Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

8 November 2007

The Olympics goes Ikea: The flat-packed stadium as a symbol for Britain

I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed by the ingenuity of the design for the 2012 Olympics athletics stadium or depressed by the apparent lack of ambition to create something that could stand as a powerful and beautiful symbol of Britain’s achievements for many years to come. The fact that it will be put together in such a way that it can be dismantled after the Games, and reduced to a much lower-capacity arena that could more easily be used by the local community and a low-ranking football or rugby team (Leyton Orient has been mooted), does seem cleverly to deliver on the objectives of leaving a lasting legacy and of producing something environmentally and socially sustainable.

All the same, I can’t help feeling a bit disappointed that an 80,000-seat stadium won’t be left in place, and will just be picked to pieces and left as a relatively unimpressive, small-scale stadium – less of a landmark than most English Premier League football stadiums, to say nothing of the national football and rugby stadiums at Wembley and Twickenham. Equally, it has to be said, the full-scale design (at least in the computer mock-ups) is not very aesthetically exciting: it’s been compared to gas-storage tanks, and understandably so. This is not much of a monument to what is billed as the greatest sporting event on earth – a description disputed by the football aficionados, however, who regard the Fifa World Cup as the biggest show in town.

I suppose the Games organisers are at least being consistent with the approach they’ve taken all along, which is to emphasise that the enduring legacy of the London Olympics will be its contribution to regenerating that part of East London and the long-term benefits it will bring to the community there. These benefits won’t be real unless the facilities are used and can be maintained by local people. That much is fair enough. But on one level, why can’t the local community and the country have great new sports facilities AND a magnificent, permanent memorial to the once-in-a-lifetime Games? Admittedly, this would cost more; but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Britain is supposed to be a wealthy country. Surely, commercial and / or public funds could be mustered to maintain the stadium permanently in its Olympic scale. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if – despite its dismountable design – the stadium were eventually kept in its full proportions, rather like the London Millennium Eye, which was originally only supposed to last for three years.

What is it about this country that we seem to have so little ambition to build aesthetically, as well as technologically, ground-breaking, enduring monuments to major events such as the millennium or the Olympics? One need think only of the structure formerly known as the Millennium Dome, which was so derided at the time and seems finally to have found a raison d’etre as the O2-sponsored concert arena – any reference to its former millennium symbolism long gone.

Perhaps, again, the problem is with the ‘this country’ part of the equation: it’s the British (strictly, the UK) Olympics in which we’ll be represented by a UK team, in contrast to many sports (including, obviously, football) in which there are separate teams for each of the nations of the UK. We don’t seem to have difficulty in producing major landmark buildings to symbolise our national institutions and sporting teams. Think of the new Wembley Stadium (what a contrast to the Olympic Stadium concept and design!); the Scottish Parliament building and Hampden Park; the new Welsh Assembly building and the Millennium Stadium. By contrast, we no longer appear to have the confidence to erect edifices that testify to the long-term ambitions and values of the UK as a nation. What have we got by way of UK monument to the millennium, after all? A commercial concert venue and a tourist attraction facing the Houses of Parliament, whose ‘pod’ design has been explicitly borrowed for the refreshment and toilet facilities for the equally temporary Olympic stadium.

Indeed, what a telling symbol for the UK the Olympic stadium will be! A flat-packed, recyclable, impermanent assemblage of different components which will very soon be dismantled!


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