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London Power Play

New infrastructure buildings will serve the Olympics and then the neighborhood beyond

By Nalina Moses

The evocatively arched London Aquatics Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, may be the presumptive architectural icon of the 2012 Summer Olympics just getting underway in London, but it has some challengers in the unlikely form of a sewer pumping station, an electrical substation, and an energy generation plant. The long-term impact on London from these three simple infrastructure buildings may far outstrip any Olympic sporting venue. They have been designed to serve the games, and then afterwards the growing East London community where the games are being held.

In their preparations, the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), the agency responsible for executing all design and construction projects for the 2012 games, has taken a very long view, thinking about the legacy of the Olympics for the city as much as the events themselves. While they're not quite as Spartan as the measures for the last London games, the post-WWII “austerity Olympics” of 1948, the ODA has taken a highly strategic and pragmatic approach.

To accommodate athletic events, the ODA has employed several demountable, reusable structures, and constructed buildings that can be modified and remain in place. And to serve these structures mechanically, they've built the aforementioned bold infrastructure buildings, bringing a healthy dose of architectural gravitas to building types too often starved for thoughtful design.

Olympic infrastructure

The Olympic Primary Substation, designed by Glasgow-based NORD, was the first new infrastructure building completed; it channels energy to the new Olympic venues and the areas surrounding it. It's formed by two immense, cube-like volumes and is clad entirely in gray brick, with only a handful of ground-level openings for workers and service vehicles. The huge expanses of brick wrapping this massive Brutalist-like building are animated with inventive patterns and textures. Different angles and protrusions laid into the fields of brick within each facade cast intricate shadows. While the sheer bulk of the building is imposing, the nuanced brickwork gives it a softer, finer scale; its skin-like surface seems to breathe.

The new Olympic Energy Centre, designed by John McAslan + Partners, houses equipment that cogenerates electricity, heating, and cooling from burning a combination of natural gas and biomass. The energy-generating equipment is housed in an immense, stately shed lit by high clerestories reminiscent of 19th-century London power stations. Rather than the traditional brick, however, the Energy Centre is clad with self-sealing sheets of COR-TEN steel that will weather and age over time. The rusting metal finish gives the immense structure a more delicate scale and a warm organic feeling. A bright red enamel steel staircase suspended from one end and a slender freestanding chimney planted at the other look almost like a head and tail. Rather than the rational, rigid presence of an engineered structure, the building has the repose of a large reclining beast.

A somewhat smaller but just as essential structure, the Olympic Pumping Station, by the London firm Lyall Bills and Young Architects, pumps sewage from the new underground lines serving the Olympic venues up several stories to connect with both the existing underground sewage system and also to flues that provide the required above-ground ventilation. The open street-level structure that houses the equipment draws its volume from the giant circular concrete caisson below, projecting its cylindrical form upwards.

While the station's geometries are utilitarian, they're expressed with lighthearted flourishes. A high, lit chimney rising from one side will help orient visitors within Olympic Park, and its exterior is accented after dark with bright pink spotlights. A number of the pumping station's tall cast concrete exterior panels are adorned with delicate technical drawings by Joseph Bazalgette, the celebrated 19th-century civil engineer who designed central London's sewer system. The structure feels absolutely contemporary, with an explicit nod to the 19th-century infrastructure systems it's elaborating.

A powerful legacy

Each of the three Olympic infrastructure projects takes its inspiration from great civic infrastructure projects of the 19th century, particularly those in and about London. For Kevin Lloyd, project director for the Energy Centre at McAslan, Bazalgette's work also served as an important inspiration, particularly his pumping station in Stratford. In designing the Energy Centre, Lloyd says, “We researched the history of power generation in the capital, such as the heroic [power station] structures of Bankside and Battersea, all associated with heavy engineering: coal and oil. But we enjoyed the fact that they were bold sculptural buildings with character derived from scale and use of materials.” It’s this character the design sought to capture with its exposed steel panels.

Alan Pert, director at NORD for the Primary Substation, explains, “London, and Britain in general, has a long history of considered infrastructure buildings going back to Giles Gilbert Scott’s Bankside and beyond. We’ve taken influence from this history and made reference to it in our own design.” In particular, the substation's brick exterior is meant to be “sympathetic to the traditions of utility buildings and the industrial context” of the project, Pert says.

