An Olympian makeover

An Olympian makeover

New homes,schools,sporting facilities,bus and train connections to Europe,waterways and parklands.

Maheshbhai Patel came to London in 1969 as a 23-year-old but his tales about the 70s aren’t exactly psychedelic. Based in Newham,the less-loved eastern part of the city,the boy from Baroda shared the living room of a run-down flat with seven others at night. The days were even worse with thousands others like them looking for a foothold in the once-busy business borough. Four decades later,Maheshbhai—wiser,wealthier and 66—laughs at his days of struggle,calling it a street fight to own a few corner shops.

Back in the late 60s,the changing nature of global trade had pushed the enterprising Gujarati in an environment of decaying docks and fatally sick heavy industries. For most Indian immigrants,a large number of whom had fled here to escape Idi Amin’s rage in Uganda,East London wasn’t exactly inviting but it was immensely affordable. Old timers talk about thick layers of floating industrial waste that choked waterways,of mountains of used tyres that shrunk green open spaces and rusting shopping trolleys that littered the sideways.

It was only the company of compatriots that helped the new settlers survive the unpleasant sights and insufficient infrastructure of this ever growing Asian hub. Despite the mess around them,the Asian immigrants thrived and,as a resulted,multiplied. So much so that Britain’s long-running TV soap Eastenders,a cross between our working class sagas Hum Log and Nukkad,had to include a saree shop and add a few Asian families to the cast to be in sync with the ever-altering social fabric of the region.

A lasting legacy

East London is now in the midst of a massive makeover. It all changed when on July 6,2005 Paris lost out to London and the Summer Games 2012 brought the sun to London’s much-neglected area. With Olympics getting an ‘E-20’ London post code,Stratford in Newham almost magically became a fashionable address overnight.


The director for Olympics 2012,Andrew Mitchell,explains the logic behind ‘going East’. “We could have done the Games in Hyde Park but we took the most deprived area of London. Since 75 pence of each pound on the Olympic is a long-term investment,we wanted to create a legacy,” he says.

The spade work for the construction of the Olympic arena wasn’t just ornamental. The authorities didn’t just clear the clogged waterways and weed out the monstrous electric towers and miles of cables from the marsh lands. About 95 per cent of the soil in the 2.5 square kilometre site area was dug,washed and re-spread. The toxic waste left behind by chemical plants from the 60s was too dangerous to be left behind.

With about four months left for the opening ceremony of the Games on July 27,the organsiers haven’t missed any deadlines yet. The bicycle wheel-like roof and the triangular floodlight of the stadium tower over the Olympic arena that houses five other venues plus the Games Village. The designers at Populous,the official architectural and overlay design service providers,have given the entire complex the feel of a medieval castle with bridges running over the waterways around it.

But journalists,like local residents,have been kept away from the closely guarded project that is being seen as a defining moment in the history of London and the boldest urban transformation attempt undertaken anywhere ever. The excited residents go misty-eyed while talking about the Games’ legacy—11,000 new homes,11 schools,three health centres,15 new bus routes,world-class sporting facilities,new bus and train connections to Europe,waterways,parklands,open spaces and plus their own iconic structure,the Orbit,a London Eye in the East. Suddenly,East is the new Central London.

But the real excitement among Newham residents is over the employment and business prospects that they hope will accompany this regeneration. They dream of working out of the Press and Broadcast Centres buildings that will provide a million square feet of flexible business space once the Games are over. For some,like Salim Khadia,the dream is already a reality. Ever since a XXL size mall came up in Westfield Stratford City close to the Olympic arena last September,Khadi’s life has become easier. For the ‘tandoor’ expert,the daily trek to Wembly through the urban jungle dodging rush hour traffic or train delays is a thing of the past. “I stay at Upton Park which is very close to where I work. I earn more,I spend less on travel and thus save more,” says the 34-year-old who now has his sights on a takeaway place down the street where he lives. The 1.5 billion pound investment in the 237 stores that Westfield Stratford City mall houses has generated 16,500 new jobs and ignited several more aspirations.

The mall is a hub of activity. Girls in hijabs manage cosmetic kiosks,just off-the-boat young Asian men mop non-existent dust from floor tiles,women with Indian accents flip burgers or count cash. And virtually all them reach home within half-an-hour of duty hours ending. At London’s most ethnically diverse borough where 38 per cent of the population is of Asian origin and of which 7 per cent has Indian roots,the optimism is hard to miss.

About 10 minutes from the Olympic Stadium,Hemal Patel manages a busy counter at Annapurna Sweet Mart,Plashet Road,Upton. His father Devendra,along with other family members worked in factories in the 70s but Europe’s industrial slump threw them out of them out their comfort zone. The factory worker switched to catering in 1975 and it was only after hosting weddings,receptions and birthday parties for over two decades that he could buy the present sprawling shop.

