Interview with Mario Kaiser, ODA* Principal Design Advisor
| Urban |
Andrea Boschetti - Let me come straight to the point in true “anglosaxon” style with a fundamental “political” question: how can one plan a great event in times of profound economic crisis? Can it really be seen as a way of boosting the economy and not create an added economic burden for the people of the organizing country? If yes, can you explain how and why?
Mario Kaiser - Let me give an equally simple, direct answer. You can still plan a big event but only if you see it as an opportunity to channel funds and economic resources into the host city for operations that are necessary for the local area and coincide with long term community goals. As far as London goes, the need to upgrade a strategic area of East London had long been recognized but the regeneration would have taken about 25 years. So the Olympics have been a pretext to speed up and complete work that in the normal course of things would have taken a pretty long time. The operation is of strategic importance to rebalance the whole metropolis. East London will no longer be just an industrial and commercial area but a valid alternative to West London as a residential and tertiary district. By the same token, The City will now play a more central, pivotal role, relieving the daily congestion on public transport caused by flows from the (residential) West into the City and vice versa.
Another very important factor justifying the financial effort and commitment is the ability to use funds well, minimizing public expenditure and maximizing involvement by other industry players. In other words, the event must create jobs, especially in times of crisis and provide balanced, sustainable support to the building industry. The ODA (the Olympic Delivery Authority, the government agency responsible for planning and developing the Olympic Park) has no more than a hundred employees handling a budget of 9.35 billion pounds. Everything, starting with the Project Management, as been put in the hands of private developers through international public procurement. The public body has confined itself to providing strategic supervision, rendering decision-making swift and nimble. As is the practice, London was adjudicated the Olympics in 2005, seven years before the actual Games and in a moment of full economic boom. At the time, who would have imagined the sort of world scenario we were to see just a few years after? When the financial crisis hit the City of London in 2008, there were many who regretted being lumbered with the Olympics. Now though, even if the event is still to take place, it can be said that the Olympic programme has been the salvation of many companies in the industry.
A. B. - The urban regeneration of cities, ideally of a sustainable kind, and the end of their outward expansion is radically changing the very concept of development and our vision of the future. Was it perhaps because London realized this ahead of other cities that gave it the edge on Paris for the Games?
M. K. - In fact London beat Paris in a photo-finish also thanks to the vision presented with the Bid Book, the candidate’s submission to the Olympic Committee. The first paragraph reads: “The vision is to stage an exceptional Olympic Games and Paralympic Games with a profound and lasting legacy... The new Olympic Park, the centrepiece for the Games, will reclaim the Lower Lea Valley and transform one of the most underdeveloped areas of London and the UK into a benchmark 21st century urban environment...”. The vision of leaving the city with an easy-to-manage and valuable legacy that meets real needs is a principle that was immediately translated into a key planning concept. This was the basis for the candidacy - not just another peripheral development project but an intelligent urban regeneration operation to improve the most underdeveloped area of the entire UK. The river Lee is a tributary of the Thames and the Lower Lee Valley had been completely abandoned for more than twenty years, with some of the highest crime and unemployment rates in the whole country. The river and manmade canals cut the area off from its four neighbouring boroughs (Newham, Waltham Forest, Hackney and Tower Hamlets). The project includes the development of the first urban park to be created in London since the days of Queen Victoria. It will encompass some 200 hectares and be a natural beauty spot on a par with London’s other famous parks. The revitalization is first and foremost environmental and takes radical action on every aspect of the existing situation. The river and canals will be cleaned up, and the cars and household appliances dumped there will be removed. The soil is being decontaminated with complex machines we have called “soil hospitals”. The earth is cleansed of hydrocarbons and other pollutants and reused in situ. High voltage overhead cables have been placed underground and a 3-kilometre long cable duct built.
A. B. - In this context of cultural change it would also seem that architecture is becoming less narcissistic and self-referential than it was in the last decade of the former century and the first years of this one. But a focal event always needs “symbolic objects” and awe-inspiring scenic effects. How can this be reconciled with a less strident architectural philosophy for the city and architecture that serves people rather than turns heads?
