The London Olympics' Built-to-Last Infrastructure Deserves a Gold Medal Too

The Olympic Pumping Station, designed by Lyall Bills and Young Architects
(Courtesy Rob Scott via Flickr)

Long before the Opening Ceremony, London set a distinct tone for its Olympic Games. Opting not to rival its 2008 predecessor Beijing in spectacle, the veteran host city had another ideal in mind: sustainability. This year's Olympic Stadium utilized a tenth of the amount of steel molded into Beijing’s Bird’s Nest; Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre awaits its post-Olympic metamorphosis, in which it will shed two wings of temporary viewing stands and flaunt its sleeker “legacy mode” form; the Basketball Arena, which popped up in Olympic Park like an airy block of meringue, will completely disassemble when the games are over.

The designed impermanence of London’s Olympic Park speaks to a growing trend in cities around the world, one that associates the temporary with the sustainable. But some of the greatest architectural strides toward sustainability this year were actually designed to outlast the Olympic Flame. London’s latest infrastructural additions serve as supporting actors to the flashy new stadia parked in Stratford for the summer. But when the games come to a close, this year’s thoughtfully designed energy centers and pumping stations will continue to serve East London, reviving the heroism of the civic projects that brought glory to Great Britain in the 19th century.

One such project, the Olympic Primary Substation, designed by NORD Architecture, is a massive electricity substation commissioned to power Olympic Park and the neighboring athletes’ village. Clad entirely in dark brick, the Primary Substation gracefully articulates the spaces of three transformers and a shared control room with immense, cubic volumes. The upper sections of the façade display an increasingly complex pattern of brickwork, designed to ventilate the transformers within.

Meanwhile, the John McAslan + Partners-designed Olympic Energy Centre offers a leaner take on modernism embellished with the Koolhaas-esque flair of a bright red exterior stairwell. Clad in steel sheets, coated with a warm, rusted metal finish, and marked with an asymmetrical chimney, the Olympic Energy Centre is a striking addition to the Stratford skyline. And the critics have taken notice: as architecture writer Jay Merrick wrote for The Independent, the Olympic Energy Centre exhibits a "diagrammatic clarity" and "gives power generation an almost literal visibility."

Just beyond the perimeter of Olympic Park sits a tastefully designed new wastewater recycling facility — the largest in the United Kingdom — designed by Lyall Bills & Young. The architects utilized stone and crushed concrete, packed into cages known as gabion baskets to create industrial structures that double as ready-made plant habitats. Green roofs and wood cladding also work to blend some of the buildings in with their wooded surroundings. Nearby, a new pumping station designed by the same UK-based firm channels groundwater into an immense network of toilets and plant irrigation systems organized for the summer games. By day, the structure brandishes a facade imprinted with technical drawings by Victorian sewer works engineer Joseph Bazalgette; by night, its chimney-top light box shines like a beacon, and vibrant pink spotlights illuminate the station's industrial steel drums.

While the prefab arenas and detachable spectator stands in Stratford reflect a radical new approach to the Olympic build-out, the new infrastructure, designed to sustain the projected growth of East London, speaks to Great Britain’s longstanding legacy of great infrastructural works. A recent article in Next American City addressed the confusion most Americans struggled with when Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony included a scene extoling the contributions of 19th-century civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859). As Boyle’s vision seems to suggest, Brunel, known as the man who built modern Britain, is as beloved (or at least as popularly recognized) as Mary Poppins and James Bond.

Since the Industrial Revolution, infrastructure has carried enormous weight in British cultural memory, evidenced more recently in the battle to preserve the 1930s Battersea Power Station. As this year’s summer games have proven, even in the age of collapsible stadia and Tweeted medal counts, some things never change.

To see pictures of  London's Olympic infrastructure, click the slide show.