How long do the Olympics last? – Thoughts on Olympic architecture

Detail of Athletes housing by Niall McLaughlin Architects

Although the events of the Olympics are ephemeral, the games last only 17 days, the infrastructure that supports the olympic games is more stubborn. There are some exceptions this year, but buildings (along with roads, pipes and other concrete things) don’t typically pack up and leave after the closing ceremonies. So what will be the most stubborn, the most lasting remnant from this year’s games in London? Will it be the sensuous Aquatics Centre? The pokey stadium where so much of the games will take place? Maybe neither. It might end up being the less flashy and less frequently discussed Olympic Village that has the most enduring impact. These are the places where the atheletes stay, and there’s an excellent overview of the history of Olympic Villages on Design Observer, including this interesting tidbit:

“The first Olympic Village was built in 1932, in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, but it was dismantled after the games and virtually no trace survives today.”

The essay talks about the economic potential of these villages, but I’m not sure if the London Olympic Village will become a booming economic neighborhood after the games – in part, because these things can’t really be predicted and in larger part because I went to architecture school and have no idea how money works.

A detail on one of the completed buildings in the Olympic Village caught my eye. Specifically, this athletes housing that was designed by Niall McLaughlin Architects. As you can see in the photo above, the facade is finished with pre-cast concrete panels that feature low-relief motifs taken from the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. It’s a reference to the history of the Olympic games – games that originated in Greece. But because Greece is also known for it’s classical architecture, it might be construed as reminder about the timescale of architecture in the midst of fleeting sporting events. Architecture isn’t a stubborn remainder that’s hard to get rid of, but an enduring accomplishment and artifact about who we are at the time we make it.

Still, it isn’t the nicest reminder since not everyone agrees who should have the Elgin Marbles. And if the Olympic Village becomes derelict in a decade’s time, the thin concrete might be better interpreted as evidence of how prohibitively physical architecture will always be in a world that is now more compelled by things ephemeral and fleeting.

July 24, 2012 / By