London Olympics: A Leader in Public Art

Running Water, by Peter Lewis

Running Water, by Peter Lewis

A tour around the Olympics Park with Sarah Weir – creator of London’s Olympic park cultural strategy - is just plain inspiring. The Olympic bid to the IOC did not originally include a cultural theme for the park, but Sarah made sure when London had won the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics that art and culture would be a central part of the Legacy. She started with no money and two staff but has commissioned 39 original pieces by raising funds from anybody and everywhere.

Though the Lower Lea Valley site is being utterly transformed from its former grimly polluted deprived self, Sarah has been determined to capture the memory of its past all over the Olympic Park through cultural references, poems and evocations. The rich history of the area is being subtly enshrined. There are references to the previous buildings, the people who worked in the factories and the many philanthropic and social movements with roots in the Lower Lee Valley. Films have documented the social history.

Sarah’s approach to delivering art into the Park has focused mainly on blending art into the permanent structures, to enrich what might otherwise have been bland retaining walls, screens or facades.

Art by DJ Simpson

Perforated aluminum wall by DJ Simpson

Most of it is therefore permanent. Very little if anything is "sculpture in the park," in the conventional sense of freestanding art pieces.

Early on she established the lime green "View Tube," which became known as a "View, Brew and Loo," where visitors could view the construction of the Olympic site, have a "cuppa" and toilet break. It gave locals a sense of participation and ownership and a place to actually see how their neighbourhood was being transformed.

The artworks span all media: some is visual, some light and sound, but much is based on words – everything from the mundane to the elevated will be etched into features throughout the Park. Weird and quirky Facts are scattered on benches (such as "50% of our DNA is shared with a banana..."), inspirational stuff from Alfred Lord Tennyson is woven in and contemporary local poet Lemn Sissay has written a poignant poem called Spark Catchers about women who worked at the local match factory. This will be permanently captured on the slatted wooden surround to one of the electrical transformer boxes that has replaced the giant electrical pylons that once marched across the site (the electric supply is now buried underground). Much of the focus is on evoking the history and cultural memories of the place.  Planting has been designed to recreate the plots of the original factories that lined the River Lea. 

Tile mural by Clare Woods

Other transformers support massive artworks. Clare Woods and DJ Simpson were inspired by the landscape of the park and have created huge wall art pieces.  Woods’ medium is ceramic tile, inspired by the original Bow tile factory that was on the site in the nineteenth century; DJ Simpson created a perforated aluminium wall with wavy lines that evoke landscape. They are beautiful and powerful pieces.

Artworks are integral to many of the buildings. Sarah says that the engineer and aesthete Joseph Bazalgette was an initial inspiration (he was responsible for creating London’s Victorian sewer system) and the archive drawings for his nineteenth century local pumping station have been etched into the concrete panels of the contemporary Pudding Mill Lane pumping station by John Lyall architects. RUN, sculpture by Monica Bonvicini In the centre of the park, The Copper Box by Make Architects has the sculpture ‘RUN’ by Monica Bonvicini in its piazza. The 9 meter high letters are made of mirror glass and stainless steel – reflective in daylight and transparent glowing at night.

One Whilrl by Martin RichmanThe River Lee that runs through the Park is crossed by a network of bridges, which will be reduced in size after the games. The remaining permanent structures incorporate original artworks such as Martin Richman’s One Whirl piece for the floor made of crushed coloured glass.

There is an interactive installation - Fast, Faster, Fastest by Jason Bruges Studio - that will allow visitors after the Olympics to test their speed against Olympic and Paralympic champions by chasing light as it flashes across the bridge and up the beacons, which stand 100m apart. Fast, Faster, Fastest by Jason Bruges Studio


One of the ephemeral pieces that will be brought to the park for the Olympics is a massive illuminated cascade of water, a piece by Peter Lewis called Running Water. This piece was curated by Helen Marriage of Artichoke; who will be a Loeb Fellow next year.

Much of the undeveloped space that will be available after the Olympics will only be gradually developed over some 20 years. Sarah and her team intend to work on strategies for using these spaces for arts and culture until they are built on.

The arts and cultural strategy is a tour de force that entwines high art and cultural memory that has been driven by Sarah Weir’s incredible leadership and the hard work of her very small team. Through engagement with the local communities, it  has captured the rich mix of local culture. Sarah emphasizes“This is the East End of London, not Disney World.” The pieces that will be there for the Olympics will be a lasting legacy for the local communities and bring a new interpretation of what the East End of London really is.

All photos courtesy of the Olympics Development Authority
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