Architecture of the Olympics, London 2012

Posted on Aug 7, 2012
Architecture of the Olympics, London 2012

It is amazing that with all the economic drama, and escalating conflicts playing on the international stage, that everyone seems to stop down and turn their attention to the Olympics.  It must be the aura of past Olympic Games that we are enraptured by.  A romantic notion of a time when the Olympics were a place where disparate countries and athletes with limited knowledge of one another would come and have their citizens compete on the field.  Today our technology and ease of travel have shed a constant light on what once seemed so shrouded, but this seems to be only a slight damper on the interest.

The one constant over the years seems to be the awareness that the host country is put on display for the world.   When the bright light turns to the city, it’s about architecture!  The games arouse a unique self projection for each country and city that has hosted the games. It molds its architecture to reinforce, alter, or altogether change the image they would like to project.  There is pomp, pageantry, and high spectacle, all edified by the unique built environments created for these events.

During the 2008 games in China we saw some of the most unique structures ever built for the games.  They built 15 new venues and spared no expense, as China sought to recreate its image.  The series of ambitious plans and projects showcased the newest technologies and architectural forms intertwined with Chinese tradition.   Iconic buildings like the “Birdsnest” and the “Watercube” created unique visions that will long reverberate in the international memory.

The British have a profound sense of national belonging and self identity.  The architecture of the 2012 games is not one of self recreation but one of content sophistication.   In London, we find the work of Zaha Hadid, and Populous, and Hopkins Architects, who have all produced admirable works for the signature venues.  But it is the smaller ancillary buildings that I have become fascinated by.   Leave it to the British to lock the jewels away, but there are some fantastic structures hiding in the venues.  The shooting venues at the Royal Artillary Barracks is one of my favorites.  Designed by Magma Architects it uses 100% recycled or reused material, it is naturally ventilated, and they are fully portable and relocatable.  A  gem possibly overshadowed in the digital stylings of the opening ceremonies was the elegant Olympic Cauldron designed by Heatherwick Studio.  A couple of other great supporting buildings are the Lee Valley White Water Centre that will host the canoe events  by FaulknerBrowns Architects, as well as the London energy center John McAslan & Partners, the London Olympics Substation by Nord Architecture.  The last “lowly” building of note is the London Olympics Pumping station.   John Lyall Architects has brought a little romance to the most earthy of commissions, turning its prescribed chimney into a light box.

Architecture as spectacle, as image defining, is a powerful force on the world stage.  The Olympics are an unparalleled showcase of architecture to the global public.   It is worth noting  that the British have invested time the structures that will be less visible on TV, but impact the human scale, the reality of the present experience.    I would hope that this is not lost in the discussion of the spectacle of the 2012 games and its affects.  That architecture effects people in ways that impact there every day existence. Maybe this is should be more important as mold our perceptions of a nation and its built environment, more than an amplified moment of architectural grandeur.