Tell us about the early design brief
There was a plethora of requirements, from signposting to site organisation, which were required to put on the Games. We designed the ‘overlay’, which facilitated the Games themselves, at each of the venues for which we had responsibility. In the Olympic Park this meant turning the permanent infrastructure into a park during the Games, while in the city venues, this also meant designing the fields of play and spectator stands in their historical context.
What inspired your design concept?
We wanted to make a local, responsible and appropriate Games. ‘Local’ meant a Games for London and maximising the impact of the existing city. ‘Responsible’ considered the temporary and the permanent. Wherever possible, the overlay contributed to the legacy masterplan, and where it could not, would become temporary. Everything temporary would be re-usable, where possible. ‘Appropriate’ involved a redefinition of ‘look’; the brand of the Games. The look considered the field of play, the supporting crowd and the routes to and around the venues.
Peculiar learnings on the job
- Sporting events have very particular requirements and have offered us an insight into a world we would never have seen. For example, through our work designing the equestrian facilities in Greenwich Park, we now know how far a horse vomits and how much a dead horse weighs!
What challenges did you face along the way?
Complexity versus legibility: The overlay described an enormously complex set of relationships and split-second timings which brought together the performers, organisers and public, who generally had to be kept entirely separate. We approximated this to the workings of a city, which can work like clockwork while still appearing simple to understand and to navigate.
International versus local: The pressure to generalise and to make 2012 like any other Games had to be accommodated alongside an ambition to make it distinctive: a London Games. Every fibre of the designers’ instinct had to be directed towards revealing the fascinating interplay of these two desires, perhaps best illustrated by the surreal pageants of beach volleyball in Horse Guards Parade, equestrian events in Greenwich Park or the triathlon around the Serpentine.
Brash versus elegant: The instinct to party, and to throw away design sensibility in the name of fun had to be balanced with the belief that, like a new Festival of Britain, design could solve problems and be fun at the same time.
Orthodox versus innovative: The pressure to accept the ‘Olympic orthodoxy’ carried from Games to Games by a troupe of indifferent advisors was avoided, on the whole. We lost count of the number of times we were told ‘you can’t do that’, and the number of times we proved that, yes, we could.
Heritage – to damage or reveal: Several billion people have seen Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House, Horse Guards Parade and the Olympic Park. The aim of the LOCOG overlay was to reveal something of the quality of these places; to set a Games within a city for perhaps the first time.
Getting people to agree to such a simple idea required all the skills that we have developed working in sensitive historic environments. It may be that we have Henry VIII and the jousting pageants at his Tilt Yard and the allotmenteers of the Second World War who dug, insensitive to Charles II’s parterre, to thank for creating a precedent for making an equestrian event in Greenwich Park.
How did it feel to be involved in such an important British project?
Hard work, followed by fear, followed by relief, followed by pride, followed by sleep!
We were privileged to design venues in places which would never permit a permanent building and deal with sites which would otherwise be very restricted. It was fantastic to complete a project and immediately have it tested and used to its full potential.