The urban DNA of London

Despite the city's apparent aversion to making grand plans and big gestures, London as a whole has been strengthened in its claims to be Europe's only real world city. It's not the Olympics that have done that; it's the British capital's 2000 years of urban DNA.

There is an argument that only cities that feel insecure about themselves feel the need to mortgage themselves to the hilt in order to win the privilege of supplying a fleet of at least 500 air-conditioned limousines for the tax-exempt members of what is described without irony as the Olympic family to enjoy driving on dedicated Olympics-only lanes from which even ambulances will be excluded.

London does not, even after last year's uncomfortable brush with arson and rioting, feel insecure about itself. Prices for houses over 5 million pounds grew another 0,7 per cent in the month of May. All the Greeks who can may already have bought their houses, but there is a growing queue of Italian, Spanish and French money looking for a safe haven in London property.

The more superficially sophisticated the world appears to become, the more its public rituals signal that its underlying preoccupations remain as intoxicatedly atavistic as they have ever been. The Olympic Games, the Grand Prix circuit and the Expo movement are all events that come cocooned with the appearance of a glossy sense of modernity. All are apparently very different from each other, but actually they have converged into a single phenomenon. For all the alibis of urban renewal, their real significance is closer to the motivations of the Easter Island head builders, or the ritual festivals of the Mayans. The calculations of everyday reality do not apply. These events are to be understood as reflecting national prestige or cohesion, or else the rampant pursuit of sheer spectacle for the sake of spectacle. They are celebrations of power and wealth, and distractions from the bleaker aspects of daily life.

When Londoners first heard that their city had been selected for the 2012 Games, one common response was disappointment; if only Paris had won the right to stage the Games. Another was to say that if we must stage them, then lets go back to the austere virtues of 1948, the last time London hosted the Olympics. In those days there was no Olympic Village, and athletes were accommodated in tents, youth hostels and B&Bs. There were no corporate sponsors, and no specially built stadia. The old Wembley football pitch served perfectly well. It's been seven years since the IOC decision, and while Londoners are bracing themselves for six weeks of disruption that promises to bring gridlock to the city's traffic, as well as 30-minute delays simply to gain access to Underground stations, the city by and large has become reconciled to the idea of the Olympics.

So far, if London has not turned into Barcelona, where there was the most convincing demonstration of the idea that staging the Olympics could serve as a catalyst for permanent urban renewal, nor has it become the Athens of the north. The experience of the entire Greek nation holding its collective breath as it watched Santiago Calatrava's breathtakingly profligate roof being inched into place just days before the Games were due to get underway has not been repeated in Britain.

London has a workmanlike new Olympic Stadium which may not have the presence of Beijing's, but at least it is likely to have a credible long-term user after the Games are over. The Hopkins-designed Velodrome is a handsome piece of architecture. Zaha Hadid, whom I took part in selecting for the design of the Olympic Aquatic Centre, has used the opportunity to build her first-large scale project in her adopted country. Once the temporary banks of extra seating — commonly referred to as its "water wings" — are removed, it will be as fluid and impressive on the outside as it is on the inside.

There is an Olympic Village, which after the Games are over will be the nucleus of a massive expansion of middleclass rental housing to the east of London. And then there's the hard-to-love ArcelorMittal Orbit tower, the fruit of a collaboration between the artist Anish Kapoor and the engineer Cecil Balmond. Its scale and ambition is undoubtedly impressive, but it has a jaw-droppingly wilful quality. Some describe it as a melted Eiffel Tower. It might also be compared to the thrashing arms of a giant sea monster in its death throes.

At the scale of design, the London Olympics has acquired a questionable logo — the work of Wolff Olins — that was deliberately intended to look like graffiti, on the basis of the sponsors' belief that youth culture in London had more appeal to their customers than sport. It also has an Olympic Torch designed by Barber & Osgerby. The flame in the stadium will be lit in a bowl designed by Thomas Heatherwick. So the Games will not be an embarrassment: there has been just enough done to make use of Britain's talents in design and architecture. But will it have been worth it? There is now a new high-speed train that connects the Olympic site at Stratford to St Pancras in less than ten minutes. Above the station the massive Westfield Shopping Centre, with its casino, champagne bar and Calvin Klein outlet, is already one of London's busiest. There is a 43-storey residential tower planned for the site next to it. In all it is enough to ensure that London's century-long rush to grow towards the west has been checked. London's east has now come to life.

There are regrets. The same spirit of dissent that made London sceptical about wanting to stage the Games in the first place laments the disappearance of the melancholy ordinariness of what the run-down neglect of the Stratford site had been before the coming of the Games. But London as a whole has been strengthened in its claims to be Europe's only real world city. It's not the Olympics that have done that; it's London's 2000 years of urban DNA.

A DNA that, despite the city's apparent aversion to making grand plans and big gestures, is also the city in which an exiled Napoleon III was inspired by the urban scenery created by Nash to commission Haussmann to do the same when he got home. It built the first metro in the world, pioneered social housing, garden suburbs and civic government. And it's now the city that has allowed Renzo Piano to pierce the skyline with Europe's tallest high-rise. London, despite the stone facades and the dense tangle of streets in its heart, has a ruthlessness in the way it is prepared to change that is more like Shanghai than anywhere else in Europe.

Deyan Sudjic is the director of the Design Museum in London. A former editor of Domus, he also directed the 8th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2002. His recent publications include The Language of Things. Design, Luxury, Fashion, Art: how we are seduced by the objects around us, Penguin Books, London 2009; and The Edifice Complex. The architecture of power, Penguin Books, London 2006

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