Sublime: Tell us a little about your background.
Eleanor Fawcett: I trained as an architect. I did my undergraduate degree at Cambridge University, and then got quite interested in everything that is outside of the building. When I was inside the building, with all my designs, I immediately lost interest. I thought, OK, maybe I shouldn’t focus on being an architect, maybe I should think about doing something city-scale.
Then I went to America to do a Master’s degree at MIT, which involved more urbanism, bigger-scale stuff. I was planning on moving to New York and staying out in America, but the job came up working for the Mayor of London in a team called the Architecture and Urbanism Unit, which the architect Richard Rogers headed up. I thought, It’s perfect, I have to apply for it. I ended up getting it, and moving back to London.
Ever since I finished at MIT, I’ve been working for the Mayor of London and his design team. It’s a little unusual, being a trained architect but not actually designing buildings.
S: Have there been any previous projects that were particularly important to you?
EF: My projects have almost always been located in east London. I did quite a bit of work looking at the area around the Royal Docks, where City Airport is, which was just amazing. It’s the most stunning landscape. They are huge old docks that have been decommissioned and somehow, even over the last 20 years, no one has really figured out what to do with that area. Then I got sucked into the Olympic project quite quickly after that, and I’ve been focused on it ever since.
S: How did you become involved with the Olympic legacy?
EF: In 2004, when I first started, we were bidding for London to host the Olympics, and putting together the master plan and the vision for it. We were working up strategies for the whole area because we didn’t expect to win the Olympics. We were preparing a lot of documentation so that, when we lost, the Mayor would be able to launch our plans and say, Well, never mind, because we have amazing plans for the area. Don’t worry, it’s all going to be brilliant.
Then we won the bid, and had to redo all the documents to incorporate the Olympics. The legacy of the Olympics project really kicked off in full in 2007. It has already been quite a long project; it’s a job for life.
S: What does the Olympic legacy project involve? how will it change east London?
EF: The actual Olympic legacy, in its narrowest definition, is in the new Olympic Park just near Stratford. It was an old industrial area of London. The poorest communities in London were always in the east, and they suffered from the worst heath problems, the worst employment problems. It was one of those places that, for centuries, had always been quite a problematic area.
It was deliberately proposed to site the Olympics in east London because with that amount of investment going in, and with the prestige of the Olympics, it would be an amazing opportunity to tackle those problems. We could transform the area, and make it into a really good part of London to live, to benefit the community. It will give the people who live there better opportunities for education and employment.
S: How will you go about implementing the legacy plans, once the Olympic Games are over?
EF: The Olympic Park is in about 300 hectares of land. It is being used for the Games themselves, and includes the venues, back-of-house and the Athlete’s Village. After the Olympics, quite a lot of that will be removed, the temporary venues, and so on. Then we are going to use all the empty land left over to develop housing, schools, retail sites. The area will become a new urban district. There will be around 900 new homes and four new schools, with the big park right in the middle, and the Stadium and the Aquatics Centre.
When people talk about the legacy, that’s usually what they are referring to – the plans for the redevelopment and what it will all look like. But they’re also talking about the promise of hosting the Olympics in east London, and all the benefits it will have for the surrounding communities. That’s the slightly more visionary definition of the legacy.
S: Do you think it will be an easy transition, from being an Olympic venue to becoming a new city district?
EF: It’s going to be either the biggest opportunity or the biggest problem for the whole project, because it’s so massive. It’s a big area, but there are so many new homes planned that there is no way we are going to be able to build them all in one go. We think it is probably going to take 20 to 25 years. Obviously each year we’ll build more, but it will be a generation until literally the whole thing, all 900 new homes, are there.
In the interim, we are going to have quite a lot of empty land. After the Games are finished, and they have taken away all the temporary structures, we’ll have a big area of land with a park in the middle, on lots of lovely canals and rivers, and the venues, and not much else. For people visiting the Park, the worst thing will be if they turn up and think, oh, this is like a building site.
There is actually tons of stuff we can do. All kinds of temporary use can be made of the venues, such as affordable studio space for artists, or temporary museums, or a massive playground, or workshops that businesses can set up for ten years. Hopefully it will be a really buzzing, amazing time, with a lot of great activity.
It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. We can just try out different things and be creative. That’s what we hope will form the transition phase between the glitzy Olympics and the final new London neighbourhood.
S: Has there been a similar regeneration project, either in the UK or abroad, that has helped inspire or influence the Olympic legacy?
EF: We spent time looking at other Olympic Parks and previous Olympic projects, just for ideas. Munich is really beautiful. They used one designer on the Park and all the venues, so there’s a flow to the whole thing. But what we are trying to create is a bit of city, a bit of London. We spent quite a lot of time looking at the parts of London people like best, such as Camden and Notting Hill, the neighbourhoods where everyone goes, Wow, that’s where I’d like to live, and trying to understand what makes them like that. Often it’s that they have houses that people can adapt, and beautiful parks. The whole quality of those neighbourhoods is really good.
We almost spent more time looking around London than looking internationally. Initially we visited a lot of new developments in Germany and Holland, which are really fantastic, but they’re not London. We took a step back, and the legacy company thought, OK, right, this is not about Holland, or Germany, this is about London.
S: Would you classify this as a particularly local project?
EF: We will know we’ve been successful if it feels like it’s done something good for east London and the communities who live nearby, who are in the top two per cent of deprivation nationally. The real measure of success is if their kids are able to get a better education and live better lives in all kinds of ways, and in that way it is very local; it’s all about regenerating east London.
But at the same time, it will also become a big international tourist destination. On the one hand, it’s all about local regeneration. But on the other hand, we hope it’s going to be a major hotspot, the kind of place people will go because there are a lot of things going on. It will be interesting to see how that plays out, that mixture of being a place for local people and a place for visitors.
I’m sure it will change over time. At the end of the day there is only so much you can control with these massive projects. You can research it as carefully as possible, but you don’t actually know who is going to go there and what it’s going to feel like.
S: How important is sustainable redevelopment, or architecture, for a city like London?
EF: It is massively important, because London is one of the few major cities in Europe that’s still growing. The population of London is increasing quite dramatically, and there is a real need for new housing. In some ways, that’s fantastic for London, as it shows how much it’s thriving as a city. But it’s also a real challenge for the people who live here, because if you’re youngish you can usually find a place in central London, but the minute you have a family, you have to move out. Most people just can’t afford to stay.
Projects like this – and there are other, similar projects in London, such as the King’s Cross redevelopment and the massive scheme at Elephant and Castle – are quite important because that’s the way London can accommodate its growth without sprawling. It’s about trying to keep it dense, compact, and get more people living in the centre by having more homes available for people to live in.
In the legacy development, we are trying to make sure that as many homes as we can feasibly fit in are family housing, and that as many as possible are affordable, that they’re not all going to sell at private market rates. The more you can try and keep people, and not have them all moving out to the suburbs, the less people have to travel long distances.
It was 15 years ago that Richard Rogers wrote that cities are like small planets, and that was very much what he was proposing. It’s OK to be dense, as a city, if people have access to everything they need.