The Spin Doctor

Michael Taylor, the man behind the Olympic Velodrome

Michael Taylor, the man who designed the London 2012 Velodrome, doesn’t seek the spotlight. As a photographer sets up outside the building’s elegantly swooping exterior, he seems almost disappointed that he also has to be in the picture; he’d rather his creation speak for itself.

‘It was a dream job,’ he says, his face crink-ling with enthusiasm. ‘And a terrifying one.’ Not only did Taylor, senior partner at Hopkins Architects, have to compete with the striking aesthetics of previous Olympics triumphs, including Beijing’s Bird’s Nest, but at the forefront of his mind was the fact that in China 14 of the 47 British medals were in cycling. ‘I knew the Velodrome had to perform, to be a place where records are broken — and hopefully where British golds are won.’ Taylor has also laid out the rest of the VeloPark; visible through the windows that encircle the Velodrome is the mile-long road circuit, and the BMX park.

To some it was a surprise that Hopkins Architects won the commission. The practice is known for Portcullis House in Westminster, whose steel, glass and granite façade was deeply unpopular when it opened 11 years ago,  and Glyndebourne’s opera house. Its closest previous approach to a sports arena was Lord’s Mound Stand. However, the innovation of its proposals, its eye to the legacy — that much-bandied Olympic watchword — and sympathy for the needs of the athletes persuaded a committee including Sir Nicholas Serota and cyclist Sir Chris Hoy to award it the vote.

The appointment ruffled feathers among the old guard, who felt that traditionalist architects had been edged out in favour of modernists. Happily, and unusually, however, the praise for the finished building has been unanimous. Serota has described it as a ‘triumph’ and architectural historian Charles Jenks likened it to ‘a Stradivarius violin’. Writing in The Architects’ Journal, FT architecture critic Edwin Heathcote called it ‘a pure, gorgeous object... The walls cant outwards as if to counteract the angle of the cyclists as they go round the track inside, the timber casing is exactly right; smooth, unfussy, elegant.’

Due to the double curvature of the roof, especially evident in early photographs, it has become stuck in popular imagination as ‘The Pringle’. ‘I don’t mind the nickname,’ Taylor, 50, shrugs gamely. ‘Nicknames are generally positive, but it doesn’t really look Pringle-shaped...’ he tails off. Certainly, stand in front of it and the Velodrome looks like anything but a mass-produced stackable snack. The soaring red cedar walls and elliptical roof are sculptural and spirit lifting, rising in pure, clean lines. More impressive still is how perfectly its form fits its function. First among Taylor’s concerns was to create the best cycle track in the world. To this end he worked closely with Hoy. ‘Chris wanted it to be hot. It makes the air thinner, so cyclists go faster.’ So the steeply banked Siberian pine track has underfloor heating — but to keep spectators cool, the roof has slots to allow for natural ventilation: ‘They allow the building to breathe, like gills in a fish.’

Hoy was also specific on the sound dynamics. He asked if there was a way to prevent the cyclists hitting silence at either end of the track, where there are traditionally few or no spectators. Taylor found a way to place the crowd around the full circumference, even moving the (generally silent) judges and press higher up the stands to ramp up the atmosphere closer to the track. At the World Cup, held at the Velodrome in February, British riders broke two world records. Hoy commented: ‘It looks stunning. And it’s fast. You just hear this roar; the wall of noise when you’re on the track is unbelievable.’

A cyclist himself, who as a boy watched track events with his father in Manchester, Taylor was also sensitive to the practicalities. He found a way to put loos close to the track for any pre-race, last-minute dashes. I wonder if he’s tried a lap. ‘I’m dying to have a go,’ he says. Despite a capacity of 6,000, tickets for the Olympic cycling events were near impossible to find: ‘But I managed to buy some. I have contacts. I wasn’t going to miss it.’

Taylor wanted to make London’s first indoor Velodrome a key sports centre for the capital for years to come. Previous Olympic efforts have not succeeded in this: the Munich Velodrome is now a shopping mall; Montreal’s is a biodome; Tokyo’s has been broken into scrap. In order not to be too much of a drag on the Lee Valley Park Authority, which will manage the Velodrome after the Games, it needed to be as efficient as possible.

‘We wanted to shrink the building, using the reference of how tightly the Lycra wraps round Chris Hoy’s thigh.’ Taylor waves a sun-freckled hand upwards. ‘In the top seats you can almost touch the roof. In minimising the scale you have less heating costs, use less material, spend less money.’ Even more than the beauty of his design, perhaps this economy is Taylor’s crowning achievement. The Velodrome was the first building in the Olympic Park to be finished. It came in on budget — the whole VeloPark cost £93 million — and ahead of schedule (compare this with Hadid’s Aquatics Centre: projected budget, £75m; final spend, £269m).

With engaging non-starchitect humility, Taylor is keen to underline it as a team achievement. ‘The engineering and the architecture is indivisible. It was with the help of the builders that we could make the cable roof — and in doing that with no scaffolding, we saved two months’ work and money.’

Next up, Hopkins Architects is creating a 500-bed public hospital in La Spezia, Liguria, and a centre for the World Wildlife Fund in Woking. But clearly the Velodrome remains particularly close to Taylor’s heart. ‘To me the most exciting aspect of the project,’ he con-tinues, bouncing in his seat, ‘is the idea that a kid from the East End can walk up to the window and watch the likes of Chris Hoy ride. Hopefully it will inspire a new generation.’

Original article published in Evening Standard, in July, 2012

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