Alfred Dickens, the novelist’s brother, wrote a General Board of Health report on the area soon to be occupied by the Olympic athletes, recording that ‘the cholera raged’ and there was ‘neither drainage nor paving’ – ‘in winter the streets were impassable.’ More recently it was a site of old warehouses and weedy dereliction. It smelled of the oil and paint and chemical effluent that had leached for years into the land around the Hackney Marshes. Underneath, there are stones from the Roman road that led from London to Colchester and bones from people who died in the Great Plague. But it was the varnish makers and the soap producers of the 19th century, the rubber plants around the River Lea, and the printworks, iron foundries, fertiliser factories and distilleries of the Bow Creek that made the whole area a dumping ground for the kind of waste that doesn’t go away. Over this spongy ground came the railways – the Eastern Counties Railway joined, in 1847, by the Thames Junction Branch – adding to the pollution. Today the soil has been cleaned in giant machines like twin-tubs, to neutralise the toxic elements left behind by two hundred years of industrial adventure. Never, in the ﬁelds of leisure and national prestige, has so much dirt been scrubbed so expensively and with so much hope invested in the particles. You could almost eat the soil now.
The ﬁrst time I saw London was in 1981, just after the wedding of Charles and Diana. I came to Stratford for two weeks to stay with my uncle. It smelled funny – like our ICI-dominated conurbation back home – and it surprised me that a city so full of telegenic hats and pristine ﬂags could also smell of wet coal. But when I went back to Stratford the other day that smell had gone, to be replaced by the ambition of London 2012, which wafts from every corner and every drained compartment of the site. When you step out at Pudding Mill Lane Station, you enter a vast, animated anxiety about timing: as I write, there are 183 days, 12 hours, 7 minutes and 35 seconds left until the Olympics’ opening ceremony and the entrance to the site still looks like Alexanderplatz a year after the Berlin Wall came down. There are cranes everywhere. Hard hats. And a wobbly sense that, if we get this right, everything will change for the better: the climate, the character, the ethos of the country.
My guide takes me around the Olympic park with the kind of enthusiasm associated with new mothers and estate agents. She checks my ID and we drive to Security. There are scanners and X-rays; every car is swept for bombs; every visitor’s credentials minutely examined – by four different people in our case, even though my guide has worked here since 2006: maybe Prince Charles is expected. Set free at last, we make our way through the park, arriving first at the Aquatics Centre designed by Zaha Hadid – a giant wave sustained by its own motion. On either side of the wave there are temporary boxes for rows of spectators’ seating which will be taken down once the Games are over. We crane our necks to see the top of the building, whose vinyl skin appears to ripple in the breeze. The shape of the Aquatics Centre will largely be hidden by the seating during the Games and its full effect will not be evident until afterwards. They say the Hadid design borrows from the 2002 ramp she built for a ski jump near Innsbruck, and it’s clear from photos of her work that she has a fondness for a sweep of silver.
The car swings round and we approach a towering crimson corkscrew that turns out to be Anish Kapoor’s Orbit. This structure was paid for by the mega-rich Indian steel ﬁrm ArcelorMittal with a lot of me-too backing from Boris Johnson. It’s a sculpture, but also a 115 metre high observation platform: a kinder thing to look from than at, but the cameras will like it and it will have a short but meaningful life, putting a postmodern smile on the face of an area known for its post-industrial frown. And in that sense it is a good symbol for these Olympics, a festival of temporary measures.
The London Olympics are already the most ﬁnancially successful Games there have ever been. More tickets have been sold more quickly for both the main Games and the Paralympics. We pass the water polo venue, a temporary structure that will be taken down after the summer, but then nothing here looks like a building in the sense that the Wellcome Institute is a building, and the park itself seems to owe more to Disneyland than to Kensington Gardens. When I ask the public relations officer how the tens of thousands of visitors will be fed, she doesn’t use the words ‘canteen’ or ‘restaurant’ but the modern-day equivalent, ‘concessions’: the big-name fast-food outlets will soon take up their rightful places. As we talk, the diggers and bulldozers are chugging past. Two hundred buildings, many of them old yards and factories stuffed with asbestos, were demolished during the construction. How did the local community like having a building site on their doorstep for six years? ‘We had a huge community relations team,’ my guide says.
Monica Bonvicini has made a giant LED sculpture of the word RUN that will stand near the handball arena. The attempt to connect sport to art during the Olympics has a long history, you could say, but in today’s world of high justiﬁcation, it also represents an attempt at explaining away huge costs. As I make my way around the site, and look at things both wonderful and gaudy, inspiring and mad, I can’t empty my head of the fact that the 2012 Games will cost the taxpayer at least £12 billion, with the more likely ﬁnal ﬁgure close to £20 billion. That’s double the original budget. I gather from my guide that it’s all to do with Legacy. A vast amount of money – beginning at £300 million to fund the Olympic Park Legacy Company – is being spent on resolving the question of what will happen to this place and these buildings once the caravan moves on.
Some previous Olympic cities have velodromes sitting in the middle of nowhere with nettles growing on the track and vines over the scoreboard. I expect a new priority here will be the issue of recycling: some architects are already taking an interest in Rem Koolhaas’s notion of reusable art, and much of London’s Olympic stuff may well end up in Rio in 2016. The biggest building on the site is the media centre, a giant white hangar that will house more than 20,000 accredited journalists. It looks like the Pompidou, with exposed cooling pipes wrapping the building and, inside, a multitude of studios and production facilities. I ask my friend if any of the media organisations are paying for this. ‘No, that’s provided by us,’ she says. Journalists will also get free parking spaces, the only parking provision in the whole park. ‘They have a lot of kit to carry,’ she explains with an understanding smile.
We pass the pink and blue Riverbank Arena, the hockey venue – hockey was one of the fastest selling sports – which has an acoustic wall for Paralympians, who’ll play five-a-side football there with a ball that has a bell inside. We reach the parkland to the north of the site: trees and walkways and benches, mounds and dips, all wrapped around one of the old waterways that used to be clogged with chemical sludge. It’s now like a patch of wetland, back to what it was before Stratford was Stratford. When you look at old maps you can see the wholesale reinvention that has taken place. Whatever the Games turn out to be like, the effort has been magniﬁcent: everywhere you look as you spin from one end of this cartoon world to another you are confronted with the ingenuity that has gone into inventing it.
Most of all, I love the velodrome – already nicknamed ‘The Pringle’ – and would like to have it in my kitchen. I might have to move the table back a bit, juggle a few spoons and plates and rethink the fridge, but I want it badly. It’s like a cyclist’s helmet made of conker-brown wood; or, maybe, like the Aquatics Centre, it represents the movement it will soon contain. There’s something Japanese about this sort of thing: the wave caught at the apex of its journey or the trees bent and frozen by the wind’s motion. The designer of the 6000-seat velodrome is Mike Taylor of the British ﬁrm Hopkins Architects. The wood-clad building cost £93 million and used 56 km of timber, which its 26 carpenters fastened down with 350,000 nails. It may well turn out to be the most loved of all the buildings associated with the Games.
You can panic seeing all the diggers, but the people working on the site are certain everything will come in on time. Some of the 70,000 volunteers who will be working on the site in the summer are already involved in test events. The ﬂats and townhouses in the Olympic Village look a bit like a 1970s housing project – rather nicely so, I thought. They will house 17,000 athletes. ‘There are more than 3000 ﬂats,’ a spokesman tells me, ‘and they’ve already been sold. We had a commitment that half would be affordable housing.’ Affordable? That could be a theme all of its own. The Olympic Games must be the most extravagant advertisement for national wellbeing ever devised.