“The world’s first $1bn disposable stadium”

Opinion by Steven Downes
It is difficult – probably impossible – not to be carried along by the excitement generated by London’s Olympic project, and the enthusiasm oozing from Lord Sebastian Coe. And his lordship was not wrong when he characterised this morning’s unveiling of the outline plans for the Olympic Stadium as among the most exciting milestones passed so far in the odyssey towards July 2012.

So let’s try very hard to be objective. This design is not anywhere near the disaster that is the 2012 logo. Indeed, the stadium design, and the plans to dismantle much of it later, appears to fit the difficult brief very well.

What I cannot get over, though, is the idea that London’s Olympic centrepiece will be the world’s first $1 billion fabric-wrapped disposable stadium.

The projected cost for the stadium when the bid was made in 2005 was £280 million. On a scale of price against Wembley, that looked just fine. But it still amounted to twice the cost of the generally admired Emirates/Arsenal stadium a few miles across north London.

Now, the costs of the Olympic Stadium have crept up to £496 million – approximately four Emirates, or five Millenniums. And all for a largely temporary structure – 55,000 seats provided effectively through scaffolding, surrounded by polythene – that is ultimately going to be ripped down (possibly to be recycled as environment-friendly carrier bags) within a year of the Games leaving town. Can anyone explain how such a price hike can happen?

Rod Sheard, the chief architect of the stadium, suggests that inflation, VAT and the differences between build costs and the overall project costs – which is what London 2012 has quoted, rather than the non-VAT build figures so often mentioned on the Arsenal project – makes a significant difference. No one this morning, though, was very clear on whether the £496 million also includes the reconfiguration costs in 2013.

Apart from the cost, there is also a serious compromise made in the design to allow for an easier post-Games de-construction: some 20,000 of the stadium’s 80,000 Olympic capacity will not be covered by the temporary roofing. Let’s hope that the London weather in July-August 2012 is better than it was in the famously damp summer of 1948, the last time London staged the Games, or else the sales of commemorative rain-proof ponchos and umbrellas could exceed all other 2012 Olympic merchandising.

All that said, what was unveiled today appears to be an elegant enough solution to the dilemma that Lord Coe was determined to resolve: not to leave behind a white elephant stadium, unwanted, unused and expensive to maintain, and yet somehow provide the national athletics stadium which was first promised in Labour’s election manifesto in 1997.

Hence the 25,000-seat mode for the venue post-Olympics. With Wembley, Twickenham, Emirates, and possibly new Tottenham and Chelsea stadiums, London and the capital’s music and sports promoters do not need another 60,000-plus-seater football stadium.

But ever since the Government welshed on its promises to provide a stadium for the 2003 athletics world championships, and Ken Bates kicked the multi-sport brief out of his overblown soccer-centric plans for a Wembley of hotels, offices and shopping centres, what the capital does lack is a prestigious modern athletics venue.

On this, Lord Coe appears to have delivered on a pledge he made to the IOC, to the mayor, and to future generations of Londoners. If a Premiership rugby club, such as Saracens, and lower league football club, Orient has been suggested, can be persuaded to buy-in to the scheme as anchor tenants, then so much the better.

Of the look of the stadium, it is all too easy and glib to come up with a soundbyte-friendly tag – the “Fruit Bowl” was the BBC’s favourite. Based on preliminary, animated sketches, such judgements are at least four years premature. If, in 2011, spectators can travel to the venue in speed and comfort, move easily through security and ticket checks, and then, once in their seats, look down on a scene that takes their breath away, such trite one-liners will be readily forgotten.

“The stadium will stand for everything we talked about in the bid: it will be inspiring, innovative and sustainable,” Lord Coe said today. Importantly, London may also deliver a legacy to future Olympic host cities, because it will have broken the cycle of four-yearly one-upmanship, of building ever-bigger, but always less viable, Olympic Stadiums.

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The views expressed in this article are of the individual member and in no way represent the views or policy of the SJA.

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