Thursday, August 16, 2012

London Olympics 2012

London Olympic Village 2012

Last week was the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic games.  The United States did well, leading all countries in total medals as well as gold medals, a proud moment indeed.  I'm not much of a sports fan so I didn't watch many events, I did see some and I did watch a portion of the opening ceremonies.  But now that the games are over I think it's a good time to review what we did see. 

As I said, I only watched a part of the opening ceremonies, beginning with rolling grass fields filled with farm animals and people living the rural life, quite a difference from the high tech opening we witnessed in Beijing four years ago. The field of the stadium transformed from this lush green landscape to a black and gray soot filled city when the grass carpet was literally rolled up to make way for the paving beneath, demonstrating how we have moved the land and conquered nature to make way for industry and its hulking smoke stacks.  Even the cast of characters changed, in one fell swoop the country folk tending the land and their animals were replaced by business men and factory workers, who worked the foundry to forge the Olympic rings which were raised overhead.  It's funny how we look at industrial revolution as a time of great progress but when the transformation takes a brief few minutes it seems less so.  Oh yeah, how can I forget the Queen dropping in along with super spy 007 a sign that popular culture play as important a role in culture as does history. 

So after the celebration of the history of England and the official opening of the 30th Olympic games it was time to check out some events.  Many of the few events I did watch I had completely forgotten about since the 2008 Olympics.  The first weekend I saw some of the men's and women's cycling road race.  These are some of the televised events where you get to see a good part of the city, and the countryside as they close down the streets along the route of the event.  This is a race over 150 miles so there is a lot of ground to cover.  The fact that London is an old city made watching it all the more enjoyable as the cyclists went through both urban areas as well as rural areas so dense with trees you didn’t see the riders from the aerial shots, it was a great way to see how the scale of the city changes.  I also saw some track and field, swimming, gymnastics and a bit of the team sports like volleyball and basketball.  As an architect one thing I like to see when watching the Olympics is all the new buildings that went up for the games. 

London was chosen for this year's Olympics back in 2005 when world economies were stronger, but despite the economic fallout since then a enormous amount had to be accomplished to prepare for the games.  The majority of the buildings constructed for the game are located in the East End, an area known for its large immigrant and working class population.  The city saw the Olympics, and the large cash outflow that accompanies its preparation as an opportunity to help revitalize the area.  Additionally London attempted to make the 2012 Olympics sustainable to some degree, included in this is the adaptability and, in one case, transportability of the buildings.  Some buildings accomplish this noble goal better than others. 

The focus of media coverage during the games seemed to be the large Olympic Stadium by Populous Architects.  The Stadium is characterized by the large compression truss and triangular light towers encircling it, quite an elegant design.  It wasn't apparent, by looking at the building, that it was designed for disassembly.  These light towers and circular truss are designed to be easily removed along with the upper levels of seating leaving a stadium with a capacity less than half that of the one where people watched Olympic events.  It is apparent that the design was considered in both forms, something that cannot be said of the Aquatic Center.

Like the Olympic Stadium the Aquatic Center was also designed to hold more spectators during the games than it would after.  However, I cringed after seeing the Zaha Hadid designed Center.  There was no asking where the temporary seating was here, the building looked as if it was still under construction or as if a cube was being eaten by a hyperbolic paraboloid, a mathematicians nightmare, not an elegant solution.  I understand the building was designed primarily for its life after the Olympics but there should have been more consideration for the short time it was in the spotlight.  It seems apparent to me that no consideration was given to the possibility of the Aquatic Center remaining as it is after the Olympics.  What if it is decided to keep the Aquatic Center as it is, with its full capacity, after the Olympics, would the architect stand by her design?  I would guess not, Hadid, a Londoner, did herself a disservice with this design. 

One other building worth noting is the Basketball Arena, designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects.  The arena is designed to be completely deconstructed after the Olympics and transported for reconstruction and reuse during the 2016 Olympic games in Brazil.  The design appears to be temporary as it is a fabric structure with its skin stretched over vertical trusses with varying profiles to give it texture, the roof in more regular and tent like.  This structure was designed for the two weeks it was in use and it served its function well.  Whether or not the building will actually be reused only time will tell but this is the type of thinking needed when designing for an event like the Olympics. 

Events like the quadrennial Olympic games require both long and short term planning.  It is a time when cities build new sports stadiums and entertainment venues, master plan new communities, and update existing infrastructure and transit.  It has to accommodate a large influx of people for two short weeks and decide what will come of those accommodations when those people have left.  City planners, designers, and architects, should always consider different scales and anticipate future changes or adjustments, not only when they are known in advance.  When designing for an event like the Olympics, that is temporary, there is more of an opportunity to demonstrate this awareness and create buildings that are adaptable.  London has both good and bad examples of this and I hope we call all learn from them.

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