Line of beauty

Skintight architecture: the London 2012 Olympic Velodrome

Back in July 2005, when London won the 2012 Olympics, I was more than a little sceptical. Much better for our nearest rival Paris to have got it, I reasoned, big public projects like this in Britain always go bad. Given all the trouble and expense and controversy we’d just had building the new Wembley stadium, I couldn’t see the British Olympics saga being anything other than miserable. And now look. The first big venue for 2012, the velodrome, is finished and will be launched in a whirl of speeding bicycles on Tuesday (Feb 22). It’s the best possible introduction to the Games because this is one hell of a good building. What on earth went right?

Despite doomsayers like me back in ’05, six years later the 500-acre Olympic project in Stratford, East London, is looking reasonably shipshape. We’ve had our fun laughing at the logo, at the mandatory silly mascots (Cyclops-eyed aliens Wenlock and Mandeville, in case you’d forgotten) and at Mayor Boris’s privately-funded folly, the 374-foot (115m) observation tower-cum-sculpture by Anish Kapoor and engineer Cecil Balmond known as the ArcelorMittal Orbit. This misbegotten fairground ride is unfortunately now being built, close to the main stadium. Overall, we’ve been through the usual business of the rising costs – the budget now stands at £9.3 billion, compared to the breezily optimistic original estimate of £2.4 billion at the time of the bid. But let’s be fair: the latest government figures suggest that it’s now coming in well under that final budget figure.

Of course it is utterly mad to do all this just for a few weeks of sports frenzy, but then again the whole project was sold on the notion of “legacy” – what remains for you and me and everyone else, afterwards. This comes down to a nicely landscaped riverside park with lots of housing and offices pushing against it, better public transport links, restored cleaner waterways and some permanent sports venues, including the matter of West Ham taking over and converting the main athletics stadium. London has thought more about, and spent more on, what will happen after the Games than any previous host city. Others are now pitching in: there’s a new proposal to build a huge indoor winter sports centre (architects Gensler) on the site of the unlovely Olympics media centre. We must be on our guard. In a little-remarked land grab last year the Olympic Legacy Company nabbed about ten per cent of what was planned to be post-Games parkland, and earmarked it for upmarket housing instead. We don’t want any more of what is to be called the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to be whittled away like this.

One thing is clear: of the permanent sporting venues, the best is the velodrome, placed towards the northern end of the site. This is to be the centrepiece of a permanent ‘velopark’, in total costing £105m. It is such a refreshingly good building. Selected in a 2007 competition run by the Olympic Delivery Authority, its judging panel included multiple gold medal-winning cyclist Sir Chris Hoy, Tate Gallery director Sir Nicholas Serota, and Sunand Prasad, then president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. They chose wisely. The velodrome is designed by Mike Taylor of Hopkins Architects – that’s the Sir Michael Hopkins known for Glyndebourne opera house, some of the better stands at Lord’s cricket ground, the Portcullis House building at Westminster with its cavernous tube station beneath, the Inland Revenue HQ in Nottingham and much else besides.

The Velodrome looks right when you see it from a distance, set on a slight mound with its jaunty twin-peaked cap of a roof, and it goes on looking right when you get up close to its angled cedar-clad façade, and walk into its impressive, daylit interior. Sports buildings obviously have to be tough and this one is, but too often tough means clumsy, means coarsely-detailed. Not here. Compared with much else on the Olympic site, the velodrome is positively delicate.

The hallmark of a Hopkins building is the clear expression of how it is made, what is holding it up. Way back, this was called high-tech. It traces its roots back to the Crystal Palace, Regency glasshouses, even prefabricated timber Tudor farmhouses. But Hopkins and his team long ago diverged from the bolt-together aesthetic of Meccano-like mainstream modern high-tech. They like timber and masonry when it’s properly put together, and can produce some heavy-looking buildings, as the necessarily fortified Portcullis House demonstrates. But they have an equal interest in lean, lightweight structures. The Velodrome comes from this side of the Hopkins brain. It is light and it looks light, hovering above the landscape on a ribbon of glass. But it is also a very taut building. Taylor says that his inspirations were the mechanisms of a racing bicycle, and the skin-tight kit the cyclists wear. Working with Chris Wise of Expedition Engineering, he designed it to cling as closely as possible around the banked oval of track inside.

