While the architecture of the London Olympic games certainly won the U.K. a lot of press, there seemed to be a real dearth of coverage on the Games’ highly successful landscape architecture. Nearly 250 acres were turned into a spectacular setting. According to John King, Hon. ASLA, architecture critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, that success was due to a team of landscape architecture firms, including U.K.-based LDA Design and U.S.-based landscape architecture firm, Hargreaves Associates, who came in at the proverbial last minute to update the master plan in key spots, along with English planting designers Nigel Dunnett, Sarah Price, and James Hitchmough.
King reports that the Olympic Delivery Authority in the U.K. “wasn’t happy with the open space elements” of their master plan. George Hargreaves, FASLA, said to King: “The client told us, ‘We’ve got this product, we don’t like it, we’re not sure why.'”
Working with LDA Design, Hargreaves changed the planned river, creating “wider and more natural banks,” which were then cloaked in a sea of greenery, including a wildflower meadow planted by Dunnett and his colleagues. (The meadow, an iconic English landscape, is said to be the largest ever planted in the U.K).
Also, King reports, the plazas in the master plan were reduced in size in order to create space for new hillocks, or what Hargreaves called “sculptural tectonic forms.” These hillocks provide a platform for visitors to see the city, beyond the Olympic Village, and also help create a “softening” of the transition from the busy avenues packed with throngs of visitors.
On their Web site, Hargreaves says the plan developed with LDA Design “restores a river and transforms former industrial land, much of it contaminated through years of industrial neglect” into 100 hectares of parklands. Furthermore, the design was inspired by “the Victorian and post-war pleasure and festival gardens.”
LDA Design says the masterplan provided a solid foundation for the entire site, helping make the London Olympics one of the more sustainable ones to date. “The hour-glass shape of the Olympic Park naturally divides the park into a ‘wilder’ green northern half, The North Park and a more urban South Park. The previously canalised River Lea has been transformed into a three dimensional mosaic of new habitats – wetland, swales, wet woodland, dry woodland and meadow – that together form an absorbent flood-control measure. Specific habitats and wildlife installations have been integrated into the design to support key species identified in the Olympic Park Biodiversity Action Plan, such as Kingfisher, Sandmartin and European eel.”
Dunnett, one of the planting designers, added more about the specifics of the planting approach: “The Olympic Park comprises two different character areas: the North Park which has a more extensive and informal character, and the South Park, which includes the main Olympic Stadium and has a more urban character. Plantings in the North Park largely represent designed versions of native habitats and celebrate native biodiversity. They include species-rich meadows of different types; wetland plantings, including rain gardens and bioswales; woodland underplantings, and dramatic perennial ‘lens plantings.’ Plantings in South Park focus on visual drama and have a strong horticultural basis. They include the 2012 Gardens, Display Meadows and the ‘Fantasticology’ art installation.”
King says the city, at least the local design press, was thrilled by the park. LDA Design’s Web site lists a whole set of positive critical reviews, including one by Kieran Long, Evening Standard: “The real star of the Olympic site is the landscape design. It’s simply beautiful, with borders packed with mixed wildflowers, all blooming gaily thanks to the wet weather. Its hillocks and valleys, ordered by the waterways that run north–south through the park, make it a unique place, and give a flavour of what will be a wonderful public space after the Games.”
The London Olympics just ended with a bang so the landscape will now become public parkland. According to LDA, the park will be expanded, reopening as the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in 2014. A 55-acre piece of that bonanza of a project will go to who else but James Corner Field Operations, designers of the High Line and winners of the Chicago Pier design competition.
Image credits: (1) Nigel Dunnett, (2) Andy Harris, Hargreaves Associates, (3-4) Nigel Dunnett, (5) Peter Neal, Hargreaves Associates, (6) Master plan concept, LDA Design, Nigel Dunnett, Hargreaves Associates, (7-8) Nigel Dunnett.