Just like track and swimming, art and architecture used to be Olympic events. Between 1912 and 1948, artists as well as athletes could receive a medal for literature, music, painting, sculpture, and architecture—otherwise known as the “pentathlon of the muses.”
In the Amsterdam 1928 Olympic Games, for instance, French architect Jacques Georges Lambert won a silver medal in town planning and a bronze in architectural design for his Stadion de Versailles. That same year, Jan Wils took gold for designing the Olympics Stadium—making him the only architect to win a medal with a design that was realized for the same Olympics.
The arts and architecture Olympics have since been disbanded—and are now only a semblance of their original form as the Cultural Olympiad—but that hasn’t stopped architects from pushing themselves to design boldly. And they are still winning prestigious awards for their built contributions to the Olympic Games. The latest competitor to be nominated is Populous, which is short-listed for the 2012 Stirling Prize, the highest prize of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). (Populous has plenty of experience designing Olympic venues: its 1999 ANZ Stadium for the Sydney games was the largest Olympic stadium ever built.)
As with the other London 2012 Olympic Games buildings, Populous’s Olympic Stadium had to be designed to be used post-games. So the 80,000-seat stadium will shrink down to a 20,000-seat stadium after this summer. In order to be able to achieve this, Populous designed the stadium as a sort of kit of parts, said principal Phillip Johnson a video on RIBA’s site. “The roof itself is separate from the upper tier so that in theory you could take down the tier without taking down the roof, or vice-versa.” The stadium will be the lightest one ever built, with 11,023 tons of steel.
The last summer Olympics Games stadium—the National Stadium in Beijing, or the Bird’s Nest, by Herzog & de Meuron with Ai Weiwei—might have won the Stirling prize if it had been designed in the UK. As it was, it won the RIBA Lubetkin Prize for the best building by a RIBA member outside of Europe—not a bad consolation prize. Beijing won many other awards. The National Aquatics Centre, or Water Cube, by Arup and PTW Architects won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s biggest prize for engineering innovation in the UK, the MacRobert Award. It also won Australia’s highest award, the Jorn Utzon Award for International Architecture. The Oval, by Cannon Design, won the Institution of Structural Awards’ prize for sports or leisure structures. And Beijing’s Olympic Forest Park even won the International Federation of Landscape Architect’s Asia Pacific Region prize.
And then there are other projects, which haven’t won awards, but have still won spots in architectural history, such as Günter Behnisch and Frei Otto’s ’72 Munich Olympic Stadium, which was the largest cable-net structure ever erected. John and Donald Parkinson's Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is one of the largest examples of late Art Deco—and was so good it was used for the '32 and '84 Olympics. Santiago Calatrava's '04 Athens Olympic Stadium was inspired by the Greek traditions, but modernized.
The last Olympic arts competition was held at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, known as the Austerity Games. Now that the Olympics are returning to London—for a somewhat-austere games, with starchitect-designed projects—is it time to bring back the architecture competition?
At least we’ll have another Olympic event to look forward to, well after the games, when we find out if the 2012 stadium won the Stirling Prize on Oct. 13.