London 2012: The age of reason

The overlay designs for London 2012 evokes the spirit of the ancients: classic in design and rational in conception. Sit back and admire the spectacle

The idea of using recognisable London landmarks as a backdrop to the 2012 Olympic Games was first introduced right from the bid phase. Event architects Populous have been involved in London 2012 since then.

Tom Jones, associate partner at Populous says: “The ‘back the bid’ posters that were used when they were trying to win the Games had images of sportsmen jumping over famous London landmarks, using the ‘gherkin’ as a pommel horse in gymnastics.”

A mega event like an Olympic Games or a football World Cup is a defining moment for the host city. “I always think of the diver in Barcelona diving with the backdrop of the city as one of those moments where you watch something and it immediately leaves a lasting impression of that particular games in that city.”

So when the time came to develop this approach into designs for the temporary overlay venues, Populous looked for ways to incorporate London’s iconic backdrops within the design of the venues.

In keeping with the spirit of the Olympics, Populous took inspiration from antiquity. “We went back to the original Greek and Roman amphitheatres, where you have seating on three sides and an opening to the landscape or stage. We were looking at how we could use, in Greenwich’s case the backdrop as the Queen’s House, or in the case of Horse Guards Parade the backdrop of Whitehall and the Millennium Eye.

The city as theatre

A central aim of this “horseshoe” design is to stage the sports events within the cityscape, so that people fully identify London with the Games. “I think it’s important for the host city to actually have that sense of engagement with the event, otherwise over time these images of great sporting achievement can blur into one another. If you have these types of open amphitheatres, you can’t help but know that the equestrian event took place at Greenwich as part of the London Games.”

Using the city as a backdrop can add dynamism to a sporting spectacle. “The opportunity it gives you, of introducing that element of the theatre and the drama of hosting these things in these historic settings, is going to be a wonderful way for London to host the games.”

As well as amplifying the effect of the sport, these open arenas aim to showcase London’s assets against competing world cities. “As the number of world events continues to develop it’s important from a London perspective that they take this opportunity to promote the city. That’s part and parcel of why a city bids to host these major events.”

Tread lightly on the earth

Any proposal to build huge venues in historic parts of a city like London is bound to encounter major regulatory obstacles, even with the governmental backing provided for an Olympic event. Planning concerns played a large part in the decision to use a larger proportion of temporary facilities than any previous Games.

“In some cases, such as Greenwich Park, which is a World Heritage Site, and Horse Guards Parade, which has a lot of listed buildings and is an important historic site, you would never get permission to build a permanent venue in these locations. So the only approach that was going to be appropriate was using temporary architecture to create these venues for the Games and then take them away afterwards.

“You have to be extremely careful about how you approach the design of a venue in a World Heritage Site. Using a temporary platform for the arena, as well as the light touch of temporary seating as opposed to permanent arena, doesn’t have too much impact on the ground and things that may be below the ground.”

Just because a venue is temporary doesn’t mean the technical requirements are any less stringent. “It’s still got to meet all the specifications of the permanent venue. One of the things we’ve tried to develop with the London project is the spacing of the seats – we’ve tried to push the suppliers to provide a quality that is as close to a permanent equivalent as we can, so that from a spectator and a comfort perspective this should be far superior to other temporary venues that people have experienced before.”

One uncontrollable factor that can severely affect comfort is the weather – particularly in venues without roofs. “It’s very difficult to justify putting a roof onto a temporary venue.” But Jones points out that the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney lost an entire day to rain. “Even climates that you might not expect to misbehave always have the opportunity.”

The likelihood of heavy rain is greater in London than Sydney and adverse weather could affect event scheduling. “My understanding is if the weather conditions are that bad the event itself will be postponed or rescheduled – so people won’t necessarily have to sit in pouring rain and try and just grin and bear it.”

Passing the baton

So far, it is unclear as to whether this strategy of building venues for short term use is more cost effective than building permanent ones. “It’s difficult to be specific at this stage because the tenders are just starting to go out on these temporary venues. But it’s certainly something that we are keen to benchmark, so we can get a better understanding of that through the process of the 2012 project.

The next step forward in the plan is to make sure the venues and their constituent parts are reused. “In terms of overlay, the interesting thing from our perspective is to look at how we might be able to design venues that can almost be recreated elsewhere – whether that’s components or modular blocks – in an alternative location.”

Reusing these venues, or their parts, would certainly boost their financial sustainability. “The UK is quite fortunate because it’s got the Olympic Games in 2012, the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and the Rugby World Cup in 2015. These opportunities to share venues and facilities between multiple events will increase the savings of the temporary venue versus the permanent one. It’s hopefully an opportunity for the suppliers and the organisers.”

Could we really expect to see temporary World Cup rugby stadiums in 2015? “Well, you never know! It’s the reuse of the components, as much as taking literally one venue and placing it elsewhere, that’s important. Increasing existing capacity with a portion of temporary seating could be quite interesting to explore.”

The horseshoe design itself might not be right for all future host cities. “In London’s case it became very clear that this is a very good way to develop the venues, but other cities in Qatar and places like that may be asking: what it is that’s going to define this event? And they may not have that kind of backdrop to use.”

As for the materials, the designers have incorporated recycled material as much as possible. “Some fairly high targets have been set for the London Games in terms of recycled content. In the Olympic Stadium, for example 43 per cent of material is from a recycled source.”

Where new materials are needed, they will be reusable. “We are trying to find sustainable materials that either can be reused after the Games, or the manufacturers are now starting to offer buy-back guarantees where they will recycle a product for future use afterwards.”

London’s temporary revolution

London has set the benchmark for scaling down the permanent build associated with the Olympic Games. The amount of temporary seating and the overlay area in London 2012 is the equivalent of the last three summer Olympic Games combined.

“London was following Beijing, which is about as large a construction project as there is going to be, and it’s hard for any city in the world to compete with that. London made a conscious choice to shift away from that.

“As the sustainability agenda has got more developed, the need to address exactly how much new and permanent infrastructure that you build is very important.”

Since London was awarded the 2012 Olympic Games, the world’s biggest events have all been awarded to cities in fast emerging markets – Russia, Brazil and Qatar. Jones plays down the risk that they may go down a similar route to Beijing and opt for massive permanent structures.

“It would almost be impossible for them to deliver a Games on the basis that everything will be new and large and permanent. So hopefully this approach to balancing temporary and permanent venues will allow these other cities opportunities to bid for and then successfully host major events. The last thing any host city wants is to be left with facilities that it will never find a meaningful purpose for afterwards.”

Jones will be speaking at the Stadia & Arena conference in Marseilles, from 15 – 17 June, which HOST CITY is partnering with. “We’ve been a long term supporter of Stadia & Arena conference. The talk that I’m giving will be looking at the way that the overlay design in London is part of the sustainability story of London 2012, but also about how we try to redefine people’s perception of temporary architecture.”