Architecture Cities Infrastructure

Re-use of Olympic Architecture post-event

As New Delhi gears up to host the Commonwealth Games in 2010, the issue of what cities do with star architecture projects post-event comes up. The article below looks at one such instance in the aftermath of Beijing 2008.

In a July interview with Der Spiegel, celebrated Olympic architect Jacques Herzog defended his decision to accept a signature commission from China, despite the nation’s abysmal record on human rights. The headline said enough: "Only an idiot would have said no." Given the reception that Herzog’s Bird’s Nest has received – it is no longer Herzog & de Meuron’s building, really, but China’s – his answer seems quite obviously correct.

But what happens when the Olympic Games are over? If precedent gives any clue, nothing much – or worse. World record-setting projects in architecture and urban design rarely pay off for host nations. Lack of use, expensive upkeep and bewildering construction costs have plagued cities that have undertaken similarly grand missions for the Olympics. No stadium created for the Olympics has been very profitable, and high design increases the likelihood that costs will balloon. In fact, it might be the host nation who is the idiot for saying yes to the starchitect.

In the last 30 years, Athens is the host city that’s been stung the worst by the Olympics. Despite being home to the gods, Athens faced an uphill challenge in proving to the International Olympic Committee that it was fit to serve as the host of the Games. Arguably, it was not. According to the Athens News Agency, the city’s hurry-up-and-get-ready costs for the 2004 Summer Games included a staggering $4.3bn spent on infrastructure – spending that did not include building the Attiki Road highway, Eleftherios Venizelos international airport, the tram or the suburban railway, all long-delayed projects that were already in the works.

The second-greatest cost came in the form of sports venues themselves, totalling $3.3bn. For this price, however, Athens didn’t get a new cultural touchstone like the Bird’s Nest. The city spent a healthy $394m to renovate its pre-existing Olympic stadium, costs that went primarily toward installing a dramatic and controversial roof by architect Santiago Calatrava.

For all the effort, Athens had a hard time selling the Olympics to Greeks, a fact reflected by empty seats and poor returns. Just $2.5bn were recouped in the form of ticket sales, ring-logo merchandise, sponsorships and the like, leaving it to Greece to foot the rest of the estimated $13.4bn total bill. Athens has richly profited from a transit system that it might never have fixed otherwise; the metro ferries some 600,000 passengers each day. But just two years after the Games left town, Athens officials – facing upkeep costs of more than $74m per year for athletic venues that were not used after the Games’ end – started thinking about tearing venues down.

Although the city nabbed a signature architect, Athens didn’t even go all-in on architecture to the same degree that other Olympic host cities have. Montreal’s Olympic stadium, designed by architect Roger Taillibert for the 1976 Summer Games, would have made the list of the most expensive stadia ever built – even if that cost hadn’t soared as interest accrued. Originally estimated at $128m, the final price tag reached an absurd $736m – reflecting the difficulty cities face in managing the costs and scopes of such complex, high-design projects.

For reasons of eclectic design compounded by labour strikes, the Big Mistake (as it’s known there) was only half complete by the start of the Olympics. It never fully opened. It was fully paid off, though, for a startling $1.4bn, making it the second-most-expensive stadium ever built, according to Forbes. Montreal freed itself of its 30-year burden in December 2006, five years after Montreal’s Expos left for Washington, DC, and long after the lustre of Olympic gold had faded.

It’s not necessarily brand-name starchitecture that inflates building costs. Sydney’s Stadium Australia, built for the 2000 Summer Olympics by the working-man’s firm, Bligh Lobb Sports Architects, still cost $690m – elevating it to number 10 on Forbes’ list. Sydney’s stadium and other athletic venues represented a more significant part of 2000’s overall costs, as the city spent relatively little on new transit and infrastructure, building just a single railway to the site of the Games, Homebush Bay (which has suffered neglect and is targeted for transformation into a residence and retail sector). The stadium wasn’t terribly useful after the Games – and, worse still, it was useless by design.

Popular Australian sports like cricket and Australian-rules football are played on an oval field, not the square field built for the Games. An $80m revision to the field made it useful for the occasional big matchup in rugby and football, but not for Sydney. The city doesn’t have a high-profile professional sports team to call the stadium home and draw the crowds. And Sydney probably never will, owing to the organisation of Australian sports into clubs, with memberships tied to specific locations.

With the Bird’s Nest, China has apparently managed to avoid the problem of overreaching costs. At under a purported $500m, the building is a bargain. Of course, it also has a twin in the Water Cube (designed by a consortium of international architects) and is just one of a suite of wunderbar buildings erected in the run-up to the Games – including the Egg Drop (or whatever name Paul Andrew’s National Grand Theatre comes to be known by) and Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV Tower.

But China didn’t learn a lesson from Sydney. According to state media, once the Games are finished, approximately 35% of the stadium’s area will be converted to mixed-use facilities, including hotels and shopping malls, for a price of $48m. What’s left of the athletic portion of the Bird’s Nest will be home to a (most likely terrible) Chinese soccer team, probably the Beijing Guoan. It’s a curiosity, but despite rabid soccer fandom throughout China, China Super League soccer games were unable to draw more than 15,000 fans on average in 2007. The Beijing team drew substantially less than this mark, and the league hit an attendance record low in 2005.

Perhaps the Bird’s Nest can change all that. At any rate, something will have to change. With purported upkeep costs of $10m per year and Olympic seats sitting empty, even a boomtown like Beijing will need to find another use to help defray some $40bn in costs for the Olympics. Probably any cost will be written off as worth the flattery that Beijing has received. For his part, Herzog himself has suggested that the stadium’s immense steel lattice shell offers lots of potential cubbies and spider holes where future democratic activists will come together to plot. (To be sure, not what the client had in mind.) Doesn’t that suggest – by knowing contradistinction – that the official events inside the stadium will fall further toward the North Korean end of the spectrum?

Only time (and transparency) will tell whether Beijing’s gambit has paid off in actual dividends, the way it seems to have symbolically. But the official results will probably not arrive before London makes any number of bad decisions for 2012. Despite having a grand and grandly expensive stadium in Wembley – despite the Millennium Stadium kerfuffle still being a very sore spot – London nevertheless seems poised to sink a small fortune into a new Olympic stadium. The Hubcap is hardly an answer to the Bird’s Nest, architecturally speaking, and not a good fit for London to boot. A superior design by Foreign Office Architects doesn’t work either, so long as no natural function for the building will last beyond the Games. (And the less said, the better, about 2012’s aquatic centre – resembling, in the words of a friend, something between a manta ray and a uterus.)

The pinnacle of world conferences, the Olympic Games offer host cities a unique opportunity to spend big in a short burst and boost themselves in the international standings. Candidate cities should be encouraged to think about transit and urban design reforms as competitions – a gold in that category improves the city forever, and international competition promotes best practices.

But architecture is not a medal event. Building coliseums whose justification is grounded primarily in architectural one-upmanship is a strategy that can steer a city in the wrong direction.

Original article here