Design for the London Olympics: A Very British Story?

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You’ve heard the stories about missiles on roofs, bad weather and bungling security. On this DnA, we talk about the design story at London 2012 Olympics.

Knowing they could not compete with Beijing’s ’08 extravaganza, Brits opted for a different design approach: modesty over monumentality,  regeneration and reuse (the demountable Olympic Stadium is shown right).

I was recently in London (visiting family) and while there took the opportunity to talk with designers and commentators about how they have done. And the answer seems to be, a mixed bag, from “baffling” logos to inspiring “legacy” planning for London’s abandoned East End. The approach, say some, will more “shambolic,” but also more “earthy” than Beijing. It will likely have moments that make one cringe and amazing diamonds in rough.

The show features the inspired poetic designer, maker and inventor Thomas Heatherwick (subject of a new book, Making, and a show at the Victoria and Albert Museum; more on our visit to his studio, whose reception desk is show right, coming soon), talking about the challenge of designing the cauldron that will bear the eternal flame at the end of the opening ceremony on July 27. It also features an undauntable Clive Dutton, an urban planner knighted for his achievements in turning around the City of Birmingham, who is now heading up the regeneration of the depressed borough of Newham – the longterm goal of the Olympics.

In addition, we’ll hear criticism and plaudits from expat Angelenos and design book editors/writers Lucas Dietrich and Phyllis Richardson, expressing bemusement at the contradictory visual messages — are the Olympics celebrating multi-cultural, modern London or rural England? — they have been seeing. We hear from “Being British: What’s Wrong With It? author, Peter Whittle, on the pleasing lack of “metropolitan irony” in the proposal for a parade of sheep and cows at the Opening Ceremonies, and we get an intriguing geopolitical take on why Brits feel uneasy about the Arcelor Mittal Orbit public artwork, designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond, from Architectural Review deputy editor Will Hunter. Also on the show, unabashed praise for all things Olympic from Luxmi Ghosh and London Mayor Boris Johnson.


1) Featured throughout the show is music by Underworld, who will be music directors of the games. You can hear their live performance on Morning Becomes Eclectic, here.

Wenlock’s name is inspired by Much Wenlock in Shropshire, England, where the Wenlock Olympian Society held its first Olympian Games in 1850, regarded as an inspiration for the modern Olympic games.

Mandeville’s name comes from the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury,Buckinghamshire, England which organised the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948, a competition for injured soldiers; they are regarded as the inspiration for the Paralympics.