M. K. - I think that is exactly what the London Olympics’ manifesto is all about - the return to a human scale event and architecture that serves the city and its needs. London has become the new paradigm to emulate in the planning of future major events in the industrialized countries. This is the essence of the enormous job that went into planning buildings and infrastructure where the focus was on the small scale and the detail. It was all about how to get every single element to work during the event, but especially about the immediate future and its daily use by residents. A good example is the bridges. I was talking before about how this area was segmented off. Well, about fifty foot- and vehicle bridges have been built. Not all of them will be needed in the future to access the park, especially not of the width required for the Olympics. So every single bridge was designed and built with a part that will be removed after the event and a part that will remain. The different segments meet different requirements in terms of cost, maintenance and longevity of structure and materials. These are aspects of that less strident architecture that very few Olympic spectators will be aware of but which architecture must take on board today.
A. B. - Could you describe some of the architectures designed for the London Olympics with this in mind?
M. K. - Everything built for the London Olympics reflects these concepts and which underpinned all the calls for tender we issued. It was very interesting to see the different and innovative ways the various bids approached the same problem. It’s a sign that industry professionals are very much aware of what lighter, temporary and flexible architectural requirements are all about. The sports facilities have been distributed across the city in three macro-areas: the centre, the river and the Olympic Park. In the first two, pre-existing facilities will be used and have been (heavily) renovated by the Olympic Committee; the third, the Olympic Park, where 80% of all sporting events will take place, is where most of the resources have been concentrated. Of the fifteen odd facilities built from scratch, only four will remain for future use by the city. The other facilities will be dismantled and returned to the suppliers of the single elements (stands and seating, bars and shops, toilets, furniture); in most cases the agreements are already in place. Or they will be dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere in the UK. The training swimming pools, for example, will be relocated to Scotland. Of the four sports facilities due to remain standing after the Olympics, the two major ones, the Aquatic Centre and the Stadium will be reconverted and made suitable for everyday local needs a few months after the event. This is a well-planned operation where the process has been inverted: the facilities were originally designed for future use and then adapted to the extraordinary requirements of the Olympics. The Aquatic Centre, for example will have a maximum capacity of 2,500 spectators for subsequent international events, but during the Olympics it must be able to host some 17,500 people! So together with the competition-winning team of Zaha Hadid, a project was devised that will give London an avant-garde swimming pool in an elegant building of sinuous design with two large glazed sides. The glazing has not been put in place for the Olympics though, in order to leave space for two prefabricated spectator stands holding 7,500 people each. For the time being the original form and structure have been overridden. Functionality has prevailed over aesthetics; the available resources have been deployed for the building of the future so that the London boroughs to take over its management won’t be overstrained by having to keep up an outsized sports facility. Another example is the Olympic Stadium, which after the event will be downsized from a 80,000 to a 25,000 spectator capacity. The change will take place in an innovative way. Seats won’t be cut out on the plan but in cross section. The upper stands and the roof will be dismantled and resold as individual elements on the market: steel (not welded but bolted), the roof canopy, the cables of the tensile structure, and the seating. What will be left will be the sunken stands of the lower ring deployed in amphitheatre style. Two thirds of the service facilities, toilets, public assistance and security posts, catering and merchandising areas are likewise temporary and scheduled for removal after the event.
A. B. - Those against candidatures for the organization of major international events (Olympics, World Football Cups, expos) usually consider the risk of overbuilding too high a price in a world that is already paying dearly for the failure to provide concrete and effective answers to the more simple everyday needs of people, like living in more sustainable wholesome places. What do you think?
