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Architecture and the Olympic games

Ivan Rupnik

The Summer Olympics begin on Friday in London, where a unique series of struc­tures have been designed to host com­pe­ti­tions and house ath­letes from all over the world. News@Northeastern asked Ivan Rupnik, an assis­tant pro­fessor of archi­tec­ture in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design, to explain architecture’s role in the Olympics.

Is there a common theme that ties together a city’s Olympics?

There are def­i­nitely common trends in the archi­tec­tural designs of any Olympics, including the branding of the Olympics and the unique logo for each host city. But there isn’t a plan in which the orga­nizers agree to have a uni­fying archi­tec­tural theme. There hasn’t been a con­scious archi­tec­tural theme for the Olympics, with the pos­sible excep­tion of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, where Adolf Hitler and his advi­sors care­fully defined the archi­tec­tural lan­guage for the event.

Local talent has designed many of the facil­i­ties for the London Olympics, so they share that common bond. London, in gen­eral, is very much a hotbed for a lot of what is going on now in the archi­tec­tural world and has a very strong archi­tec­tural scene that a lot of past host cities does not.

Many structures, such as stadiums and housing, are designed specifically for the Olympics but remain as part of the city. What factors into that double use decision?

For a long time, struc­tures built for fes­ti­vals, exhi­bi­tions and the Olympics were thought of as tem­po­rary archi­tec­tural exper­i­ments and then torn down. Some of the most impor­tant rev­o­lu­tions in archi­tec­tural design hap­pened at these fairs in the 19th cen­tury. The Eiffel Tower, for example, was sup­posed to be on dis­play only for the 1889 World’s Fair.

The archi­tec­ture of the Olympics, like that of other ‘fes­ti­vals,’ was fre­quently seen as tem­po­rary. An impor­tant shift in this thinking occurred during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, where an archi­tect by the name of Joan Bus­quets worked with the explicit idea that all the things that would be built for the Olympics should ben­efit the city after the event. The struc­tures, he said, should not only ben­efit the city as spe­cific pro­grams, but as strategic moves that would help direct devel­op­ment of entire neigh­bor­hoods. The idea was to build a sta­dium in a part of the city that needed devel­op­ment, thus changing the whole neigh­bor­hood. That was some­thing that may have occurred prior to 1992, but it was never so con­sciously planned as in the Barcelona Olympics.

What can Olympic architecture and design help a city communicate to the rest of the world?

There’s a term in archi­tec­ture called “the Bilbao Effect,” which was coined after Frank Gehry designed the Guggen­heim Bilbao museum. The museum became a kind of model for allowing a cer­tain kind of archi­tec­tural exper­i­men­ta­tion and served as a symbol of progress and open­ness. This model is some­thing that cities have used in the past. During the Fes­tival of Britain in the 1950s, for example, the British used it to declare the end of the lean postwar recon­struc­tion years.

The Olympics now offer a way for com­mu­ni­ties to estab­lish them­selves as world cities. Since the 90s, world cities have invested in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture. Some of this strategy is designed to boost rev­enue — the most prof­itable form of tourism is cul­tural, far more than sea-​​sun-​​fun tourism, and has the least overhead.

These major events, which require years of plan­ning, design and invest­ment, are a way for cities to present them­selves, to say they have arrived. It is some­thing that London wants to restate and some­thing we’ll see again in four years, when Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, hosts the first Olympic Games in South America.