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The Olympic Stadium, London, by Populous

An AJ exclusive: the first building study on Populous’ 2012 London Games showpiece. Populous’ London 2012 Olympic Stadium works beautifully and, on an architectural level, goes beyond problem-solving, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Morley von Sternberg

Call it what you will, ‘the austerity Olympics’ or ‘the low-carbon games’, London 2012 will be remembered as a paradigm shift away from its Beijing 2008 predecessor, not least in Populous’ design for the stadium, which was handed over last week.

LOCOG, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, will now complete the necessary fit-out work for the Stadium, which will host the opening and closing ceremonies along with athletics track and field events.

Perhaps more than any of the other new London 2012 venues, the stadium emerged from a design philosophy predicated on what it is not. It has not been proclaimed as an ‘icon’, to the extent that many have expressed disappointment.

It has not finished late or gone over budget - in fact the opposite is the case. Unlike Herzog & de Meuron’s Beijing 2008 stadium, its structure is not overdesigned - with 10,000 tonnes of steelwork, it’s the lightest Olympic stadium ever.

‘Everything is more about embodied energy,’ says Buro Happold project director Glyn Trippick, pointing out that roof truss members are surplus pipeline steel from another project. Very little of the accommodation fell into what Trippick calls ‘the Part L box’ as the stadium is inherently low-energy with few habitable internal spaces. A part of London 2012’s sustainability agenda, the stadium’s roof and the 55,000-seat upper stands have been designed to be demountable, leaving a concrete bowl with 25,000 seats.

Populous senior principal Rod Sheard admits that the stadium’s design methodology was aimed at designing out carbon and cost, to make its footprint as light as possible. But he argues this process was not a negative one. ‘It’s about the marriage of architecture and engineering,’ he says.

Reading into that, you might think that Buro Happold’s role was to pare down the design and keep an eye on the cash register, whereas Populous brought a more expansive approach to the table. But one look at the imaginative structure of the stadium’s bicycle-wheel roof supported by a single ring of inclined columns reveals a more complex relationship between architecture and engineering. You could argue that the stadium is, after all, an iconic building when you look at the remarkable, seemingly impossible and frankly sexy section through this structure.

Leaving aside its lean and vigorous structural design, the stadium is also beautifully planned. Although Populous could draw from 2,000 years of history in the evolution of the stadium as a building type, so many things could have gone wrong. On a generic level the site-lines and provision for means of escape and media coverage had to be finely tuned, standards for Olympic events had to be followed rigorously, and security was more of a concern than ever.

Planning requirements entailed careful horizontal and vertical segregation. But there were also project and site-specific challenges. Populous had to work with a 40-acre site, effectively an island, which generated a compact building. This was much smaller than the footprint for Populous’ Sydney 2000 Olympic Stadium. Taking an analytical approach, the design team’s strategy was to disembowel the venue, locating the catering and retail facilities in external pods at the perimeter of the site.

‘This reduced the fire load and simplified potentially complex food & beverages servicing,’ says Populous principal Philip Johnson. It also meant the Stadium could be significantly smaller, helping to reduce costs and accelerate the programme. And spectators could be closer to the athletes, although the project team’s use of the epithet ‘intimate’ must surely be ironic.

Another concern was the effect of wind, not only on athletes’ performance, but also on the legitimacy of potential records. After fluid dynamic modelling and wind tunnel testing, a lightweight PVC-coated polyester-fabric perimeter roof structure was designed to control the wind. When it came to designing the removable upper tiers of seating, there were insufficient reserves of rentable lightweight support systems and, according to Johnson, these would have created ‘a forest of scaffolding’.

‘These systems were expensive and inherently ill-equipped to deal with an elliptical geometry,’ adds McCormick. So steel raking members and precast tiers were used instead. Sheard explains that the seating bowl, the upper tiers and the roof were not only articulated as separate visual elements, but also designed and constructed separately and that this was beneficial to the programme.

