Olympic Equestrian: Greenwich Park

July 22, 2012


Watch the London Olympics equestrian encampment take shape in these images provided by our friends Matt Lancashire and John (“Just John”) in Greenwich. Look closely to see how high the schooling rings, stables and the huge arena are elevated.

It could be called Equestropolis. Equestriville. It’s a purpose-built horse village hovering above sacred, historic ground. Architects call the technique of designing such temporary, fleeting communities “overlay”–that’s both a noun and a verb. It exists, and then it doesn’t. All your images of a Dickensian London are dashed. This is bold and big and square and white. There are arcs. There are rounded roofs. There are ramps. And it will all be forgotten out there in the arena–the field of play, equestrian-style. For the next few weeks, this urban overlay will be our Camelot. The world will look to it for inspiration, entertainment, adrenalin and validation. But to the locals, it’s one big “keep out” sign. Most of London’s Greenwich Park is now closed to the residents, who have given over their prized green space in good faith. They’ve been allowed to keep the playground and the flower garden but everything else is sacrificed to the horses. The citizens have given their park to the horses without much of a grudge, but they are cringing at what the construction, the weather and the crowds might do the hallowed ground of this (until recently) peaceful, green urban kingdom. For the past few months, I have communicated with citizens, journalists and photographers in Greenwich to put together the foundation of this blog. Without exception, they have been generous, kind and very, very articulate on the subject of their concerns about the equestrian events coming to their city. Oddly, they seem less concerned about traffic, noise and crowds and more concerned about their trees, grass and the very soil of their park. There are ancient ruins, priceless chestnut trees, and spots abound that have surges of personal emotional importance to the citizens. Seventy-five horses are going to gallop over the place someone had his or her first kiss. Where someone used to sit on a bench with their grandfather, the bench is now gone. The view has been blocked. The sky looks different. Did they trim that tree? We outsiders only know what we know, as devotees of equestrian sport: the place is hilly. There are so many trees that views on cross-country day will be limited, at best. We worry that a different sort of horse will do well here–the horse who wins might be a technical specialist out on the course, not a classic eventer with that big ground-eating gallop. How will the first riders out on the course do at judging their time? The slides tell you the story with no one in the way, before the spectators, the riders, the crews, the entourages invade the new city blocks. Look closely: this is a horse facility like no other in the world. And, like Camelot, it will disappear before our eyes on the last day. The buildings don’t touch the ground, as you can see in the slideshow. The arena is on stilts. The stands are on platforms. Needless to say, no horse’s manure will be allowed to touch the ground and the stables have special runoff systems. What we know is this: the next time you’re in London, you can go to Greenwich Park and see the place for yourself. But, like Camelot, Equestriville or whatever they decide to call it will have evaporated into the air–or memory, at least. As close as you will ever come to paying homage to the London 2012 Olympic Equestrian setting will be to climb on some cross-country elements that will be moved to the playground. Other than that, we’ll all be a troupe of Guineveres and Arthurs in search of our Camelot. What we’ll find, if this experimental city is a success, will be people exchanging first kisses, sitting on park benches with grandfathers, admiring ancient trees and enjoying the tread of ancient soil beneath their shoes. The park should look like nothing ever happened there. But what would you like to bet that, decades from now, citizens will admit that they think sometimes that they can hear the faint pounding of galloping hooves from deep in the park?

It’s not Dorothy’s Emerald City; the equestrian installation or “overlay” architecture in London’s Greenwich Park is shimmering white and silvery gray. (Photo by John. “Just John”)

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