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From 2 Weeks to 50 Years - Designing Olympic Facilities That Last Beyond the Games

For the next three weeks London's Olympic Stadium will host some of the world's finest athletes. What happens to the structure after that remains to be seen. Designed by Peter Cook of the architecture firm Populous. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mahisgett

Historically, the cities hosting the Summer Olympic Games have a propensity to get caught up trying to convey the forward vision of their nation through non-sustainable venue design. The appeal of having the world's eyes on their city for 16 days sometimes overshadows good judgment, leading to expensive white elephants. A certain "wow factor" has become synonymous with hosting the Olympics, and with this mentality, the long term viability of facilities can be pushed to the wayside.

These venues and the city they reside in would be better served by considering the future legacy of the buildings. Don't get me wrong, as an architect, I enjoy many of these buildings and certainly revel in the idea of designing them. I’m not saying that these facilities need to appear temporary or any less dynamic architecturally. As the London 2012 Olympics approach, I would like to weigh in on just a few examples of past Olympic stadia successes and failures. Is it possible to create iconic stadiums without sacrificing sustainability? How is London handling the design of their facilities and what have they learned from past Olympics?  

Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics

Designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron of Herzog & de Meuron, in conjunction with Stefan Marbach, artist Ai Weiwei, and CADG architect Li Xinggang. Photo courtesy of Flickr user DPerstin

In 2008, the Beijing National Stadium, more commonly referred to as the Bird's Nest, was an architectural spectacle and a breathtaking example of stadia design. Today, it is still an architectural spectacle, but is underutilized and doesn't boast a permanent tenant. The government has debated the idea of converting it into something other than a stadium, such as a shopping mall. The primary reason for the unfortunate fate of this facility is that the post-Olympics legacy was not considered during the design and planning process of the stadium. Construction of the stadium began in 2003 and was designed solely for the purpose of the Games. There was no use planned for the years following the Olympics and no tenant prepared to occupy the stadium. The Bird’s Nest hasn’t been totally abandoned and is still used sparingly for certain cultural and sporting events. However, a number of other venues in Beijing have been completely deserted and are in a state of total disrepair including facilities for baseball, kayaking, rowing, BMX racing, cycling, and beach volleyball.

Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics

Designed by Ellerbe Becket. Photo courtesy of Flickr user David Berkowitz

The Atlanta Olympics were a bit of a hybrid. Many of the facilities in the city and on campuses within the city were again repurposed, modernized and used for venues. Unfortunately, the city did not have an existing outdoor stadium that was large enough to be used for the Olympic Stadium. I was one of the principals of the design team that designed the Olympic Stadium and what would ultimately become Turner Field, the current ballpark of the Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball team. From the earliest planning stages, the city realized they did not have the money to build a single purpose Olympic Stadium so they engaged the ball club in the design process in order to secure a long term lease and the necessary financing to complete the construction. Because this was considered from the outset of design, this stadium served the Olympics very well and has been repurposed to become a very successful ballpark for the Braves.

Los Angeles 1984 Summer Olympics

Designed by John and Donald Parkinson. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Wendy McCormac

Los Angeles had a very different, but much more sustainable approach. Instead of building a lot of new structures, they repurposed many existing buildings including the Coliseum which was used in 1932 and connected them geographically to create an Olympic brand for the city. There was a unified graphic identity within the facilities that connected each to one another, although they were physically separated by some of the busiest freeways in the United States. After the Games, the facilities returned to their original purpose and continue to serve the city to this day. Unlike Beijing, the 1984 Summer Olympics was one of the first, if not the only, profitable Olympic Games.

London 2012 Summer Olympics

Designed by Peter Cook of the architecture firm Populous. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ben Sutherland

From the original vision, London's facilities look to the future with an innovative repurposing objective. London is setting the precedent for sustainability by building very few new permanent buildings; utilizing existing infrastructure; and creating many facilities that will be relocated, repurposed or downsized for predetermined tenants. Each of the permanent venues designed for the London Games has a long-term use planned for them. For example, the London Aquatics Centre, designed by internationally acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid, is one of the few permanent facilities specially constructed for this year's Olympics. After the Games, the centre will be transformed into a facility for the local community, clubs, schools, and elite swimmers, attracting an estimated 800,000 visitors a year. The current capacity of the Aquatics Centre is 17,500, but there are two temporary wings that will be removed after the Games, reducing the capacity to 2,500.

London's temporary facilities are beautifully conceived and while they may not be considered architectural icons, I am convinced that they will hold their own for 16 days, creating for the world and those who experience them first hand, a memorable Olympic experience. It will be interesting to see how this visionary strategy plays out after the Games. London has embraced what many cities have talked about but never achieved, and are setting the bar higher than ever for the future of sustainable venue design. Could this be the end of under-utilized Olympic facilities. Is it possible that host cities/countries will no longer be left with a legacy of huge cost and no return?

Olympics don’t make cities – but people can

The white elephants that have plagued the Olympic movement can be avoided when Olympic planners, city officials and architects embrace the idea that these buildings are event-based and not used to create permanent city places.

I hope London's approach sets a new standard for the end of under-utilized Olympic facilities and the sad pattern of huge costs and no return for the cities that host one of the world’s greatest human assemblies.

Ron Turner
Ron Turner, FAIA, LEED® AP, is Gensler’s director of sports and entertainment, and a principal in the Los Angeles office. A recognized leader in international sports facility design, Ron Turner has over thirty years of experience dedicated to creating iconic event center designs that generate increased revenue, build civic brands, and employ innovative technologies. As a founder of sports design practices for Ellerbe Becket, NBBJ, RTKL and now Gensler, Ron has led design teams for numerous professional and collegiate venues and sports-anchored entertainment districts around the world. Contact him at ron_turner@gensler.com.

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