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Hub of activity

by Ruth Slavid
The North Hub at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is an object lesson in how to create a delightful play space by having a strong story that is kept almost entirely hidden.
Visitors to the re-opened section of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park who arrive at Stratford Underground Station have first to navigate through the Westfield shopping centre, a disorientating space where the only chance of not getting lost is to pay rigorous attention to the signage. What a refreshing contrast it is then, to arrive at the North Hub play area, designed by LUC and erect architecture. With the exception of an art installation of periscopes for cloud watching, there is not a word to be seen – no keep-off signs, no navigation, no instructions for use, and no explanation of the narrative that underlies the design.

Instead there is simply a joyous space, filled with children and teenagers having fun. On hot days, the sand and water area is full of grubby, damp infants shouting with pleasure as they pump water, make sand castles, dam streams or simply sit in murky ponds, becoming far wetter, one suspects, than some of their parents have bargained for. There is also a giant ‘tree house’ which offers opportunities for climbing, a vertiginous rope bridge, a fireman’s pole, and an array of swings. One of these is suitable for use by children in wheelchairs, whose needs are catered for in a well-considered yet inconspicuous manner. Other excitements include a suspended hook swing on an eminence, stepping stones over a swale, another suspended bridge, and a number of dens made from living willow.

Who will interpret all this for the children who visit? Who will give them advice on how to use it? The answer is nobody. And if on their first visit they don’t discover the full potential of the place, well, that is exactly what the designers intended. ‘You shouldn’t get everything in one hit,’ said Claire Greener, project landscape architect with LUC. ‘On each visit there should be more to discover.’

So no signage, and no interpretation. It is tempting to define this space in terms of the other things that it also does not have. There is no boundary fence (except on one side where it will abut a road) There are few fences within the scheme either, just some low woven willow surrounds to the most delicate areas of planting, most of which will be removed once the plants have established themselves.

There are no conventional benches, just blocks of stone that seem almost to have fallen by accident, or slatted timber structures. There is very little ‘play equipment’ and what there is, is mostly integrated into other structures. There are no bright colours except those provided by flowering plants. ‘We wanted it to feel as natural as possible,’ said Greener. It does, and is utterly child friendly without being ‘child friendly’ in that ghastly, clichéd, restrictive manner which is so unfriendly to anybody with a modicum of taste.

The area feels like a natural extension of the rest of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which itself is looking marvellous and has recovered from the onslaught of the games crowds. The hub site was a blank canvas, a flat area mostly covered in tarmac plus the home of the temporary basketball arena. The only features were a row of lime trees near the edge, a swale and, less visible but more restricting, the main utility service line through the site. This had to be left clear for access, so the team has simply placed lawn on top of it. The site is on the edge of the park, near to the housing of the former athletes’ village, with more house-building planned, and so will have a local constituency.

Competition win LUC and erect entered an LLDC competition to design the Hub, which comprises the play space and a café that doubles as a community centre, in 2011. They could not start work until autumn 2012, after the clearing of the Olympic overlay, and had to be open for the anniversary of the Olympics. It was erect, which has experience of designing & creating play structures, that approached LUC to collaborate, particularly impressed by the practice’s Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Playground in London’s Kensington Gardens. ‘We were interested in a very collaborative approach with the landscape architect,’ said Barbara Kaucky, one of the founders of erect. ‘The relationship was immediately very positive.’

The team’s approach was to reflect the history and approach of the rest of the Olympic site, with a succession that moved from low-level planting through the pioneer species of hazel and birch, up to a mix of willows and oaks and a variety of pines, including Scots pines and black pines, in what it regards as an analogy for a climax forest. The sand and water area reflects the industrial history of the Olympic site, with children able to act as their own water engineers, damming channels and diverting water flows.

The shrubs and perennial planting have been chosen both to ensure interest throughout the year, with strongly coloured flowers and interesting seed heads, and for robustness. The design has tried to eliminate strong desire lines and the intention is that the plants will be able to stand up to a little rough and tumble. In some cases, where gorse for instance has been used for its strong yellow flowers, it will form its own defences.

Greener was particularly impressed by the mix of planting she saw on a recent Scottish holiday, with gorse, birch, grasses and heathers, and has tried to reflect that. As a result, it was necessary to bring in some acidic soil. Where landform has been created, this was done with spoil that was already available on the Olympic site.

Artistic collaboration One reason that the project works so well is because of the amount of thought and care that has gone into every aspect. All the stone, which has been used not only for seating but also to create the landscape leading up to the tree house, comes from a particular quarry in Clitheroe, Lancashire. LUC worked collaboratively with artist Mel Chantrey selecting the stones that it wanted, laid them out and numbered each one, giving the contractor a detailed plan to follow on site. Chantrey also developed the concrete finishes, some with timber patterning, some polished, and some inscribed with ‘doodles’ and coloured patches,  and directed their execution on site as a large-scale sculptural piece.

There are very few rubberised surfaces. Instead LUC specified play bark chips almost everywhere. ‘It makes the surface richer,’ said Greener, ‘and children can manipulate it’. The exception is the wheelchair-accessible ‘undercroft’ of the tree house, where the team chose a stranded rubber finish in a mix of natural colours. Now that it has a few pine needles on top of it, it looks just like a forest floor. This undercroft houses some of the more surprising elements – the strings of an old piano, positioned upright and half hidden behind some logs, and a number of hanging ‘bells’ made from old gas bottles.

The idea of the high-activity ‘pine forest’ climbing zone was developed by the team and erect developed it, making a number of 1:50 models, and finding the precise pieces of wood to both create the main timber structure and build up the detailed form. ‘We were keen to have a structure that was like playing on trees,’ said Kaucky. Adventure Playground Engineers, a specialist company with which erect had worked before, built the structure from oak trunks and branches, following the model and adapting it to the shapes of timber that were actually available. erect also designed the café-cum-community centre, which is delightfully informal and low key, with a particularly lovely floor of polished concrete with exposed warm-coloured aggregate, looking rather like a stony beach and well able to cope with wet and sandy feet. The building is built from cross-laminated timber, clad in thermally treated oak, used mostly vertically, to echo the hazel coppice that will grow alongside it. ‘We were particularly interested in how the building sits within the landscape,’ said Kaucky. Not all that landscape is there yet, since a series of temporary projects delayed release of the site on one side of the building.

Nevertheless, enough of the project is present to make it an obvious success. The team has thought about every detail. For example, the sand in the sand and water area is not the normal play sand. That, said Greener, is too fine to make proper sandcastles, and would have clogged the drainage system. LUC therefore specified a coarser sand, but it had to test it for impact absorption and then to wash it three times. The result is a sand with which children can have fun, with no notion of the thinking about safety that has gone on. The same is true for the hub in general. While the children are not contained, the stepping stones across the swale, which seem like fun, also act to slow them down. There is no balustrade adjacent to the entrance to the hanging bridge, as RoSPA advised that children could have used this to climb on top. Many of the more challenging elements are relatively high off the ground, placing an automatic height restriction on them unless children are helped by a parent, in which case they will be supervising. It is the North Hub’s equivalent of the height restriction that one gets on rides at funfairs – but in this case done invisibly, with the subtlety and lack of obvious control that typifies this project.
Project team:
Landscape architect: LUC
Architect: erect architecture
Structural engineer: Tall
Mechanical and electrical engineer: Max Fordham
Fountain specialist: The Fountain Workshop

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