but also international architecture in similar contexts. It covers the temporary structures, how royal jubilees have changed the country, how architecture can change a whole area (such as the millennium bridge for example), the changes to a city’s skyline, and how these events often bring out new material and techniques which are usually ahead of their time. The Eiffel tower, which was built for the 1889 World Fair, is probably the most famous of such buildings, and is a good example of how much of an impact such architecture can have. Only time will tell if the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the red steel tower designed by Anish Kapoor, will turn out to be as famous as the Eiffel Tower.
The exhibition is fascinating and certainly made me more interested in the design of Olympic Village. However, it could have been bigger: there was only one room filled with informational placards and two models of the area, and at times it feels like it was put together a bit hastily. I would have liked to have seen more examples of what actually happened to earlier sports arenas and what they reveal about the countries they were designed in. Additional types of media would have enlarged the experience of the older buildings and their impact.
I would recommend a visit to this exhibition, however: not only is it free, but some of the arenas on display are wonderful examples of what British architecture is capable of. It is interesting to see how our modern day Britain represents itself through architecture and design when the world will turn their attention to London come the 27th of July. There is also another complementary exhibition on the lower floor of RIBA which is called Design Stories – The Architecture behind 2012 where various new arenas are presented with beautifully-made models, and which are well worth a look.
Go and have a look, and see how earlier arenas and monuments have changed over the years and how they have affected their surroundings; pop downstairs and explore the 2012 Olympic arenas; and then take a walk around central London to see these monuments up close. It is well worth it, and brings a more interesting perspective to the Olympics for those of us who are not as interested in competitive sports. Personally, I will be taking a field trip out to East London when the whole thing is over.