hat a place Olympicopolis could be. The cultural building project, part of a £1.3bn development in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, could be for its generation what the Pompidou Centre was for the 1970s: a vortex of architectural and artistic energy with the power to change everything, one that could drag the creative centre of London towards its former badlands in the east. It includes, after all, a new venue for Sadler’s Wells theatre, the V&A’s “new museum for the digital age” and a “fashion cluster” for the Royal College of Fashion. It could convert the giddy Olympian optimism of 2012 into wonders that will unfold over decades. It could be, to use the favourite adjective of eternally amazed sports broadcasters, incredible.
But according to three venerable architects, quoted by the Architects Journal – Royal Academicians, still with fire in their bellies from their 1960s youths – it will not. “Dull as ditchwater,” says Will Alsop, who likes to turn bright, splashy paintings into bright, splashy buildings. “This group of buildings readily sinks into the soft corners of one’s brain,” says Sir Peter Cook, 80 this year, and the most talkative member of the radical 1960s group Archigram, “in the same way that under-amplified Vivaldi can be fed to you in a gift shop.” “Tried and tired,” says Ian Ritchie, who recently completed a wavy translucent building for a neuroscience research centre at University College London.
All three oppose the style in which Olympicopolis is being designed: careful, orderly, curveless, white/cream/beige/brown, mostly right-angled. In the case of Cook, his outburst is a continuation of recent attacks on what he calls the “biscuit boys”, architects who “enjoy what I call the grim, biscuit-coloured world”, which presumably refers to the dry, flat, brownish brickwork they employ. This style, sometimes also called the New London Vernacular, is now the pervasive way of designing everything from large speculative housing blocks to thoughtful arts centres. British architecture, says Cook, is now in a “dull period”.
To which the first thing that needs to be said is that the RA Three’s version of exciting has been given some chances in recent history and hasn’t looked like the answer. It includes Alsop’s troubled cultural projects in West Bromwich and Liverpool, one built and the other cancelled, the shortcomings of which were nothing but tedious for those affected by them. Before the rise of biscuitism, the default style for speculative housing blocks was a sub-Alsopian splurge of garish cladding, which was worse.
As part of Archigram, Cook started out by championing fluid, adaptable, colourful, free-form architecture that would use the latest technologies to free people’s lives and would be the opposite of the rigid monuments of previous generations. As can be seen at a celebratory exhibition at the Royal Academy, he offered blancmange, not biscuits, irradiated with artificial colouring. He contributed to the movement that led, indeed, to the Pompidou Centre. He backed the work of the late Zaha Hadid. Dramatic and sometimes magnificent shapes were invented. Unfortunately, though, free-form architecture of the kind Cook backed had a habit of being expensive, impractical and difficult to build, which meant that its fullest realisation would be by despots and elites for whom money was no object. The end results were as rigid and unliberating as the monuments against which they were supposed to react.
On the 2012 site, next door to Olympicopolis, you can see why its makers wouldn’t want to go the same way again. There is the fatuous ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture, which, despite a recent effort to enliven it by adding a slide, couldn’t be more dull. There is Hadid’s Aquatics Centre, the undoubted majesty of which came at a huge cost in money, steel and practical shortcomings. There is the Olympic Stadium, in which Cook was involved, possessed of a certain spare elegance, but which somehow lost its Archigrammy fun-ness on the way from design to realisation.
Yet looking at the images so far released of Olympicopolis, and while exercising due caution over the fact that the designs have not yet been revealed in their entirety, you have to say that Cook and co have a point. The different elements of the project are dutifully lined up in a row, thin, fat, little, large, like conscript soldiers at their first parade. The open spaces look generic, standard, nice-enough, ho-hum. Each block is variegated in its surface treatment, but somewhat pointlessly so. The V&A building has projections of solid over void that promise some drama but don’t seem enough to puncture the polite boredom of the whole.
The team that won the competition to design Olympicopolis is a judicious mixture of Allies and Morrison, who are experienced and proficient, with O’Donnell and Tuomey, who have shown themselves capable of artistic excitement in their previous building for the London School of Economics, and the youthful adventure of a Catalan pair, Josep Camps and Olga Felip. Perhaps the choice is too judicious, though, as its whole is less than the sum of its parts.
The fundamental weakness is that the ensemble doesn’t seem to rise to the extraordinariness of the project – its piling up of art, design, dance and fashion, plus two residential skyscrapers to help pay for it all, next to a canal, in a place that not so long ago was a wilderness. Rather, the collective design behaves as if such things happen every day. The urge seems to be to make normal what is not. The impression is not that the forms of creativity these buildings will contain might be transformed by unprecedented inventions in the future, but that they will carry on in much the same way as now.
It could have been different. Indeed the London Legacy Development Corporation, which is in charge of making Olympicopolis happen, commissioned something different at an earlier stage in the process, when it asked the architect Ole Scheeren, a former colleague of Rem Koolhaas’s who manages to be based in both Beijing and Berlin, to offer proposals of what might be done. This was a preliminary exploration, not a final project, but it could and should have been the basis for what is now being designed. It shows a level of ambition and invention that seems to have been too much for the LLDC.
Scheeren’s idea, kept under wraps by the LLDC and published here for the first time, was to pile up, overlap and intersect the different institutions, such that they would share foyers and terraces. The project’s publicly accessible spaces would climb through it to make a multi-level promenade. It would be one building and several, in which each institution would have its identity, but the whole would be a three-dimensional city of making, performance and interaction.
What the Olympicopolis row reveals is a void in contemporary architecture, which neither careful thoughtfulness nor rhetorical form-making is able to fill. It is not about straight lines against curves or colour against monotones, but about the art of finding what is latent in every project, whether extraordinary or everyday, and making the most of it. It means fighting the constant pressure to revert to the standard. Otherwise, architecture will be condemned to an endless cycle of taste, of action and reaction. Biscuit, blancmange, biscuit, blancmange, biscuit, blancmange. Is there nothing else on the menu?