Among and around the buildings that will house hockey players and hurdlers, cyclists and swimmers throughout the duration of this summer’s Olympic Games in London are public spaces that strive to meet the exacting Olympic standards of excellence and performance, but which have a much more longterm goal. Architonic speaks to Vogt Landscape Limited, the architects behind a public realm project that has been a challenge of speed and endurance, but that they hope is fit for both Olympians and for generations of future inhabitants.
The majority of paving used is traditional Yorkstone, which is found throughout London
The majority of paving used is traditional Yorkstone, which is found throughout London×
While the architectural press has been paying plenty of attention to the statement stadia and triumphal sculptures emerging in London’s Olympic Park, the nearby Olympic and Paralympic Village is quietly being readied to receive the 23,000 athletes and officials who will be located there during this summer’s epochal event. When London won the right to host the Games in 2005, the Village was integrated into an existing masterplan to redevelop the area of Stratford in east London – a process that had originally been scheduled to take 15 to 20 years and consequently had to be dramatically accelerated to fit the timescale of the Olympics.
Smaller areas of grass between the buildings provide areas for the residents to relax and play.
Smaller areas of grass between the buildings provide areas for the residents to relax and play.×
Vogt Landscape Limited took over responsibility for the landscaping of the Village in 2008 and were immediately made aware that their task was to design for the site’s post-Olympic use. The accommodation that will be used during the Games will subsequently be transformed into a residential development of approximately 2,800 properties, half of which are being allocated for social housing. With this in mind, the architects paid special attention to the social conditions in this deprived part of the city and to creating public realm that would offer multiple functionalities, responding to the needs of the community over a sustained period by incorporating flexible spaces and materials that will withstand prolonged use. “Of course, the entire area is going to change a lot but it’s still Leyton and Stratford and quite a difficult environment socially,” explains Irène Djao-Rakitine, head of Vogt Landscape Limited’s London office. “What we tried to do is bring the best of traditional London public realm into this area to help to reconnect it to London, because it felt very disconnected.”
Only indigenous species of trees have been used in the landscaping
Only indigenous species of trees have been used in the landscaping×
The Village is situated on a 91 acre piece of land that was formerly a disused rail yard, nestled between the River Lea to the west and the residential area of Leyton to the east. Reflecting its position at the boundary between natural and urbanised territory, the topography of the landscaping is monumental in scale, making the most of the available space and light and allowing for expansive views. “We decided to create a very structural landscape,” says Djao-Rakitine, referring to the large plazas with gently sloping turfed hillocks and generous, organised planting. These public squares are dedicated to urban functions, with space for outdoor cafes, markets and events, for people to gather and for children emerging from new Chobham Academy to play in. The other main feature of the project is a wetland area on the western edge of the site that marks the boundary between the Village and the River Lea beyond.
The Belvedere is the highest point in the Village and features a stibadium where people can gather to take in the views
The Belvedere is the highest point in the Village and features a stibadium where people can gather to take in the views×
Inspiration for the design of the public spaces came from the site’s location and context, but also from the English tradition of landscape gardens. Ranging, open spaces with tree-lined walkways, subtle topography and strategically located viewpoints are typical features of London’s parks, squares and streets and have been incorporated into the public realm of the Village, with contemporary materials and techniques helping to ground them in their surroundings. One example is the Belvedere, an artificial hill fringed by trees that is the highest point in the Village. On top of this hill sits a semicircular bench, an interpretation of the Roman stibadium (originally an outdoor couch used for entertaining). “In this case the stibadium is a very long granite bench overlooking the axis and creating a meeting point like an outdoor lounge among the pine trees,” explains Djao-Rakitine. From here, the trees frame a view down the Lea Valley and on towards the City of London.
Tree lined paths offer privacy and help blur the boundaries between urban and natural environments
Tree lined paths offer privacy and help blur the boundaries between urban and natural environments×
The layout of the wetland landscape was also influenced by traditional landscape gardens, with the positioning of the five ponds and planting of various types of vegetation designed to provide different experiences and events as one navigates the park. “You have 100% native species from the original landscape of the River Lea mixed with this very precise design so you can enjoy some very specific moments along the walk,” says Djao-Rakitine. Pathways follow the undulating topography and, upon arriving at certain points, the structured planting creates viewing axes offering uninterrupted vistas across the wetlands.
This natural landscape acts as a sanctuary for local residents and wildlife, but also fulfils a more direct purpose. Rainwater from the site is collected in the five ponds and goes through different natural filtration processes, before a pumping station distributes it back to the Village to be used for irrigation. “The wetlands is a complicated piece of landscape infrastructure that also becomes a leisure park,” points out Djao-Rakitine. Technical structures such as the pumping station have been transformed into follies in the English tradition, disguising their purpose and incorporating other functions such as viewing platforms. In addition, circular arrangements of trees that contrast with the surrounding planting act as vegetal follies, enhancing the thoughtful balance between natural and manmade.
Undulating pathways around the ponds in the wetlands offer different vantage points
Undulating pathways around the ponds in the wetlands offer different vantage points×
One of the biggest challenges that Vogt Landscape Limited had to overcome was the impact of the financial crisis, which hit shortly after they began work on the project. By the time the British government assumed responsibility for financing the development of the Village in 2009, the design was already developed and detailed, but extensive budget cuts meant changes had to be made. Instead of downgrading the existing proposal, the architects committed to a complete redesign and “in this way, with a much lower budget we managed to maintain the quality,” recalls Djao-Rakitine. “We said no cladding; everything has to be real and the result is a public realm that is of much higher quality than is normal in England and even in London.” The main plazas are paved in the same Yorkstone found in many of London’s traditional streets and squares, while retaining walls are made from solid granite and only indigenous British species have been planted, including Filed Maple, Common Alder, Silver Birch, Aspen and English Oak.
Images of street furniture in the Olympic and Paralympic Village Photo courtesy of BURRI public elements AG
Images of street furniture in the Olympic and Paralympic Village Photo courtesy of BURRI public elements AG×
Alongside the quality materials specified in the design, the architects collaborated with Swiss street furniture specialists BURRI public elements AG on the products that act as important touchpoints within the scheme. They incorporated BURRI’s flexible system of benches with and without armrests or backrests and with backrests of different heights, depending on their context. Colour and height options were customised to meet the requirements of use in the Village and the products were subject to rigorous testing over a period of eighteen months to ensure their safety, durability and longevity. BURRI also supplied coordinated bollards and waste bins for the scheme and owner Martin Burri believes that the products work well in this situation because “they serve their function without being too visible or detracting from the cohesiveness of the landscape architecture.”
Aerial view of the Olympic Park showing the Olympic and Paralympic Village Photo credit: LOCOG
Aerial view of the Olympic Park showing the Olympic and Paralympic Village Photo credit: LOCOG×
In total, ten hectares of new parks, open space, public squares and tree-lined streets have been incorporated into the Olympic Village and Djao-Rakitine says she looks forward to seeing how the Olympians and the longer term residents will interact with and use these spaces. Although working with a compromised timescale and budget and having to balance the requirements of several stakeholders has proved a great challenge, she seems happy that they were able to overcome these hurdles and create something that remains largely true to their aim of creating public realm that the people of Stratford can be proud of. Now, it is time to hand it over and hope it grows and matures into a place that matches the ambition and energy of this upcoming area.