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Aquatics Centre, Olympic Park, London by Zaha Hadid Architects

Poised between the permanent and the temporary, Zaha Hadid’s London 2012 Aquatics Centre is a structural tour de force, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Hufton + Crow

In January 2009, London mayor Boris Johnson initiated a competition, won by the ArcelorMittal Orbit, because he thought the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games venues lacked the ‘wow factor’.

But as he spoke, a minute’s walk from the site of the Orbit (AJ 23.06.11), the steel skeleton of a 160-metre leviathan was already arching its powerful back, as if set to lash its tail and spring forward on its course across the Olympic Park.

This magnificent beast, Zaha Hadid Architects’ Aquatics Centre, was included in London’s Olympic bid and reputedly had a big impact on the International Olympic Committee’s decision to choose the city as the venue for the 2012 Games. ‘In principle, it’s the same project,’ says Hadid, but when it was completed last month, what she refers to as her ‘sea-life creature’ was obscured by boxy utilitarian flanks that provide temporary seating.

The brief required facilities for swimming, diving, paralympic swimming and pentathlon aquatics, with a 50-metre competition pool, a 25-metre diving pool and a 50-metre training pool, plus back-of-house facilities, some to be shared with the adjacent Water Polo Arena. But it also had to serve the local community, clubs and schools after the Games. ‘It was very important that we thought about legacy,’ says Hadid. ‘That was really the brief.’ You might also say that this aspect of the brief has a whiff of British pragmatism about it.

As required by worldwide swimming sports organisation FINA, the diving pool is on the long axis of the competition pool. Hadid has used the low point of the undulating roof’s underbelly to demarcate these areas, responding to their different height requirements. In the 2004 proposal, the roof was twice as long and covered temporary seating and the training pool (now below the temporary Stratford City Bridge). Upon entering the Olympic Park, visitors to the Games will pass the Aquatics Centre’s cantilevered north end, cross the bridge and approach the stadium. Or they will walk along the Waterworks river and cross a small bridge to enter the centre at main concourse level, using temporary stairs or lifts at its south end.

After the Games there will be less foot traffic, so visitors will enter the Aquatics Centre from the plaza to the north instead, passing through a foyer and into the main concourse. The temporary stands and their 15,000 seats will be gone, replaced by curtain walling – battered to reduce the enclosed volume and running costs – with heating pipes in its mullions and fritted glazing to reduce glare.

The temporary stands are not signature Zaha Hadid. Although the C-configuration of the end elevations, which follows the seating rake, has a dynamic quality, the long elevations are orthogonal with clunky steelwork. There’s not a warped plane in sight. Could it be that Hadid and company have crossed the stylistic battle lines and are now dancing with the minimalists? I think not. The temporary stands are cocooned in a sustainability logic that originated in the 2004 proposal.

‘Nobody will need a 17,500-seat venue after the Games. If we hadn’t included the temporary stands, we would have been accused of building a white elephant,’ says project director Jim Heverin. What’s really needed is water – there are only two other Olympic-sized pools in London.

‘The temporary stands have been sold back to the supplier who is looking for an end user,’ says Balfour Beatty construction manager Stuart Fraser.

It would be pedantic, mean-spirited and ultimately hypocritical to dismiss the temporary stands as dour. ‘There was no need to try to beautify them,’ says Heverin. Once they have been fitted out by LOCOG, the London 2012 Organising Committee, they will, no doubt, look very different. ‘They’re going to be plastered with graphics,’ says Heverin. ‘If it doesn’t move, they’ll stick a logo on it.’

These will be part of what AJ deputy editor Rory Olcayto calls the ‘unique circus-like aesthetic’ of the Games, rather like the Coney Island immortalised by Hadid’s teacher Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York. However, Hadid also emphasises the permanence of the core building by juxtaposing it with the temporary stands, which, with their colourful seating, have a very different palette of finishes. And if the centre will resemble Dumbo the Flying Elephant during the Games, that will all be part of the fun. ‘People should enjoy the moment,’ says Heverin.

