Exactly a year on from the Olympic Games in London 2012, the northern part of the Olympic Park has opened to the public.
erect architecture led a team designing the new focal point of the North Park: a new café and community centre. Together with LUC we designed and extended park landscape including an array of play spaces for all ages and abilities. The hub building offers a welcoming space to stop, have a coffee or grab a picnic, or take part in the many workshops and activities that focus on the space. It is managed by a local not-for-profit community organisation and all proceeds go towards training local people and organising community events.
The building and the landscape were designed together and hold each other in dynamic tension: the sharp angles of the roofs and the bend of the service spine continue, reflect or contrast with the angular landforms of the park, creating a series of inter-related internal and external spaces. The sculptural mounds frame views of and from the building and highlight Olympic Venues such as the Velodrome and the Stadium. They enclosing smaller spaces and provide play opportunities around the building.
The building comprises three main elements: a low slung central spine, which extends an adjacent mound, and two single pitched wings that reach into the landscape. Functionally, the spine block incorporates anxillary spaces, reception and the toilets for the park, architecturally it creates a dynamic divide between the café and the flexible space – both of which rise to a peak adjacent to the spine. In the café the roof cantilevers to create a covered terrace adjacent to the play area for the smallest children, enabling parents to enjoy a coffee whilst keeping an eye out for their little ones. The main community space is oriented towards an intimate lawn framed with hazel woodlands. The canopy reinforces the connection between the internal and external spaces. A moveable partition enables the space to function as two acoustically separate rooms, thus making the space suitable for a variety of potential groups and activities.
There was strong public and political pressure to return the park to public use as early as possible. This led to a design with a high degree of prefabrication. The main structural elements (walls and ceilings) are of cross laminated timber: this was fabricated off site and erected in just two weeks.
Where possible the timber structure is exposed, giving a warm, natural aesthetic in keeping with the setting. The structural qualities of cross laminated timber are maximised to create large, column free canopies with slim edges. This structural system also enables generous openings, so each of the dramatically angled main spaces is lit from all sides. Full height windows echo the rhythm of the planting and are supplemented by clerestories and roof lights that are automatically opened to ventilate and purge heat – just one of the combinations of high and low technology that enables the building to achieve demanding standards around environmental performance (we are on track for BREEAM Excellent), acoustics and security (Secured by Design).
The play spaces reflect the industrial history of the area. The sand and water play is inspired by the pumping stations, canals and reed beds of the site’s Victorian past. These are recreated by children working in groups to dam and divert water through rock pools and industrial channels. The planting reflects a related theme: the reclamation of brownfield land by nature, from pioneer hazel woodland copses, taking in intermediate developmental stages and culminating in a mature pine forest. The play layer is interwoven with this succession story, creating bespoke play opportunities for all ages and abilities: the hazel copse that incorporates den making and bug hotels; seed head play; river and swale water play; a plant life-cycle garden – all of which culminate in the Scots Pine woodland play. Here the ecological succession story is repeated: younger trees provide shelter for younger children, as the trees get bigger and the valley gets deeper, so too does the challenge posed by the structures: higher, faster, further, longer in a conscious echo of the Olympic maxim. Intermingled with the pine, felled oaks are replanted to support a net structure that spans the canyon, allowing easy access to canopy height. At this level one can lounge, chat, enjoy the views, or maybe clamber, bounce, swing or slide. As the valley sides steepen, the nets give way to tunnels and bridges, and the oaks grow taller. At the highest point, a giant tree – blasted as if by lightning – allows a clambering route up within the thickness of the trunk to the loftiest perch. The scale, range and challenge of the structures leave plenty of scope for inventing new games and testing the limits of courage and ability. Even in this fantastical landscape, the industrial past is referenced: the protective safety surfacing is formed from shredded tires: perhaps the remnants of the giant depots that used to grace the banks of the river here.