Designed by artist Anish Kapoor, the 115 metre-high ArcelorMittal Orbit (so-named after the Indian steel magnates who contributed much of the £20m [€24m] cost) isn’t any old piece of art — it is the largest public work ever commissioned in Britain and the centre point of London’s Olympic village. Unfortunately it still looks like a grandiose Coney Island Cyclone, albeit one with an Olympic motif and an observation deck that promises an unparalleled eye-full of the East End.
Until the Orbit opens later in the year, however, the best views of the 500-acre Stratford Olympic site are not to be found inside the heavily cordoned-off village, but from the London 2012 shop in the adjacent shopping mall, Westfield Stratford City.
Housed in a branch of John Lewis — the games’ ‘Official Department Store Provider’ no less — the store is filled with all manner of gimcrack embossed with the famous five rings, but the viewing gallery at the rear is free to visit and the vista is genuinely spectacular.
“Parts of the Olympic village are ugly but parts of it are beautiful too,” says Simon Cole, a resident of nearby Hackney and my guide through the Olympic site and its environs. It is late afternoon by the time we rendezvous inside the vast, cream-coloured Westfield.
It was purposely built so that it’s nigh-on impossible to visit the Olympic site without walking through: it is estimated that 70% of Olympic visitors will pass along the centre’s abrasively air-conditioned halls.
The mall is the largest urban shopping centre in Europe covering 1.9m sq ft, containing over 300 shops, 70 restaurants, a bowling alley, a 17-screen cinema, three hotels and Britain’s largest casino. Wayfinding inside is a nightmare — our tour was delayed for 15 minutes as my guide and I were waiting outside different branches of the same newsagent. Finally we meet, just in time to see the sun setting over the vast Olympic park from the viewing gallery.
Framed in the background by Norman Foster’s iconic gherkin, the eye is drawn, almost inevitably, to the shimmering silver Aquatics Centre. Designed by the famed Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, this bold, undulating building was created to mimic ‘the fluid geometry of water in motion’ — it’s here that Irish swimmers such as Gráinne Murphy will hope to excel.
At the heart of the park is the circular Olympic stadium, with its 80,000 capacity, where the track and field events will take place.
Cole, a native of Sunderland who sports a Sex Pistols-inspired Hackney Tours t-shirt, is a keen student of the East End’s radical history.
As we stare out across the Olympic site, he points out a red-brick complex close to the stadium. This, he explains, is the erstwhile site of the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, where, in 1888, match girls rose up in a famous strike against the severe health complications that arose from working with white phosphorus.
Nowadays the building is a gated community, an exclusive address home to popstars such as Katy B. Opponents accuse the Olympics’ backers of attempting to perform a similar transformation in Stratford — more than 3,000 flats, which will house Olympians in the summer, have already been sold after the games, at rates far in excess of what most people in traditionally down at heel Stratford can afford.
Stepping out onto Great Eastern Road, the thoroughfare separating Westfield and the Olympic park, feels disorientating in the same way that walking in LA does. All around are buildings so large and impersonal that the humble pedestrians is reduced to a pin prick, cars whiz by at furious speeds, a flashing LED sign advertises the in-house casino, behind which peek out a pair of old-style high-rise flats. People are thin on the ground, save the ubiquitous security guards around the village and a few day trippers with tickets for an evening swimming meet in the Aquatics Centre.
English psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, a trenchant critic of the Olympics project, has called the games an excuse for the “privatisation of public space”, that have ruined “a wonderful wasteland” which once existed in the marshes around the River Lea.
Proponents — most notably London mayor Boris Johnson and prime minister David Cameron — argue that the games will boost the economy and national pride at a time when Britain is experiencing the most prolonged period of austerity in generations.
The reality is somewhere in between. The costs of the games have spiralled to over £11bn, almost £2bn over budget, and its legacy is uncertain, but there is no denying that, even in its unfinished state, the Olympic park possesses a thrilling, shock-of-the-new quality.
Standing at the View Tube, a series of nattily recommissioned shipping containers on the Greenway cycle path, the whole site opens up before my gaze.
Past the stadium and Kapoor’s hula-hoop, beyond the aquatics centre and the waves of the temporary water polo auditorium, sits the spectacular fan-like velodrome. Nicknamed ‘The Pringle’, and described by author Andrew O’Hagan as “like a cyclist’s helmet made of conker-brown wood”, the velodrome is a triumph of art and functionality.
Nearby a giant LED sculpture of the word ‘RUN’ sits on the outside wall of the handball arena. But the largest building of all is not a sporting arena or a grandiloquent lump of metal — it’s the media centre, a gigantic white hangar that will house over 20,000 journalists during the games. “You can fit two jumbo jets inside it,” Cole assures me. Cole describes his own view of the Olympics as “typically postmodern”: “There will be benefits but there will also be losers,” he says as we pass by a block of newly built condominiums.
A group of youths with swimming club logos emblazoned on their tracksuits walk in the direction of the aquatics centre. Across the road, an office sits empty, the majority of its windows broken. The East End is still the poorest part of London but the area is changing. Near the Olympic park perimeter fences is the shiny new East London Porsche dealership. A few hundred yards further down the road we pass a ramshackled family-run car repair shop. “If it wasn’t for the Olympics, I wouldn’t really come to Stratford,” Cole says. It’s a sentiment many Olympic tourists will probably share, but there’s an undeniable, if distinctly ambiguous, allure to a corner of East London that will come alive in July.
Fly from Dublin or Cork to Heathrow and Gatwick with Aer Lingus from €70 return or Ryanair to Stansted or Gatwick from €60 return.
Where to Stay During the Games
Tune Hotels (tunehotels.com) has two London properties with very simple rooms. The Liverpool Street station hotel is especially good for travelling to Olympic Park. Rooms are basic but spotless, and available from £145.
Easyhotel (easyhotel.com) has five properties. Rooms are pared down from about £85 in the Victoria Easyhotel.
Alternatively try camping. The Romford Campsite on the Westlands playing fields in Romford will have 430 pitches from Jul 24 to Aug 20. Listings of temporary sites can be found at 2012camping.co.uk.
Hackney Pearl: This trendy cafe-bar in Hackney Wick specialises in wholesome, locally sourced bubbly and squeak. 11 Prince Edward Road, E9 (+44 (0)20-85103605, thehackneypearl.com)
The Pavilion Cafe: Located inside East London’s most popular public park, Victoria Park, this is a great place to escape the hustle of the Olympics. Plenty of vegetarian options. Victoria Park, corner of Old Ford Road and Grove Road, E9 (+44 (0)20-8980 0030, the-pavilion-cafe.com)
Beigel Bake: An East London institution, filled bagels start at just 90p, although it’s worth splashing out £3.50 on the famous salt beef bagel. 159 Brick Lane, E1 (+44 (0)20-7729 0616)
For more information on Hackney Tours visit http://www.hackneytours.com/