Both the Battersea and Bankside power stations have evolved into beloved design icons worthy of the talents of today’s most eminent architects. The Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron turned Bankside into London’s celebrated Tate Modern museum, while Battersea has been the focus of numerous adaptive reuse attempts by Rafael Vinoly, FAIA, and others. Each of the Olympic infrastructure buildings takes its basic form and mass from these omnipresent London landmarks and flattens their Beaux Arts and Art Deco lines with contemporary Modernist abstraction.

But if all these buildings reference an older golden age of infrastructure engineering, they also incorporate state-of-the-art technologies in their construction and operation. The Energy Centre achieves an extraordinary efficiency rate of 70 percent output for each unit of energy input by using hybrid fuel sources and extensive heat recovery. It also produces 20 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than a conventional system. The substation, says Pert, was constructed with “considerable reuse of waste materials in the structure; for example, fuel ash and aggregates recycled from spent china clay works and site-reclaimed brick rubble.” Some of that rubble found its way into the building's brown roof, an organic bed that was left unseeded but designed to support native plantings. Pert envisions that it will become “a wildlife habitat, aiding biodiversity and rainwater management.” Lyall Bills and Young Architects’ Pumping Station features recycled materials, off-site prefabrication, and a biodiversity green roof. Its precast concrete offers a range of wildlife bird and bat boxes as part of the future sustainable ecology of the site.

Each of the buildings has been designed with a dual purpose: to serve the Olympic events with fitting pomp and dazzle, and to facilitate continual growth in the community afterwards. In quantitative terms, the mechanical, plumbing, and heating needs of the East London community in years to come will be several times greater than those of the Olympic fortnight, and the architectural infrastructure and equipment at the new stations have been sized accordingly to support this growth.

Yet the buildings have been rendered in a proud, celebratory spirit which was an explicit part of the ODA program. “The aspiration for the Olympic Park has always been that it should be designed to the highest standards,” says Pert, “partly as an exemplar and a showpiece, and in part because of the scale of works—and hence [to show] the impact that a well-developed site can have for the future of London.”

These buildings can be seen as both a cause and effect of East London’s development. From the beginning, London has viewed the Olympics as a catalyst for organic growth and development in its eastern neighborhoods (historically one of its most impoverished areas), and these infrastructure buildings are then required to make this growth sustainable.

While these impressive new infrastructure buildings recover some of the respect with which their systems and services were regarded in Victorian London, they will also be integrated into the fabric of the neighborhoods they serve. Pert says that there's nothing new about lavishing architectural attention on infrastructure buildings. “It isn’t necessarily a new focus,” he says, “but it could be argued that it’s one that has been dormant for a number of years.”

“From the mid-20th century onwards, we lost that celebration, and utility buildings became cheap tin sheds, often hidden away on the outskirts of town,” says John Lyall of Lyall Bills and Young Architects. “Now that the engineering processes are quieter, less polluting and odor-emitting, these buildings can once again be more integrated into the urban fabric.”

Rather than one singular Olympic structure, like Moshe Safdie's, FAIA, Habitat from 1976 in Montreal, or Herzog and de Meuron's Olympic Stadium from 2008 in Beijing, the integration of highly visible, operational infrastructure buildings into Olympic Park and the East London community itself may be the most powerful architectural legacy of these games. Lloyd believes that the Energy Centre and other infrastructure buildings might become icons, “[in] the same way as the previous generation of power stations such as Bankside [and] Battersea have become identifiable London landmarks.” In all ways, it's a powerful legacy.


The Olympic Primary Substation, designed by NORD. Image courtesy of Andrew Lee.

John McAslan + Partners’ Olympic Energy Centre. Image courtesy of Hufton+Crow.

Lyall Bills and Young Architects’ Olympic Pumping Station is illuminated after dark by bright-pink spotlights. Image courtesy of Lyall Bills & Young/Olympic Development Authority.

Technical drawings by Joseph Bazalgette, the 19th-century civil engineer who designed central London's sewer system, adorn the Olympic Pumping Station. Image courtesy of Lyall Bills & Young/Olympic Development Authority.


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