Architecture graduate's masterplan for the London Olympic village

4 October 2012

James O'Neill outside one of the London 2012 venues: "My honours project has put me in the position where I can talk with the esteemed directors of my studio with confidence."
James O'Neill outside one of the London 2012 venues: "My honours project has put me in the position where I can talk with the esteemed directors of my studio with confidence."

Just four years ago James O'Neill was an architecture student at the University of Sydney interviewing the great Australian architects Glenn Murcutt, Richard Leplastrier and Peter Stutchbury about their thoughts for East Darling Harbour's controversial Barangaroo site.

Now the Master of Architecture graduate is working on a real life masterplan for another famous urban site, London's Olympic Village. Currently in what's known as 'legacy mode', the buildings constructed to house the world's greatest athletes for little more than two weeks earlier this year will become 'East Village', a permanent home for over 6000 residents on a site smaller than Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens.

At the University of Sydney James had to imagine a masterplan for the Barangaroo site at East Darling Harbour for his honours thesis. Together with fellow student Alex Nicholls, he went straight to three of Australia's most lauded architects to find out how they might approach a project of such a scale and sensitive location.

"While the thoughts of Glenn, Rick and Peter varied, key principles like site sensitivity, building upon the success of existing buildings, responding to site, context, history and environment, were constant themes," explains James, who graduated in 2009.

James's research culminated in a presentation to his thesis advisors and "a quite nice" printed and illustrated bound book, but he says it wasn't until "beginning work on the East Village in recent months that I've realised how much I call upon the knowledge I accrued in my honours project".

James has found that many of the Australian architects' thoughts are echoed by his directors at Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands (LDS), the architecture studio where he now works full-time on turning the Olympic Village into a thriving residential precinct with a school, health clinic, shops, bars and parks - all next door to Olympic-standard sports facilities.

Located in Stratford, east London, East Village currently provides 2,818 homes, which are delivered in fully leased model including a mix of market and affordable homes and apartments. The apartments - which initially didn't include kitchens as athletes ate in dining halls - will now be fitted out for long-term residential use. Residents, who will come from a mix of income levels, are due to take up occupancy in late 2013.

"I feel as though my honours project has put me in the position where I can talk with the esteemed directors of my studio with confidence in my knowledge, formed by my education and experiences," says James.

James left Australia for London in 2010, attracted by the opportunities offered by a city in the midst of constructing major Olympic projects, and the related growth that comes with hosting one of the world's largest events.

After initially working with Arup Associates in London, he landed a position with LDS. His current studio designed two of the village's eleven existing buildings and had a monitoring role in the construction of a further three. LDS also designed temporary venues for processing athletes during the games, as well as food and hospitality tents (both at the Olympic Park as well as other venues across London).

As the site's lead masterplanner, one of the firm's current tasks is planning the new residential buildings for the five vacant plots at East Village. These new buildings will deliver over 2,000 additional apartments. "One of the new towers could be up to 50 storeys, making it London's second tallest residential building," James says.

For the past six months James has been leading the project's design team, spending his days liaising with planners, project managers, cost and finance consultants and infrastructure engineers, ensuring the masterplan is followed.

"London's 2012 Olympic Games bid was underpinned by a regeneration masterplan which proposed turning rail lands in east London into a major new park, sporting facilities, community facilities and residential neighbourhoods to help London's housing shortage," explains James.

The new village will have its own school, Chobham Academy, offering free education, as well as a community centre and an advanced medical clinic located on the site. "This legacy was vital in securing London's bid for the games, since it proposed creating new communities for the traditionally underprivileged areas of east London."

He describes it as "a project of vast scale and worth" that he feels "privileged" to be involved with. He is excited by the opportunity to add value to "the neighbourhood, not just in economic terms but also in 'place making' terms. How can one make this place a desirable place to live and visit? How can one make this place contribute positively to east London?"

"Architecture is a fantastic discipline," James says. "I can be very broad with my interests and be exposed to a wide variety of projects, from small scale pop-up bars to Europe's largest residential masterplan. I have worked on a small pavilion 20 metres by 40 metres and I am now working on Europe's largest residential masterplan - it is most fulfilling."

Fellow University of Sydney alumnus Sir David Higgins, who is currently in Sydney to present the upcoming Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies' Dean's International Lecture, was involved in initial development the London Olympic Park.

He was knighted in 2011 for his work on the site. The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games were hailed an unmitigated success for its lasting legacy of sports venues, new homes, new transport links, new energy networks and a new urban park in East London.

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