Richard Brown: What Boris Johnson did for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Richard Brown: What Boris Johnson did for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

July 2012 was an odd time for me. I was working at London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) in offices minutes away from the Olympic Park, but as the London 2012 Games drew closer, it was clear there was nothing much for me to do. Not being a big sports fan I hadn’t bought any tickets, so a couple of days after the opening ceremony I flew to a small Greek island, where cheers from the local bar were the only indicator of London’s growing medal tally.

The LLDC itself had only been established a few months earlier. After years of wrangling between the Mayor of London and government, planning and delivering London’s Olympic legacy would be wholly in Boris Johnson’s hands.

You can probably guess what happens next. You expect chaotic bumbling, classical allusions, questionable personal morals, sound and fury signifying nothing. Boris Johnson’s behaviour has so tarnished his reputation in recent weeks and months that it is hard to even entertain the thought that good things came out of his mayoralty. But some did – and most of them are in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Early signs were not auspicious. Following his election in 2008, one of Johnson’s first moves was characteristically whimsical. After a chance meeting with steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, he launched a competition for an “Olympic tower” as a landmark within the Olympic Park, which resulted in the tortuous steel folly that is the ArcelorMittal Orbit. 

Apart from this, the Mayor more or left the construction programme for the Games – well advanced by 2008 – to run its course. Instead he looked to legacy, re-opening the issue of getting a football club into the stadium (a saga in itself, and one extensively covered in Dave Hill’s excellent Olympic Park book), backing the establishment in 2009 of the Olympic Park Legacy Company (an uneasy joint venture between the government and the Mayor), and working with David Cameron’s government to convert this into what became the LLDC – a mayoral development corporation with more powers over planning and singular accountability to the Mayor’s office.

He also cast a wary eye over the plans for the legacy development that would follow the Games. A new masterplanning team, comprising Allies and Morrison and EDAW, who had worked on the Olympics masterplan alongside the Dutch firm KCAP, had been appointed just before Johnson was elected. Their plans for the Park included large scale urban blocks – like those eventually built in the athletes village – filling in the space between the retained venues and parkland. 

These would have made a striking contrast with surrounding neighbourhoods of terraced housing – not necessarily a bad thing, but not to the incoming Mayor’s taste. I want Georgian terraces, he told the design team at one meeting. Yes, they replied, we need to reinvent the terraced townhouse as a 21st Century typology. No, he insisted, I want Georgian terraces...

Beneath squabbles over architectural and urban form were deeper issues of money. The government had pushed for a design and delivery schedule that could generate enough capital receipts to repay debt that had been incurred in buying up land and borrowings from the National Lottery to pay for the Games. Denser development would yield higher returns, and house prices growing at 10 per cent a year would make later phases of development particularly valuable – at least on spreadsheets. 

As the Mayor and his advisors began to engage with the plans in the expectation of control shifting from Whitehall to City Hall, the Legacy Masterplan Framework was reinvented as the Legacy Communities Scheme, launched in 2010. Gone were most of the giant “European” perimeter blocks, as forms shifted to something reflecting what design advisor Ricky Burdett talked of as “London’s DNA”– terraces, townhouses and dense streets (with a few neo-Georgian flourishes to please the Mayor in the computer-generated images). We reworked the spreadsheets to show that debt could still be repaid, but this began to feel like an incidental, rather than central, objective for the legacy plan.

More change came in 2012, when Margaret Ford was replaced as LLDC chair first by Johnson’s idiosyncratic deputy Daniel Moylan, and then – after only a few months – by the Mayor himself, supported by Neale Coleman as deputy chair. Dennis Hone moved over from the Olympic Delivery Authority to replace Andrew Altman as chief executive and was asked to accelerate construction: the development corporation should act as a public body, not as a commercial developer; it should build housing, not bank its land while house price inflation stored up treasure in the future. 

A further dent in the spreadsheets came when Boris Johnson decided that Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park needed more than sports venues, mid-scale housing and a beautiful park. The success of the 2012 Games had piqued the interest of museums and universities, who had previously regarded the Park as a potential location for student housing but not much else. Boris Johnson became a cheerleader for a new cultural and educational district, dubbed Olympicopolis – a nod to the “Albertopolis” legacy from the 1851 Great Exhibition in South Kensington (and now renamed by his successor as East Bank, itself a reference to the 1951 Festival of Britain’s legacy).

The only problem with the plan – enthusiastically promoted by the Mayor as transformational to the global image of east London – was that it involved filling Stratford Waterfront, the most valuable site in the Park, with development that would require investment rather than generating receipts. Nevertheless, the Mayor pushed the plans forward, shepherding the Victoria and Albert Museum, University College London, Sadler’s Wells dance theatre and the London College of Fashion to agreement, securing capital investment from George Osborne’s increasingly austere Treasury, and – less successfully – establishing a charity to fill the funding gap.

It is, of course, quite possible that another Mayor of London would have pushed back on spreadsheet architecture, and reshaped the Olympic Park plans to look “more like London”, as Johnson did. It is possible too that another would have captured the imagination and commitment of Olympicopolis partners. But these changes in emphasis were distinctly Johnsonian in their chutzpah, their ambition and their grandiose historicism – even if accompanied by an equally characteristic blitheness about affordable housing and capital receipts. Ten years on, if the planning of the Games was Ken Livingstone’s, the shape of legacy is Johnson’s. 

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Categories: Analysis

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