In early 2000, as the Sydney Olympics buildings were being completed, Anne Susskind, a journalist at Fairfax with a particular interest in architecture and the environment, wrote a stinging critique, Going for Bronze, in the SMH Good Weekend Magazine*. As the title suggests, it lamented the lack of vision and creativity in the architecture.
Twelve years later, Metropolis magazine used the same headline for an article on the London Olympics’ buildings. Both articles found their cities’ respective Olympics design to be mundane, ordinary and dull: third rate.
Why the disappointment? Because the Olympics offers a rare chance to build the exceptional, the monumental and experimental: the pinnacle of architectural design. And this possibility was made evident firstly in Pier Luigi Nervi’s structures for the 1960 Rome Olympics and confirmed particularly in Kenzo Tange’s two buildings in Tokyo 1964.
These bold tensegrity structures were the swimming pool and annex in Yoyogi park in Tokyo. Crucially Tange was able to engage with engineers and builders in order to solve his geometric genius. No corporate watering down. The tension in the roof form spoke to the muscularity and ambition of the Olympics better than any building before or, as we shall see, after.
Likewise, the Nippon Budokan, the martial ats hall designed by Mamoru Yamada, a building in the round or rather octagonal, that is to some the apotheosis of brutalism. As an interpretation of the ‘dream pavilion’ of the Hōryū-ji temple in Nara, this was first past the postmodernism, before it had even had that name.
The descent from gold to bronze in Olympic architecture can be seen in an arc from the 1964 to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Whilst there have been jewels in various Olympics along the way (which you can track on this very comprehensive website devoted to Olympic architecture), there seems to be an inevitable decline as the cautious corporates take over.
Highlights include Felix Candela’s Palacio de los Deportes in Mexico 68; Frei Otto's tensegrity roofs for the Munich 72 (exhilarating when you see it, and which is still in active use); but sadly, nothing at Montreal 76 was as interesting as Moshe Safdie’s Habitat built nine years earlier for the 67 Expo; and Moscow 80 and LA 84 are more remembered for the politics.
Seoul 88 took the high-rise Olympic Village to repetitive new heights; Barcelona 92 was marked not only by striking buildings but new infrastructure, including metro lines, that radically changed the city, a truly urban transformative Olympics; but safety in design returns in Atlanta 96 and Athens 04.
Sydney 2000 had the opportunity to add to these delights, but as Susskind so cuttingly points out, we squibbed it, identifying the only bright spot as the public toilets (by Durbach Block). How apposite that the design of some dinkum dunnies was our nation’s high point.
But nowhere is this disappointment in design quality more manifest than in the Sydney athletes’ village. Originally an open design competition, there were five shortlisted designs, combined by their authors to produce a most urbane plan centered on an interactive public spine street. But hesitancy at innovation and a fear of failing to deliver overtook the organizers (project managers) and a ‘design-construct’ contract was awarded to the ‘safe hands’ of Lend Lease / Mirvac.
Delivery was favoured over design; corporate over creativity; and the result was barely indistinguishable from a modest suburban masterplan with project homes. For what it’s worth, it gave the world’s athletes a window into our dreary suburbia, saved only by the stepped white modernist apartments by Bruce Eeles.
The starting possibilities in 1993 seemed boundless and endless, but the sense of disappointment with what was actually produced on the ground was palpably disappointing. Bronze is being kind.
Returning to the arc of Olympic design around the world: Beijing 08 had the delightful Bird’s Nest Stadium (Herzog and de Meuron) and the Water Cube (Arup and PTW), soon dilapidated and unloved, a disposable architecture for a consumerist driven economy.
Into this pantheon on ordinariness, it would seem that London 12, so cruelly criticised above, was an exception, with several inventive buildings including Zaha Hadid’s Aquatic Centre, Hopkins Architects Velodrome and my favourite, Magma Architecture’s Shooting Centre. These and more are well explored here. By contrast I defy you to remember on memorable image or space at Rio 16.
Which brings us to Tokyo Olympics 2020.
Japan started the challenge by chasing extraordinary designs to build on their 1964 success. A competition was held for the centrepiece stadium, won by Zaha Hadid. But the costs were thought too high, and the ‘Sydney solution’ was demanded. The project managers were called in and Hadid was forced to redesign and to join with a local contractor – a clumsy attempt at design construct, doomed to failure.
Hadid’s adventurousness was ditched and a very prosaic design by Kengo Kuma adopted. The stadium is admirable in its ecological intentions, harking back to traditional timber construction and niceness. But it seems numbingly boring.
The new swimming center and other recently built stadia seem functionally workable, allowing for excellent TV production, but at this Covid-enforced distance they don’t hold a candle to the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. This glittering roofed saucer was designed by Fumihimo Maki (my favourite), not for this Olympics, but as a replacement for a 1954 gymnasium used in 1964. And it serves so well in 2021.
In all this enhanced and expanded Olympics, the buildings by Tange, Yamada and Maki stand out. What can you say when buildings designed 56 years earlier are still the pinnacle of Olympic creativity?
With one striking exception to prove the rule: the athletes village. In 1964, the men and women were segregated and the women’s’ quarters resembled an internment camp, an unfortunate image so close after WW2.
The athletes’ village for the 2020 Olympics is an utter delight: timber frames with vitality and athleticism throughout, a construction redolent of the temples celebrated in the opening ceremony discussed last week.
What does the future hold for Paris in 2024 and LA in 2028. Already Paris looks like bronze, and there is no suggestion of any change next time in LA. Which brings us to Brisbane in 2032.
Can we shake off the shackles of bronze ordinariness for Brisbane 32? It would be nice to think that we can reverse this unsteady decline in architectural Olympic architecture. Already the bid is based on modest, low-cost reuse, but we should demand one or two exceptional pieces of architecture for the semi-tropical climate. One hopes that an architectural competition can held and that, contrary to most evidence of Australia’s past, an astonishing winning scheme gets built. Time for another Opera House.
Australian architecture at major events has to shake off the corporate project management mindset that bedeviled Sydney 2000 and Tokyo 2020. Serviceable, acceptable, but ultimately mundane. We can do better.
*No evidence of the existence of this article can be found on the WWW. Recollected from memory, so happy to receive a copy for corrections / posterity.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]