Tuesday, 27 March 2012

At the Velodrome

The British - and especially Londoners  - have taken the Olympic Velodrome to their hearts. It’s been given a nickname, the Pringle, which hardly describes the excellence of the building but shows how affectionately we feel towards it. Approaching in the half dark of a winter’s evening everyone gets their camera out as the handsome wooden curve of the roof looms out of the dusk, with the deep blue-black sky behind it. It’s much bigger than you expect; the roof, formed of thin slats of maple, looks like the hull of a boat, like an artist’s impression of the ark.

In the distance behind us (we’ve just been bussed across the Olympic park), is the square bulk of the Westfield shopping centre with its 320 retail units. Each one’s size and shape and orientation is calculated to receive the optimum footfall, to make the most money most efficiently. Westfield is all about profit – the idea that any imagination should come into the design of it is laughable. It’s garish, crowded and noisy, and even though it’s huge, it feels claustrophobic.

The escalators, which could have been soaring aerial stairways from the top of which you could survey the whole domain (Westminster underground station, designed by Hopkins Architects, builders of the Velodrome, incidentally, is criss-crossed with escalators which give views of the cavernous underground halls they traverse) are mean utilitarian affairs, designed to deliver shoppers efficiently to their destination. Shoppers gawping at the view aren’t opening their wallets, after all.

Westfield is about making money, the Park is about spending it, they say, but that doesn’t make it any more awful, full of pointless noise and discord; even though you’re constantly moving and constantly jostled, all this activity seems quite aimlesss.

I think that’s why everyone loves the Velodrome. While Westfield shows the ugly side of 21st century mega-projects like the Olympics, the Velodrome embodies what everyone wants to believe, that behind all the bombast there’s still a type of nobility behind the idea of the greatest show on earth.

Westfield is boxy and disproportionate, the Velodrome is all satisfying curves, from that great hulled crisp-shaped top and its mirror image, the asymmetic wooden track with its vertiginous looping ends.  The banked rows of spectators mimic the swoop of the track, and above it all there’s the undulating line of that famous roof. It’s like sitting inside a Mobius strip.

Movement too is the defining feature of the Velodrome. The whole place is fluid – you step through the door and whoosh, there’s the track with a dozen cyclists on a warm-up round (if you lean on the rail you feel the vibration of tyre on sprung wood as they pass). Wherever  you stand your eye is drawn to that exhilarating noiseless motion.

The bikes may be soundless but  but if I’ve given the impression the Velodrome  on World Cup night is a quiet place, not at all. The 5000 spectators are vocal and partisan. Next to me is an entire family draped in a union jack. When Chris Hoy takes gold on the Keirin the roar is shattering, everyone on their feet shouting their heads off. Mike Taylor, the Hopkins senior partner who designed the Velodrome – my brother-in-law as it happens – is hoarse after three days of the World Cup.

Even the normal annoyances of any big British sporting event seem to be neutralised here. There are cordoned-off areas and officious types in high-viz vests telling you you can’t go here, or must go there, but they do it in good humour. Outside we’re herded into queues for the buses to take us back to Stratford, and we stand around in the cold drizzle for half an hour. In the distance you can see the huge green neon ‘Casino’ sign on the side of the Stratford complex, and the lights of the 5000-space car park, and the truly hideous 120m Anish Kapoor sculpture, charmingly named  the ArcelorMittal Orbit, whose only purpose was apparently to use up lots and lots of Mittal steel, which indeed it does.

But everyone’s looking back and up, where the Velodrome roof looms benignly over us.

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