Visually, you get this at once. We’re used to delays between outside and inside, a succession of lobbies and corridors before you get to the heart of the action. Not here. Even standing outside, you can immediately see right into the arena through the glass perimeter wall – though the arrival of various accommodation ‘pods’ around the interior has cut down on the intended transparency somewhat. As soon as you are through the sliding doors, there is the circuit, laid out before you. But there’s a surprise. Looking at that Pringle-shaped roof from outside, you imagine it must faithfully follow the shape of the cycling track, lifting at the ends. Actually it is set at right angles to it. This allows most of the 6,000 seats to go either side of the straights. Why? Because the rake of the banked track at the ends has to be steeper than the rake of the seating could ever be. So unless you are right up against the edge of the track at these points, you wouldn’t see anything. They have kept a thin line of seats around the ends for atmosphere, but most of the cheering spectators will be stacked up on the sides, where you gaze across the start-finish line.

The key to the delicacy of the whole place is that virtuoso roof. You don’t get beams, trusses, or columns. All you get is a draped net of slender steel cables, criss-crossing each other and clamped together. Pale plywood roof sections and bands of skylights are slotted into the big gaps between the cables. The whole thing is strung from a surprisingly slender steel ring beam running right round the edge of the roof. The effect is less that of a bicycle wheel, more of a warped tennis racket. The roof was laid out, winched into place and made watertight without the need for any scaffolding. It’s half the weight of a roof over a conventional velodrome.

This building is all about balance. The outwardly-sloping structure keeps the roof tensioned, and in turn the roof helps hold up leaning structure. But you don’t need to know anything at all about how it works to appreciate the end result. This is one of those rare buildings where architecture and engineering combine seamlessly. Unlike, I should say, Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre at the southern end of the site. Watching that difficult swooping form being built with its incredible tangle of heavy steel girders, I appreciated the poised nature of the velodrome all the more.

It is sheathed in timber – Western Red Cedar – on the outside as a reminder of the track itself which is made of long thin strips of Siberian pine nailed together. It’s like some Futurist vision of speed and movement, this twisting loop of track, somehow all the better for being made in such a hand-crafted way. I looked underneath the track (strictly out of bounds usually), to find that it is supported by big wooden zig-zag joists of the kind you’d more usually find in your attic.

There is some invisible clever stuff going on here too. Track cyclists like warm, thin air: spectators like things cooler. That division of atmospheres has been achieved, in one big room, largely by natural means. Services engineers BDSP are behind this. Vents beneath the seats draw cool air in from outside. The track geometry and the air conditions are meant to make it the fastest velodrome in the world.

Here’s a strange thing, though. Normally in a sporting arena you focus your gaze on the middle. In an athletics stadium we’re used to all kinds of events taking place on the field as well as the running round the track. In a velodrome, however, the centre – an empty sea of blue at the moment – offers little other than the sight of cyclists waiting, or warming up and down, their back-up crews, and a lot of officials. Instead, your focus is a series of moving figures on the ribbon of the track. It’s like multi-point perspective. This matters because it means spectators become much more aware of the building as they follow the riders round. It’s all about movement of the eye across surfaces. The backdrop, then is important. This building understands that.

There are not many post-Olympic buildings that stand the test of time. The 1972 Munich Olympics stadium by Frei Otto and Gunter Behnisch – interestingly, also with a cable-net roof – is one. Others include the large and small sports domes for the 1960 Olympics in Rome by the great engineer Pier Luigi Nervi. In Beijing, the undeniably spectacular if ludicrously over-engineered 2008 ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium by architects Herzog and de Meuron has become a tourist attraction in itself. The London 2012 velodrome is too understated to achieve that, but it’s got the same kind of seemingly effortless class and – being in a park surrounded by bike trails – should become popular.

Oh, and there’s this. The open-air velodrome from the 1948 Olympics, at Herne Hill in South London, still exists. Neglected for many years, it is now being brought back to life. Off the back of the 2012 commission, Hopkins’ Mike Taylor has drawn up a scheme to revitalise it. I just like the symmetry of this, together with the long-term thinking. Thanks to the cyclists, I’m starting to feel a lot better about our Olympics now.

Text © Hugh Pearman. Photos © Hugh Pearman and Richard Davies. Fuller version of article first published in The Sunday Times, February 20, 2011.

Links

Hopkins Architects: http://www.hopkins.co.uk/
Expedition Engineering: http://www.expedition.uk.com/
BDSP services engineers: http://www.bdsp.com/
London 2012 Olympics site: http://www.london2012.com/
London 1948 Olympics velodrome at Herne Hill: http://www.hernehillvelodrome.com/about
British Cycling Federation: http://www.britishcycling.org.uk/

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