Sir John Armitt: theatre-builder
As the measurement used to count down to the opening ceremony of the London Olympics seeps from days to hours, Sir John Armitt, chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), can be forgiven a moment of pride.
His is the organisation which, as he puts it, has spent the last seven years building the theatre in which Locog will now put on the show. The ODA has built all the new and temporary Olympic venues across London and within the Olympic Park; it will be responsible for ensuring that those venues work smoothly throughout the operational period of the Games; and it will take the temporary venues down after the Games.
It has built, fitted, and now sold on the Olympic village, one of the key aspects of the plan for the Olympic Park’s legacy, and has been responsible for drawing up the transport masterplan for the Games.
- London Olympics claw back US$442 million in housing scheme
- London Olympic Village investors announced
Armitt and his team have done it all on time and on budget, albeit a much larger budget than the one initially put forward by the London bid team in 2005.
Armitt, something of a transport guru having had successful spells at the helm of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link project and of Network Rail, sees Games-time transport as an area that will inevitably encounter difficulties.
“Working on the railways at Network Rail for five years, you know that you can’t control everything; things are going to go wrong”
“Working on the railways at Network Rail for five years, you know that you can’t control everything; things are going to go wrong,” he said in an exclusive interview for the August edition of SportsPro. “To a large extent I’m an instinctive person, so you do rely on dealing with things instinctively as and when they arise.
“I think we all would acknowledge that what is critical to the success of the Games is going to be the spectator experience, and that spectator experience is going to clearly be influenced very strongly by transport. The amount of thinking and planning and assessment that’s gone into transport has been enormous, and it continues to take place. [Transport for London commissioner] Peter Hendy and the guys at TfL in particular will have a major challenge, but again one that I’m confident they can deal with because they deal with it all the time.
“There will be problems. It’s no good trying to live in a world where there won’t be any problems; you have to accept there will be problems and then plan for that as best you can. Transport and security clearly remain huge priorities.”
With a smile, he says he isn’t sure the controversial Olympic traffic lanes will be available to him – “those are for the IOC family” – and says that he personally will be putting his trust in London’s underground network come Games-time. “Even today if you were to ask what the easiest way to get around London was, it’s by the underground. So for me, it will be a continuation of what I do every day which is go to Westminster tube station, get on the jubilee line and head out either to here or to Stratford.”
While Armitt is reluctant to point to a favourite venue, as an engineer he says he looks for buildings to fulfil their intended function, “and they all fulfil their functions in different ways. The stadium I think is great because it is so simple. The fact that it’s got quarter of the amount of steel that was in the Birds Nest in Beijing for the same capacity says something about the engineering that’s gone into that.
“The velodrome is lovely. It’s a super building and you can see it’s going to have a fantastic legacy. The aquatics centre, it’s interesting when you take people inside that today, they all go ‘wow!’, having been slightly puzzled looking at it from the outside, but when they get inside it’s got a real wow factor. And then a year after the Games when the wings come off and that’s completed, I think we’ll see the true design that Zaha Hadid had put together. That is a classic example of an architecturally iconic building. The velo is probably our favourite building from an integrated design point of view, where engineer, architects and others worked together right from the very beginning.”
The ArcelorMittal Orbit, the Anish Kapoor-designed ‘observation tower’ that sits next to the Olympic stadium in the park, attracts more qualified praise from Armitt. “Today I like it. When Tessa Jowell and Boris [Johnson} chose it in the competition,” he says before breaking off to chuckle. “Mind you seeing what the options were I think they did actually choose the best one. On the other hand, it’s always reminded me of what you get when you have a pyramid of paperclips. It’s been an engineering challenge again for the guys designing at Arup, but seeing it from a distance, seeing it in location, I think it’s fun.
“I thought it was very interesting that Anish Kapoor said himself the other day ‘well I don’t know if I’ve put something up there that’s going to be there in 30 years time; I don’t mind – if people decide that it’s served its purpose and it gets taken down then that’s not the end of the world; as long as it’s been useful and provided some enjoyment to people for 25 years, then great’. And I think increasingly that’s the way we have to look at many modern structures and buildings. We live in a world where it’s got to work, it’s got to be functional; and don’t assume that it’s going to be there for 200 years; don’t build for posterity. You’ve got to focus on building something which is going to work for today.”
"it’s always reminded me of what you get when you have a pyramid of paperclips"
Armitt is prepared to accept some of the criticism that has come the way of the Olympic organisers over the issue of the legacy of the main Olympic stadium itself. With sustainability in mind, the UK£480 million structure has been designed by Populous to be fully demountable. It has not been designed to be easily converted into a soccer stadium, seemingly the most obvious, economically viable post-Games use for it.
And with two soccer clubs, Premier League West Ham United the favourites, along with an outlandish bid to hold a Formula One race through the Olympic Park, in the running to take over the stadium, Armitt has conceded that if he had the time again, the design process for the Olympic stadium would have been done differently.
“I think the only thing that today [we would have done differently], looking at the potential interest of the main stadium being used for football, would be whether originally we had invested more in the stadium with retractable seating for example, so that it was a dual stadia for football and for athletics,” he says
“We would have probably put a bigger roof on the stadium for the long-term as well. The stadium has always been questioned. If you go back to when we had to make the fundamental decision, there just wasn’t sufficient interest from anybody saying yes we do want this in the long-term, which pushed us down the road of saying well we don’t want a white elephant, so let’s build a demountable stadium and keep it as simple as possible. I remember when Gordon Brown came to visit the site a couple of years ago and he made a comment as we walked across the bridge towards the stadium, he said, ‘you’re not going to take this down are you?’ To which the answer was, ‘well, that’s the plan’.”
The full, comprehensive interview with ODA chairman Sir John Armitt appears in the August edition of SportsPro. Subscribe here
St. John’s IceCaps announce series of sponsorship deals - 19 August 2011
Betfair to title sponsor snooker’s biggest event - 25 March 2013
Nike get behind John McEnroe Tennis Academy - 22 June 2010
Gunnell becomes John Lewis ambassador - 01 August 2011
Indian Premier League awards big-screen rights to ESD - 16 November 2009
Related blog posts
Aintree inches closer to million pound milestone - 13 January 2012, Notes & Insights
Tottenham Hotspur man heading for Manchester United next summer - 21 December 2009, Notes & Insights