Patel Senior says that because of limited opportunities and no financial support,it required years of hard work to put an Annapurna hoarding on Plashet Road. His son is confident the Games could help boost business. “Roads have changed,new businesses have come to the area and this will bring new faces to our counters. The future certainly looks promising,” says Hemal.

The eastward exodus,that is expected to get Hemal more first-time customers,has gathered momentum because of the high-speed rail link that opened in this part of London last year. Being seven minutes from St Pancras International,20 minutes from airport and road access to rest of England just 30 minutes away means the influential and the well-connected are now looking at Stratford and the adjoining area as a possible residential and workplace option.

Maheshbhai,who is now a well-off newsagent,says a property boom is just a few months away. Like on the outskirts of Delhi,where the F1 track works as a selling tool for property dealers in Noida,at Startford,real estate hoardings flaunt chiselled athletes and swanky sports infrastructure. There is buzz about luxury homes in an area that’s had no previous proximity with opulence.

But not everyone is pleased. There are those who feel that the overflow of the privileged from Central London might push the ‘Eastenders’ out of the urban space. Enjoying a lazy weekend lunch at the Westfield Stratford City food court,the Kumars are a bit uneasy about the future. “The rents have gone up because of the facilities around. And there is also the temptation to sell our East London houses and move to places that are affordable,” says one of them.

But those at the Olympic Park Legacy Company,a body that is actively involved in the extinction of white elephants that mega sporting events leave behind,had seen this problem coming. Andreas Christophorous,OPLC’s Head of Media,says the benefit of the legacy plans will be passed to the locals. “Out of the 11,000 new homes,35 per cent will be affordable housing,” he says. That,in other words,means there will be scrutiny about who owns the new property in the region and those with ‘E’ in their post code will get a helping hand.

Mega development projects,or any dramatic changes,have to deal with scepticism and even doomsday predictions and it is no different in London. But the pessimism for now is marginalised as Eastenders can’t wait for the world to come to their doorsteps and their backyard to be on the screens of over four billion television sets globally.

Unmesh Desai,a Westham councillor since 1998 and executive member for crime and anti-social behaviour,was part of the Games organising committee’s ‘Let’s start the party’ initiative across the country in his region. “We had a Bollywood dance competition where the community got together as we collectively anticipated the start of the Games,” he says.

Desai has been in Newham since the early 80s and remembers how growing up in the neighbourhood,he would travel to Central London for work and entertainment. Desai still remembers the Indian diaspora’s early days in East London. “We had limited options but the corner shops changed the way business was done in Britain. We were ready to work hard and that meant opening our shops on Sundays too. We changed the equations. That generation of corner shop owners grew up to be Britain’s most successful business leaders,” he says.

After a rather long passionate outpouring,Desai stops to catch his breath as he speaks about the road ahead. “London got the Olympics as it was projected as a ‘World in One’ city. Olympics is an achievement of all communities. With the Games come opportunities and like others,the Asian would benefit,” he says.

Faster,higher and stronger…the Olympic spirit has spread to every corner of East London.

The Indian hand in the Olympic Stadium

Two years before he moved to the University College London (UCL) to pursue his Masters in architecture,Chinmay Potbhare remembers going for India’s ODI against South Africa in Vadodara. The IPCL stadium,the venue for the game,isn’t quite a structural marvel while the match day chaos was not quite a memorable spectator experience.

In the years to come,fate was to take Potbhare to sporting complexes that were modern design monuments and not quite the mismanaged arenas in his home town that had rickety chairs under the cover of gaudy shamiana rented from tent houses.

After exposure to fine arts while on the UCL campus and studying designing advances in the class,Potbhare joining Populous,a global design house that is credited with creating iconic sporting arenas around the world. As the world waits for the curtains to go up at the Olympic Stadium,the 34-year-old architect with Indian roots has a workplace that overlooks the venue under wraps. “After being part of the designing team that built the pit and paddock area at Silverstone Formula 1 track,now here I am as part of the Olympic Stadium project,” says the MS University alumnus.

The biggest challenge for the Populous team,according to Potbhare,was the sustainability of the venue. In others words,they didn’t want to create a monstrous structure that would need painstaking and expensive maintenance. “London won its bid on sustainability and regeneration and that’s what we always had in mind. This stadium can actually fit inside Beijing’s Bird’s Nest,” he says,stressing on the compactness of the London venue. After the Games get over,the venue will be further scaled down—the roof and and top tier can come off and the capacity can be made to shrink from 80,000 to about 25,000. It is said that the West Ham football club is in line to make the Olympic venue its home.

