Olympia: how to avoid kitsch – and enhance community

Currently, for most local people, the Olympia Venue in Hammersmith exists in the background as a large grey blob. The paint-job on the Art Deco frontage couldn’t be worse.  The only time local people notice Olympia is when it causes traffic chaos.

The new owners of Olympia plan to change all this. They want to open the site back up into its separate, listed, historic buildings.  They want to create public spaces within and around these lovely buildings over a 14 acre site.

What they plan sounds very good:

  • Underground loading to take traffic off the street;
  • Olympia Way pedestrianised – as per this picture;
  • New public green space opening on to Blythe Road;
  • A glass-topped roof terrace with restaurants and cafes;
  • New indoor spaces including two hotels, theatre and cinema venues, community space, independent retailers, and new offices.

Look at it all here – scroll right down for the most important visuals.

The involvement of Thomas Heatherwick of Routemaster Bus and Olympia Flame fame should make us all feel glad.  Have a look at some of his other projects here

What could possibly go wrong?

My main concern is that treating the 14 acre site too much as a single “destination” with similar design themes could end up too much like a theme-park.   Too much cohesive good-taste piled too high could bite its own tail in the form of kitsch…..

Here are some things Olympia’s owners could do to avoid this.

1. Break the scheme into its constituent parts and settle these into the wider landscape

I’m worried that there is too much of a theme running through Olympia’s plans – being the curved Deco-like echo. Have a look at all the pictures to see this.

Olympia could consider breaking out the scheme into its separate parts and ensuring that each building is beautiful in its own terms.  Why should they all echo each other in an overly internally referential way?  Each building should make references to the wider architectural heritage not just to each other.

2. Design the whole thing for 30 years hence

We know that the original Olympia buildings will look fantastic in 30 years – because they do now – apart from the horrible paint job on the Deco frontage.   But what about the modern additions?  I have never seen a modern building that has aged well.  That is because they don’t seem to be able to settle into themselves.  They are made of stiff materials and they remain perpetually stiff and upright even as they get old.  They develop the quietly sad look of someone aging who is unable to let go of youth –  like Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice.  This could be avoided if the architects specifically think about how the buildings will look in 30 and 100 years.  Here on the right is one of the buildings opposite Olympia.  What underlying principles helped this architect get it so right? Here is a picture of another building down the road from Olympia. What were the architect’s hopes for this building?  They at least could have built in grip holes for ivy.

3. Make sure there is plenty of space for local people

No community likes a large space at its heart which they perpetually walk around, not into.  The local community offering will be vital to give Olympia a beating heart.

My preference is for a local museum and arts and history hub.  I’ve joined class trips where children, parents, and teachers suffer for a day visiting the Science or Natural History Museum.  Nobody says but everybody knows that nobody learns anything.  It’s noisy and stressful and barely even pleasant.

There is so much history and art history locally – let’s create a space for it.  Having school kids coming and going from Olympia on a daily basis will really give it a beating heart.  As will providing a meeting place for all the older people, who generation after generation, work to preserve the things they have loved.

4.  Design in spaces for teenagers 

As a local councillor I sat in meeting where we “designed out” anti-social behaviour.  Sometimes these meetings fairly overtly attempted to “design out” teenagers.

We lock our local parks at night and I’ve always wondered where teenagers are actually meant to hang out.

Our teenagers are Olympia’s future customers and future staff.  Olympia would be doing all of us a great favour if they designed in places – eg along Olympia Way – for teenagers to be able to hang out, having bought a coffee or nothing.  The current mock-ups of the new Olympia Way look a bit blank.  We need some designed-in hanging-out space – something Thomas Heatherwick is clearly perfect for.

5.  Design in spaces for mothers and young children

There are lots of pockets of green space in Avonmore, Brook Green, and further north.  But most of these are small and only one has a decent playground.  When you are a mother at home with young children, you generally don’t want to go and sit in a  peaceful green space and stare at the grass. After watching The Little Mermaid in the morning, like Ariel you want to be where the people are.   So it would be good to put in seating / play equipment for carers and kids.  I like the yellow seats along the South Bank that kids can also climb on. I love this spiral in a local school – this is perfect for mothers, kids, office workers to eat their lunch.  I know Mr Heatherwick “could make us something like this but better. It even echoes the Olympia curves….

Our aim should be that Olympia becomes a place where local people hang out on a daily basis.  We also want to know that it will look beautiful now and in a hundred years.  Build it and we will come.

Update to post: new round of consultations – invitation as follows: 

The next round of consultation on… the future of Olympia… will take place… on the 14th and 16th August between 4pm and 8pm and 18th August between 11am and 3pm.

The consultation … will provide an update on the progression of design for the new theatre and performing arts space, public realm, offices, hotels, cafés and restaurants, as well as providing further detail on traffic management and how we have taken your feedback on board and into the proposals and overall vision for Olympia London.

