From the outside, it’s a car crash. Or a UFO crash. Or, to use the watery metaphors that are de rigueur when talking about Zaha Hadid’s £269m Aquatic Centre, it is like a vast turtle waving over-sized flippers. A great roof, whose beauty should come from the way its great weight came down to the ground at three points is engulfed with even bigger temporary structures, blown-up, go-faster versions of what might be seen at a county cattle fair, needed to house the 15,000 temporary seats for the Olympic Games. They will be taken away afterwards, leaving a 2,500 capacity, which is the most that any non-Olympic swimming event is likely to attract.
Then, once spectators have negotiated the crowd management arrangements, which the building accommodates somewhat clumsily, they will enter a space that can only be described as stonking, a room big enough for more than 17,500 people. It is impressive because it is big, and purposeful, and will contain large crowds, but also because the architecture rises to the occasion. The architects’ moves are confident and equal to the scale of the place. They don’t fumble or tinker. More than that, the interior has a feeling of wholeness. It feels moulded or carved, not assembled. It looks like a body more than something constructed out of pieces.
The big thing is the roof, steel-framed and timber-clad, which floats and undulates, but is also palpably substantial. Officially, it’s like a wave, but, with its combination of weight and agility, it’s very like a whale. At either end a concrete bowl, containing the pools, the permanent seating and support spaces, rises to meet the roof where it descends. Along each side, in the gaps formed between the bowl and the roof, huge glass walls will be installed after the games, opening the space to the sky and the surrounding park. Now these gaps open to steep banks of temporary seats, contained within the great flippers that are so problematic on the outside. Inside, they are continuous with the rest of the space, and add to its drama.
The work focuses on the two pools, for swimming and diving, coming down to a few human bodies in water, small and fragile relative to the whole, a shift in scale that is somehow achieved smoothly. The diving platforms are moulded out of the same concrete as the rest of the lower structure, making them extensions of the architecture rather than additional pieces of concrete.
Another pool, for practice, would be part of the experience too, visible behind a wide glass wall, but International Olympic Committee (IOC) regulations have required an unfortunate temporary partition. It’s something to do with keeping athletes and officials apart, which is clearly very important, but it blocks the view. Elsewhere the interplay of architectural and sporting demands is happier. The greys of the structure are offset by strong primary colours: the blue pools, the yellow and red of the lane markers, and an interesting pinkish light filtered from the outside through translucent walls in the temporary extensions.
The Aquatic Centre is the London Olympics’ most majestic space: the most potent, the most charged. It is also 2012’s most difficult child, the first venue to be designed, the last to be finished. It was accompanied along the way by stories of escalating budgets (nervous builders, and near abandonment of the design). Built, it has compromises, like the view-blocking partition and the flippers, about which Hadid does not even try to pretend to be happy. As originally conceived, the awkward temporary extensions would not have been there, as there was to be a roof big enough to cover both temporary and permanent, but this proved too extravagant.
The obvious comparison is with the £93m, 6,000-seat Velodrome, another wavy-roofed work completed last February, seemingly with the smooth precision of a high-performance bike. The Velodrome’s roof required 300 tonnes of steel; the Aquatic Centre’s – about the same size but with admittedly more difficult conditions – uses 3,000 tonnes. The Velodrome, trim and taut, is also a handsome building, and promises to be a powerful venue.
Part of the complication comes from the fact that the centre was designed before London won the bid. London was in danger of being seen as the safe-but-boring option, with dull buildings, and Hadid’s design could be waved in front of the IOC as evidence of stardust. The problem was that the people who would eventually be the clients for the building, the organisations set up after London won the bid, didn’t exist then, and the brief was not as developed as it would be later. When designs come first and clients second, there is often trouble.
But there may also be a mismatch between the processes of something like the Olympics and architecture as conceived by Hadid. Architecture, for her, is something that should make its presence felt, intervene, change things, perhaps get in the way. Her style seems to be about dynamism and weightless modernity, but her buildings are actually massive. They are slow, not fast. They reflect an old idea, common to Palladio and Le Corbusier, that architects sculpt and shape and compose. Hence her roof, which dips down in the middle to suggest two different spaces within in the overall enclosure, one for swimming and the other for diving.
What London 2012 wants is a great whirring delivery machine, driven by the inexorability of the project’s deadline, where as many details as possible are determined in advance by specifications and regulations. They want architects to slip into the machine noiselessly, if possible with a bit of elegance, like Hopkins Architects at the Velodrome. With Hadid there is more of a grinding and crashing of gears, but she set out to achieve “a really great spatial experience”, and did so.
I am sure that the Aquatic Centre could have been built more cheaply and easily, and without its crashes of permanent and temporary. It is a building that will be at its best after the games, when the flippers have been replaced by the great glass walls, although it will then face a new risk of being too grand for a public pool. The wavy roof risks being too small for the Olympics and too big for its afterlife. It can only be hoped that, whatever plans are made for its future upkeep, they are equal to the ambitions of the structure.
But, given that the whole £9bn Olympic extravaganza spends money that could have had more prudent and practical uses, it does not seem so terrible that a small fraction of its extravagance should go on a space as magnificent as this. Many hundreds of millions will be flushed away on more boring things, such as consultants’ fees and security that may or may not be necessary.
Lastly, a note to the IOC. While the Centre offers 17,500 seats for watching swimming, only 10,000 will be able to watch diving events. This is in accordance with IOC specifications, which seem to assume that people find diving a bit boring. Evidently, the specification writers haven’t heard of Tom Daley.
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