The touchstone for the project’s success is the degree to which Populous went beyond analysis and problem-solving to achieve a synthesis which is more than the sum of its parts. Sheard says that the team’s approach promoted design which was homogeneous and, in a positive sense, simple, but not simplistic - for example in the direct circulation route, through control points at the perimeter of the site and a level plaza which connects to the seating areas with no ramps.

It also responds with conviction and consistency to the temporary nature of the Games. ‘We’re designing for the biggest show on earth,’ says Sheard. However, the PVC-coated polyester fabric external wrap, the oversized bunting, an essential component of Populous’ medieval fête-like concept, is currently being tendered by LOCOG.

With 10,000 tonnes of steel, it’s the lightest ever Olympic stadium


One wouldn’t expect a language of exquisitely crafted detail from a design and build project which is to such an extent engineering-driven. But the Meccano-set quality of the zigzag perimeter columns is undermined by the boss-like rigid joints, with stiffening plates at their apexes, and it comes as a disappointment that the ‘armadillo’ features where they meet the ground are actually GRC shells which, like fig leafs, conceal steel-to-steel connections.

Nevertheless, the universal use of bolted connections which architects often dismiss as the ‘Queen Mary effect’, expresses the stadium’s demountable construction and, according to Trippick, Anish Kapoor emulated them in his ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture next door.

Even if the external view of the Olympic Stadium’s zigzag ring of columns, the defining image of the venue, is humbled by the flamboyant geometry of Zaha Hadid Architects’ Aquatics Centre (AJ Specification November 2008) or Hopkins Architects’ Velodrome (AJ 24.02.11), there’s no denying that it is an image-conscious building.

‘Black and white are the two neutral colours in the London 2012 logo,’ says Trippick, explaining the choice of finishes that distinguishes the roof structure from the steelwork which supports the upper stands. There’s a whole brand-focused rationale underpinning many of the design decisions.

Perhaps it’s best to describe the stadium as an emblem - for London 2012, for its sustainability agenda and, in many ways, for the austerity which is not only part of that agenda but also a philosophical commitment and benchmark for the project team.

Buro Happold associate director Fergus McCormick sounds almost intoxicated with this sobriety when he talks about ‘overworked’ design and what he dismisses as ‘pin love’ - architects’ fixation with pin-jointed structural connections, which are eschewed at the stadium.

This emblematic quality ties in with the design team’s emphasis on performance and its belief that this is the foundation of architectural quality: handsome is as handsome does.

Credits

Start on site May 2008
Completion March 2011
Total floor area of stadium in Games mode 108,500m² (46,830m² internal accommodation)
Form of contract NEC 3, Integrated Design and Construct Team
Full project cost £496 million
Full project cost per m² £4,571
Client The Olympic Delivery Authority
Architect Populous
Structural engineer Buro Happold
M&E consultant Buro Happold
Quantity surveyors Arcadis and CLM
Landscape architect Hyland Edgar
Acoustics consultant Vanguardia
Crowd circulation consultant Steer Davies Gleave
Project manager CLM
Main contractor Sir Robert McAlpine
CDM co-ordinator Buro Happold
Approved building inspector JLAB
Estimated annual CO2 emissions Not supplied

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Yasmin Shariff

    After two exhausting weeks with many 5am starts and lots of standing and smiling welcoming punters to the stadium as a Gamesmaker I can truly say that it has been a fantastic experience. The design works effortlessly- somehow miraculously meeting all the complex technical and people requirements. Last night at the closing ceremony the stadium pulsated to the music of Queen, the Beatles and the Spice Girls. Every seat was used, right up to the last tier to create pixilated images that flashed around the space. I cannot describe in words what 80,000 people singing and dancing feels like with a light show flashing all around. It was a brilliant spectacle. The grand fireworks finale used the stadium structure to great effect. Well done Populous! Thank you for giving us such a great stadium.

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