The consultation will be held in the Upper Pillar Hall, which can be accessed via Pillar Hall’s main entrance opposite the Overground station on Olympia Way.  We realise some people may be on holiday as it is August, therefore if you are unable to attend… please contact our community engagement team who will be arranging additional dates in the weeks following. They can be contacted via email at olympia@connectpa.co.uk or by calling 0207 592 9592.”

4 thoughts on “Olympia: how to avoid kitsch – and enhance community

  1. Good thoughtful post, thanks Caroline.

    I agree about the risks of the architecture all being a bit self-referential within a narrow aesthetic envelope.

    One doesn’t know in advance how new designs are going to age. Deco styling in architecture was all the rage at one point, now it divides opinion. New materials and finishes are also risky – one doesn’t know how well or badly they will age and patinate.

    This site is too large to take mild, minor risks with all over, and all in the same kind of direction. Novelty everywhere is tiring, banal. To experience playfulness, there must be a seriousness also. A respect for tradiition sitting alongside iconoclasm. The more grounded the overall layout, the bigger and more exulting risks it can contain.

    But please not just a Quality Street collection of wiggly cinema, bubbly hotel, twisty gallery, curvy cafe and polyhedral exhibition hall.

  2. I have emailed them to ask for details (entirely absent from the public consultation documents) of, for example, proportion of car park spaces to a) anticipated daily footfall and b) overnight ‘guests’ (2 large hotels are proposed) and their transport proposals given that the new overground timetable has cut peak time services south to leave as much as 30 – 40 minute gaps between 8am and 9am with services now dangerously overcrowded as a result. The timetable change of course was implemented without any consultation and it is unclear what power anyone has to enforce a return to the previous 10 – 15 minute regular service, but any plan to increase population in the area needs to be integrated to a sustainable transport and parking plan. I’ve also asked what their proposals are for resident vehicle access to the roads behind and to Olympia station itself (e.g. when you have luggage or need to drop off/ pick up the disabled or infirm).

    No answer or even acknowledgement of my email – not promising in terms of future accountability, and doesn’t suggest they are serious about community views. Given the abject failure of the current council to enforce the building and noise restrictions on the Regal Homes site in Sinclair Road (which will continue for another 2 years), I don’t have confidence that we can rely on the council to fight for us on this either.

    The post is very helpful and well-considered, and I agree that some development could be good, l but I think we should be more ambitious in opposing the high rise element of the proposal, which will dwarf both the listed buildings and cast a long shadow over local streets. The proposal for an additional 2 storeys on the Printworks to accommodate a youth hostel-type ‘lively’ hotel for 380 ‘millennials’ (as per the brand material from Accor) to stay in groups (apparently aimed at stag and hen parties), would add yet more height and a third hostel/ hotel to the cluster. There is no functional need for any increase in height and aesthetically the limit ought really to be the height of the mansion blocks on the other side of Hammersmith Road.

    The recent V&A Museum extension/ entrance works would be a better inspiration – peaceful, low rise and appropriate, enhancing the historic site and contributing positively to the local built environment. It also used high quality, bespoke materials rather than the bland, monolithic brick-based back shown on the designs for the rear of the Olympia site. We should demand a much higher specification and more beauty that that.

    Indeed, shouldn’t we oppose any hotel development at all being placed at the back of the site given the inevitable increase in noise which will result in what is currently a peaceful residential area? Surely there’s no reason why one hotel located at the front can’t accommodate exhibition visitors adequately? A second hotel must be a bid to attract additional visitors unconnected to the exhibition business, which is a very substantial ‘change of use’ and purely profit-driven?

    Finally, given that three substantial building projects are now in play within just a few, presently quiet, residential streets, hasn’t the time come for the council to have a coordinated approach to the ‘local plan’ to preserve the conservation area ‘village’ atmosphere and quality of living as well as considering positive future development?

  3. Caroline thank you for the post. I agree with with one of the posts above that it is critical that we ensure that the overall height of any additional buildings is managed in a way that doesn’t turn that part of Hammersmith Road into effectively a tunnel. There has been a rash of buildings proposed in our residential area which for purposes of increasing floor space (due to the lack of ground real estate) have proposed quite high storey buildings (one example is the new living blocks proposed on the site of the existing West London College). Ensuring that the proposed hotel building and theatre/performance spaces do not eclipse the current buildings in the area is a must.

    One other consideration as well is the fact that we also do not have much information on what is happening to the cycle superhighway along this stretch of Hammersmith Road. We need to make sure that the impact of the superhighway is managed from a traffic/congestion perspective as I do not think that congestion will decrease. If anything if the superhighway is approved (although it is vehemently opposed by us residents and local businesses and only supported by cycling groups or cyclists who just want to use our area as a transit thoroughfare) and the car/bus lanes are reduced then congestion will only increase especially with the increasing number of individuals who will want to use the site.

    A well thought out development is definitely good for our area but only if we can find a way to work with the developer to ensure we have a design that works for the local community.

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