“That’s why we needed to create a self-stable structure,independent of the seating bowl. And this will make it simple to remove after the event,” says the architect.

No white elephants in this Park

Sustainability was a vital factor in London’s Games bid. And this means permanent structures that have a long-term use and temporary structures for everything else.

The Orbit

Designed by Turner Prize winning Anish Kapoor,and funded by ArcelorMittal,the Orbit is a 115 mt tall observation tower that combines sculpture with structural engineering. Built with 1,400 tonnes of steel,the twisting structure offers panoramic views of the Olympic Park as well as the London skyline.

After the Games: The tower is expected to become a tourist attraction. As the mayor of London,Boris Johnson,says,it will be “the perfect iconic cultural legacy” of the Olympics.

Olympic stadium

The centrepiece of the 2012 London Olympics,the stadium is the venue for the athletics events as well as the opening and closing ceremonies. Situated on an ‘island’,the site is connected to the rest of the Olympic Park through five bridges.

After the Games: The stadium will convert to a 60,000-seat permanent stadium. Football club West Ham United are currently bidding to take over the stadium after the Games. The stadium will also be the venue for the 2017 World Athletics Championships.

Aquatics Centre

Designed by award winning architect Zaha Hadid,the Aquatic Centre which boasts of a ‘striking wave’-like roof,will host swimming,synchronised swimming and diving events. The Centre,which has three Olympic-size pools containing 10 million litres of water, will be the first stadium seen by visitors as they enter the Olympic Park.

After the Games: The 17,500-capacity stadium will lose two temporary stands and become a 2,500-seater venue. It is expected to become London’s leading facility for aquatic sports.

Water Polo

The venue for the water polo events is a temporary structure located near the Aquatics Centre,sharing several of its back-house facilities. The venue will feature a 37 mt main pool and an additional warmup pool. Designed to complement the look of the Aquatic Centre,the wedge-shaped arena will rise from 12 to 25 mt and will feature a rippling roof made of recycled PVC cushions inflated with air to provide extra insulation.

After the Games: The entire arena will be dismantled and elements of the structure will be reused elsewhere.

Copper Box

Clad in more than 3,000 sq mt of recycled copper,the venue will host early rounds of handball,while also housing the fencing discipline for the Paralympics. The venue features a concourse level which enables spectators outside the venue to look in,while also being illuminated at night. Rainwater collected on the roof of the structure will lower water usage by 40 percent.

After the Games: The venue is expected to become a sports centre used by the community,for training athletes and for hosting small-to-medium sized events.

Olympic Village

Providing accommodation for 23,000 athletes and officials,the Olympic village cost an estimated 324 million pounds to build. The village,that’s modelled around London’s tradition of building homes around communal squares and courtyards,will also include a plaza where athletes can mingle with friends and family.

After the Games : The Athletes’ Village will provide local housing. There will be 2,818 new homes,parks,open space,transport links and community facilities including an education campus.

Basketball Arena

The 12,000-capacity stadium will host not just basketball events but also the finals of the handball events. That versatility will bring its own challenges. During the Olympics,organisers will have just 22 hours to turn the venue from one hosting basketball events to one suitable for handball. The doors here will be 2.4 mt high so that even the tallest players won’t have a problem passing through.

After the Games: The venue will be dismantled after the Games. Two-thirds of the material used here will be recycled.


Because of Britain’s strong performance in track-cycling events at the 2008 Olympics,tickets are expected to be oversubscribed for events at the velodrome. It will have seating for 6,000 spectators,split across a lower tier and two upper tiers within the two curves of the venue’s roof. The venue will have a glass wall between the lower concrete and upper tiers to give spectators a 360-degree view across the Olympic Park whilst allowing people outside to look inside at the action.

After the Games: Is expected to be part of a new velopark for the local community.

Hockey venue

The venue for hockey events at the Olympics and 5-a-side and 7-a-side football for the Paralympic comprises two pitches. London 2012 will be the first competition to use the striking pink and blue pitches and a yellow ball that is expected to make for better TV viewing.

After the Games: The structure that seats16,000 spectators is a temporary one and once the Games are over,the seating will be reduced to 3,000. The pitches too will be relocated to Eton Manor.

Press Centre

Situated in the northwest corner of the Olympic Park,the IBC/MPC is a 24-hour media zone for the 20,000 media personnel expected to be covering the Olympics.

The IBC/MPC includes a 12,000 sq m catering village serving 50,000 meals per day while a 200-mt-long ‘high street’ between the MPC and IBC will feature banks,newsagents,travel agents,hairdresser,and a post office.

After the Games: The 80,000 sq mt-venue is expected to be converted to a business space.


The writer was in London as guest of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office