M. K. - A large majority of the British population was against the organization of the Olympic Games. All recent previous experience of large public works in the UK had been negative, with severe overruns of timeframes and especially of budget. Examples include Wembley Stadium, the Greenwich Dome, and the Millennium Bridge. During all the activities of the ODA, the press exerted an incredible pressure on us, knowing that public opinion was very critical. It was only at the beginning of 2011 with the first signs of programme completion that the pressure was eased and the public started showing signs of enthusiasm. I think it’s right to regard the organization of major events with caution since there is a great deal of money and innumerable interests involved. Perhaps though, even if it’s too early to say, the example of London gives cause for some hope. Success hinges on two things. First, all the authorities at whatever level must be on the same page, with specific goals and clear roles. The agreements made even before our candidature was presented are fundamental in this regard, and here the political side plays a key role. Unless extraordinary procedures are drawn up whose timeframes and methods are shared by all, the planning process of such a complex event will get bogged down at every turn. The second factor is private participation in the management process to flank the public sector and bring proactive dynamism and flexibility. This is the Delivery Partner mechanism, a very common feature in the English speaking world, whereby the entire Project Management is handed over to a consortium of private companies that share in the successes, and the burdens.
A. B. - So the London Olympic project is unconventional compared to the long tradition of international events in that it has been planned as a layer to be spread over much of the city and not concentrated in one point. It’s easier to imagine the positive spin-off for the city and its inhabitants, and see how this approach is an important opportunity for urban regeneration.
M. K. - As we said before, the London Olympic vision is to ensure the event serves the city, overturning the criteria adopted up to now whereby cities like Athens were prepared to accept serious disruption in order to secure adjudication, and still today are paying the heavy consequences. In London, the biggest “victim” of that systemic disruption has been the Olympic Committee itself. From being the main client of all the works planned during previous Olympics, the Committee has here had an almost secondary role. This has not been easy since the it tended to request works that were totally out-of-scale with the demands of the real client, i.e. London’s city authorities. I should stress one important thing though. It’s fundamental to get around the table not only the local authority that is going to manage the sports facility, building or infrastructure, but also the people who will be using the facility and who know what sort of functionality must be delivered.
A. B. - Sustainability is a key concept in the Olympic project. Can you tell us exactly how this humanist concept has been included at the different levels of the master plan, i.e. from the broad urban project down to the architectural detail? Were certified criteria used? The ecological constant is evident in the whole programme, but how have you managed to avoid it remaining just a rhetorical principle, as unfortunately is so often the case? Can you tell us about the management formula and the approach to project implementation?
M. K. - Sustainability often remains an abstract concept that is not followed up on. And that was especially what we wanted to avoid with the London Olympics. I’ve already mentioned environmental sustainability, the starting point for the whole operation that covers all environmental aspects from water treatment and the creation of new green areas, to waste management, the building of a new sewage network and delivering building materials by water transport. But sustainability also means being careful about energy and reducing consumption as much as possible, which in turn means setting precise targets for each of the fifty odd projects, buildings and infrastructure that make up the programme, to ensure they all contribute to achieving the common goal. The same mechanism was applied to renewable energy sources, mostly provided by a huge wind turbine vane in the north of the park. Each project had to contribute to the final objective with the installation of photovoltaic panels, ground source heat pumps or other systems. A new electricity generating plant has been built to produce sufficient energy for the whole park and a sizeable area around it. The real concept of sustainability though, I think, is inherent in the concepts I mentioned before. For every pound spent for works, only 25 pence have been dedicated to the Games. The rest has been for the city. This calculation has been possible since we already know how much the works will cost to build, dismantled and remove; we know who will be in charge of that and within what timeframe it must be carried out. For the first time in history, the agency planning and realizing the event (the ODA) and the agency that will manage the area subsequently report to the same authority and have already been working side by side for three years. The risks of buck-passing and uncertainties have thus been reduced to a minimum. We are working on three masterplans: the Olympics, Transformation and Legacy. The Transformation master plan will be rolled out from October 2012 to December 2014 when the Park - and all the buildings in it - will be adapted for everyday use by the local community, and when any dismantling and removing of facilities will also be carried out. The Legacy master plan, on the other hand, is the vision for the area in 15-20-25 years. No one today can be responsible for that sort of plan in which the private sector will play a major role. But it remains a vision to aspire to, and if the previous master plans have been well thought through and implemented correctly, it is very likely that this third master plan will also be realized as planned.