Hadid has addressed sustainability on several levels, urged on by the Olympic Delivery Authority and government policy. There’s FSC-certified timber, GGBS and recycled aggregate aplenty, and the internal volume is tailored to spectators’ sight-lines. But the Aquatics Centre carries a certain critical baggage following the hue and cry over the roof structure and the price tag of its steelwork, measured both in sterling and carbon dioxide.

However this roof should be seen in context. It is a structural tour de force, with a double-curvature geometry and a fanned configuration of parabolic arches spanning 120 metres between transverse trusses, supported by two cores at the north end and a concrete wall at the south, where there are sliding bearings. It also cantilevers on three sides. ‘Because it’s a pool, you can’t have internal columns,’ says Hadid. Gordon Mungall, associate director at structural engineer Arup, adds: ‘ The long, clear span roof structure was required to provide an uninterrupted, column-free view of the swimming arena when the spectators’ line of sight passes through the position of the future legacy facade.’

‘Making super-light buildings is an obsession of English architects – they should be building aeroplanes or yachts,’ says Heverin. And Hadid, though a mathematics graduate, refuses to play the structural engineer at the expense of her architectural vision. Nevertheless, the Aquatics Centre roof requires few vertical supports, and this has implications for the substructure on the highly contaminated site. The glazed side-walls will have freestanding trussed wind posts which will be independent of the roof, avoiding the need for deflection connections in the structure. Programme was also part of this logic; the design team avoided structural proposals that would interfere with construction work at ground level.

It would be easy to reject Hadid’s ‘sea-life creature’ as mimetic. But the Aquatics Centre should be viewed in the context of recurring themes in her work: the exploration of fluid, open ground planes and their connections with vertical structure, roofs and floors. Rather than being a glib metaphor, this was the starting point for the design, and it informed the relationship between the podium, Stratford City Bridge and the surrounding landscape. The design is also remarkable for its controlled attention to detail: the cluster of concrete diving boards, all cast from one mould; the training pool coffers; and the polished staircase stringers and inclined landing balustrades. The contours of the ribbed, red louro cladding, like the skin of a blue whale, emphasise the form, though they have been difficult to resolve where it wraps under the soffit and into the foyer.

If Hadid has a ‘Cinderella complex’, it may seem comical to architects who receive less critical acclaim. They may feel Hadid has been given the VIP treatment at the Aquatics Centre, with no expense spared and freedom to set her own rules. But she has reciprocated by responding to the sustainability logic of the programme, even if this response sometimes seems a little forced. ‘We believe that architecture is about more than efficiency and the brief,’ says Heverin. But for the sake of two weeks in 2012, Hadid has put this belief to one side. There will be cakes and ale come next summer, but the architectural feast will begin in earnest after the temporary stands come down.

Credits

Start on site June 2008
Completion July 2011
Form of contract NEC3
Floor area 42,866m2 (Olympics), 20,264m2 (post-Olympics)
Cost £269 million (includes Stratford City Bridge, legacy facilities, all transformation costs, inflation and VAT)
Cost per square metre £6,275 (Olympics), £13,275 (post-Olympics)
Client Olympic Delivery Authority
Architect Zaha Hadid Architects
Main contractor Balfour Beatty
Structural engineer Arup
Services consultant Arup
Quantity surveyor CLM
Project manager CLM
Fire safety consultant Arup Fire
Acoustics consultant Arup Acoustics
Facade engineer Robert-Jan Van Santen Associates
Lighting consultant Arup Lighting
Security consultant Arup Security
Audiovisual and IT consultant Mark Johnson Consultants
Access consultant Access = Design
CDM co-ordinator Total CDM Solutions
BREEAM consultant Arup
Heated curtain wall Seele
Diving board moulds Cordek
Roof steelwork Rowecord, Newport
CO2 emissions of the permanent steel roof 5,370 tonnes
U-values
Roof: 0.2W/m2K
Exposed floor: 0.25W/m2K
External walls: 0.25W/m2K
Glazing (overall system): 1.40W/m2K

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