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Going for Gold: Has London’s 2012 Legacy Redefined Olympic Success?

The Stadium at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Image courtesy of mariusz kluzniak via flickr.

Editor’s note: This blog post is part of the GenslerOn Rio 2016 blog series.

With the 2016 Summer Olympic Games now in full swing, the world is focused on Rio to witness two-weeks of 42 different sports and over 300 events. Underpinned by inspiring architecture, the Olympic Games allow host cities to showcase their country, capture worldwide attention and celebrate human spirit, but the real evaluation of the event’s true success kicks in long after the final medal has been awarded.

With each edition of the Games comes a unique opportunity to create a powerful legacy that will live on through generations. The most successful and memorable Olympic hosts take full advantage of the opportunities that the Games can provide. From restoring the country’s urban fabric to boosting its economy, this ‘legacy’ can positively impact a community, its image and its infrastructure.

For years, major sporting events have been huge catalysts for change, and the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona is still noted as being an ideal illustration. The Olympic Games in Barcelona not only acted as a catalyst for urban redevelopment and regeneration in the city, but also put the city back on the map as a major tourist destination. The successful enhancement and transformation of Barcelona’s elapsed industrial sites activated by its Olympic Games has been a challenge for most host cities to replicate, until (in my opinion) London’s Summer Olympic Games in 2012.

London 2012 was subject to extreme pressure to create an Olympic legacy, and its architecture and design are key measures of its rather varied success. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is an outstanding example of urban regeneration and is by far the greatest legacy of the 2012 Olympics; it illustrates the rejuvenation of a derelict wasteland as new, lively urban space. Lee Valley VeloPark, London’s 6,000-seat velodrome, is a shining example of a venue designed within reasonable cost, and with a designated purpose that has continued long after the closing ceremony. Now operating as a national training centre and as a community sports venue, it supports future cyclists at both a professional and a grassroots level.

The Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys and surrounding regeneration has transformed Barcelona's reputation. Image courtesy of Eknutov via flickr.

The Olympic Games can leave a range of legacies, as seen in the aftermath of the Barcelona and London Games, but the notable ones are the enhanced sites left behind. The most successful being the sites built to engage with the local community, rather than merely showcase the power of the host country to the world. The 1976 Montreal Summer Olympic Games was a clear example of this. Montreal showcased an array of great Olympians in an iconic stadium. However, the Games had a cost overrun of 720 percent and it took the city more than 30 years to pay back the money it owed. Additionally, the stadium itself has been experiencing engineering complications due to a retractable roof that has struggled to work properly over the years, which for some, has greatly tainted the legacy of the Montreal Olympic Games.

In comparison, the London Olympics were designed to inspire athletes and spectators alongside its needed rapid regeneration. But many of the structures created were only temporary, which has raised questions about the endurance of London’s Olympic legacy. The Basketball Arena was an attractive building, but demonstrated that temporary venues are not an all-encompassing solution. Its construction costs equalled to that of a permanent structure and it is now confined to storage as it is too expensive to transport and reconstruct. There have also been questions over the sustainability of the Aquatics Centre, which was costly to build, lacked iconic status during the games (partly because it was wrapped with a temporary overlay) and continues to be expensive to run.

It’s just as important to create an environmental legacy as it is a physical one, and designers should strive to build a sustainable stadium that seeks to reduce the negative impacts on the environment and improve building performance. The Oval Lingotto, an indoor arena that I designed for the Winter Olympics in Turin in 2006 by myself (as former director of Studio Zoppini) in partnership with HOK Sport, was a good example of a cost-effective building, averaging 2,000 Euros per square meter. It quickly became a symbol for the revitalised city and has upheld the legacy of the Games. It now operates successfully as a multipurpose venue for exhibitions, sports, concerts and public events. This isn’t to say that temporary structures no longer have a place at the Olympic Games, they definitely do, and the Hyde Park Cluster was an excellent example of temporary venues designed short-term for special events.

The Oval Lingotto Stadium Winter Olympics in Turin in 2006. Image courtesy of sza ale.

The key to Olympic success

Stadiums are often catalysts for regeneration of the surrounding area, creating a venue both fans and the local community can enjoy. We are seeing venues designed as leisure destinations and used for a variety of sports events, concerts and exhibition spaces for year-round enjoyment. Furthermore, we are seeing an increased emphasis on sustainable and localized design.

A successful Games is defined by a clear identity, an enduring legacy and a sustainable structure that can be repurposed for future uses. White elephants are no longer a possibility and the Montreal Olympic Stadium is a clear example of this. Simultaneously, repurposing temporary venues isn’t a long-term solution to establishing a legacy either.

We need to look at innovative, cost-effective solutions that craft an identity for the Olympics and its host city, while cultivating a long-term legacy, and offering the necessary flexibility to accommodate a diverse menu of events and exhibitions. The choices, plans and projects created in the lead up to hosting an Olympic Games can affect a city for the better or worse, not only a two-week period, but for generations.

Alessandro Zoppini is the leader of Gensler’s Sports practice in the EMEA region, with extensive experience in architectural design, focusing mainly on sport and leisure facilities. Alessandro is one of few architects to have designed venues for three Olympic Games: Torino 2006, Sochi 2014 and Pyeongchang 2018. He has proven experience in architectural design at all levels, providing concept input and managing multi-disciplinary design teams with a particular focus on large complex venues. Contact him at Ale_Zoppini@gensler.com.