A. B. - London is proving to the world that the city is able to rethink itself and, especially, that areas considered derelict and beyond recovery can be taken back and brought into the fold of intense community life. It makes me think of the O2 Arena and other districts along the Thames that only a few years ago were no-go areas. What is the secret, especially in terms of economic and financial sustainability? Isn’t it perhaps true that re-functionalizing and re-generating are much more costly than simply building from scratch?
M. K. - If you just consider the raw numbers, building from scratch in a new peripheral area of the city will always be less expensive and more remunerative than re-functionalizing and re-generating a pre-existing urban district. But this is not the role of a public authority; that is not the sort of urban development it should pursue. The public body has to take upon itself the sort of operations that are being carried out in London because they benefit other neighbouring areas as well, and sometimes the whole city, as is the case with the re-balancing of commuter-flows into the City that we were talking about before. A word of warning though. The public sector must only promote and be the trigger for such operations. The actual re-generation should be carried forward on its own momentum. In this case, re-vitalization coalesces around the creation of the Park and the introduction of a green area to upgrade the whole urban area. This links into an already existing viable transport network that operators will have every interest in improving. Then there is the private sphere. Westfield is building one of the largest shopping centres in Europe at the edge of the Park that will attract key commercial brands. In this way we will have three fundamental elements for urban upgrade: a green area, a transport system, and retailers. It is highly likely that this will lead to a good social mix able to attract private investments in residential buildings, the tertiary sector and small industries.
A. B. - The master plan’s services programme seems one of the most interesting and avant-garde aspects of the whole project. Can you give a few examples of how infrastructure will be transformed and how the new areas will be adapted for general public use both to cater for the Games but also afterwards?
M. K. - We have talked about the bridges but there are many other examples. The central avenue in the Olympic Park is close to a set of lock gates that were already there and which constrained the regulation 40 m width to accommodate large inflows of spectators. We called for tender bids for this important infrastructure and awarded a simple, ingenious solution devised by the Dublin-based architect practice of Henghan Peng. The approach way rises and becomes a bridge that will cover the lock during the event and so achieve the required Olympic width. On conversion after the event, the pathway will split into two routes of about 2/3 m wide, one of which will allow visitors to rediscover the old lock, which will be renovated and surrounded by a series of oblique planes, turning the area into a skateboard precinct, relaxation area and outdoor theatre. The stadium itself is another example. I have already talked about how the facility will be converted for community use. However, the extent to which the city will encroach on the stadium in later years is something we don’t know. We have, however, wanted to ensure that people in the residential areas nearby can remain adjacent to the stadium and that the human dimension of the project will be maintained. Oversized service corridors have been laid out to ensure they will be able to meet different needs in the future. Our reference prototype was the Italian piazza, which often arose on the sites of former Roman buildings - like for instance the central Piazza in Lucca. That was the sort of scale of transformation we looked to, not without a certain degree of presumption.
A. B. - One last, more personal question. In Italy the alternative to urban expansion does not yet seem to be urban re-generation, but rather no option! London has taught us that there can be no re-generation without densification, no sustainability without transformation projects, and especially, no modernization unless flexible answers are provided to the contemporary living requirements that present continuously. Why do you think Italy has not yet learned that if it wants to be sustainable, it can no longer think of urban development just as a set of constraints but rather as a recipe for potential?
M.K. - Among our country’s many failings, it seems unable to overcome its problems in this area as well. The constraints, sometimes absurd, the countless laws, and the, often unfathomable rules are, I think, signs of a deeply rooted culture. On the one hand, in a country with so many artistic and environmental treasures, the characteristic attitude has always been to preserve. Fear of losing something valuable has meant that we preserve everything, preventing operations like the one in London that is based on the realization that a whole vast area must be re-thought and completely re-designed. Sometimes the interest of the individual has to be sacrificed to the public good. On the other hand, the laws in Italy are so numerous precisely in order to safeguard both collective and private interests; and so it goes on. I think that unless we learn how to work as a system, getting everyone to agree together on operations that can no longer be postponed, we will lag behind and miss essential opportunities that are unlikely to come round again. Cities have to learn to change now if they are to stay abreast of innovation, speed and technology. And the formula of the major event accelerating that change can be a winning solution.