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Stirling Prize 2012: Olympic Stadium by Populous

‘Those watching the Olympics on telly were struck by its graphic simplicity: it looked good in 2D, an icon in the purest sense,’ writes Rory Olcayto

Never in the history of the Stirling Prize has there been a shortlisted building so roundly dismissed by architectural critics. Here are some of the comments levelled at the Populous design:

‘Vile.’

‘Tragically underwhelming.’

‘A bowl of blancmange.’

‘A cunning indicator of the decline of the west and the rise of the east.’

Experts aside, when the design was first unveiled, reaction was muted. The Guardian’s headline on 8 November 2007 was ‘Plain and practical is the aim as London unveils its 2012 stadium’. It was a typical response and one which sought to contrast the innovative, lightweight demountable arena with the Bird’s Nest, a flamboyant, much bigger stadium designed by Herzog & de Meuron for the 2008 Beijing Games, then nearing completion.

This was the ODA’s plan: don’t compete, do something different, take the moral high ground. ‘This is not a stadium that’s going to scream from the rooftops that it’s bigger and more spectacular,’ said Rod Sheard, its architect, and senior principal with the sports venue specialists. ‘This is just a cleverer building, a cleverer solution.’

Alongside a fuzzy long-distance shot of the stadium bathed in a pinkish light, which the finished building resembles quite closely, one of the key images used to sell the concept in 2007 was the Airfix instructions graphic. An exploded axonometric (overleaf) showed the building’s core elements: a concrete bowl, the seats, the cable-supported roof, the crown-like structural ring and the wrap, a slashed fabric curtain to be draped around its perimeter.

It was an intriguing proposal and a striking image, expressing just how clever the solution was. Populous had designed the world’s biggest pop-up: a demountable crown with a grass skirt (hemp was muted for the wrap at one point) raised above a concrete bowl. It was to be the lightest Olympic Stadium to date, using only 10,000 tonnes of steel. But instead of finding Sheard’s kit-of-parts inspiring, critics groaned and pined for something more architectural. This felt too much like engineering.

To some, a great opportunity had been missed. There had been no design competition. And despite opting for contractor-led consortia bids, the ODA attracted only one interested party: Sir Robert McAlpine and Populous, also known as Team Stadium. Neither of these facts suggested great design was central to the negotiations, but a good one emerged nonetheless.

This was clear when the building was completed 16 months before the Games commenced. The mudslingers, on seeing it for real, offered grudging respect, praising the site lines, its structural efficiency, the slimline profile. But everyone agreed the final cost was extravagant: at half a billion pounds it was around twice the price of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest.

In terms of serving its users, the main stadium has proved a great success. The athletes appeared to love it, even if only two of the world records broken at the Olympics were on its track. Those who attended the Games felt an impressive sense of enclosure. Those watching on the telly were struck by its graphic simplicity: it looked good in 2D, an icon in the purest sense. And few would deny it made a great stage for Danny Boyle’s funny, spectacular, weird opening ceremony.

Like Hopkins’ Velodrome, the Populous design is athletic and lean. But the main stadium is part of the wider park ensemble. Most of it is gaudy and brash, pumped-up: the Orbit’s throbbing knot of fat red steel; the Hulk-punched facades of the basketball tent; the teleport-mistake chic of Zaha Hadid’s mixed-up swimming pool. The circus-like atmosphere across the 250-plus acre park, palpable during the Games, arose out of this strange, expensive landscape. The main stadium in particular, excelled in those two-weeks but it won’t ever look, feel or sound that good again. Still, there’s always YouTube.

Rory Olcayto, deputy editor, The Architects’ Journal

AJ Buildings Library

See images, drawings and details of the Olympic Stadium by Populous

Q +  A: Rod Sheard, senior principal, Populous

What was your initial design concept?

We wanted to create a beautifully elegant and articulate building that showed London and the UK as a place of creative ingenuity. A stadium that touched the earth lightly, acting as a blank canvas while enhancing the amazing ceremonies and athletics: the opposite of the rigid edifice normally associated with sporting events. We used the whole island site, creating a spectator space around the venue, allowing the bowl itself to be lower and tighter to the playing field and partially sunk into the ground for more elegant external proportions.

The single most important part of the concept was to design the entire stadium as a series of components, each of which could be separated without affecting the integrity of the adjoining element. This allowed an Olympic Stadium that could be reduced in capacity post-Games, with the smallest carbon footprint in history, using recycled materials, and less of them.

Did the final scheme alter much from this concept?

We went through quite a few variations of approach in early 2007 until we learned to ‘embrace the temporary’, to use different materials and a different approach to detailing. The scheme that was built didn’t vary greatly from that time. We had a very limited amount of time before we started on site in order to meet the key opening dates; a very fast track which we met.

The Olympics attract a massive TV audience. How did you take account of this ‘client’ in your design?

The largest television audience in history always had to be part of our planning, not just the hundreds of cameras and onerous amount of lighting, but, most importantly, the atmosphere. If there is an emotional connection between an engaged live audience and the performers, that magic flows over to the television viewers. There was a moment in the Paralympics when Jonnie Peacock was about to run the 100m final and the crowd was chanting at a deafening volume. He simply put his finger to his lips to say ‘quiet’ and the entire stadium stopped. You could have heard a pin drop. It was the most amazing display of spectator-athlete connection I’ve ever seen.

What is the future of stadium design?

Stadia are a building genre that we have inherited from the past but found ways of reinventing. City planners now recognise that stadia are an important part of our infrastructure and they are being drawn into our cities, plugging into existing transport and services, sometimes being a catalyst of regeneration. They will continue to develop in sophistication and complexity, taking advantage of new technology. Most of all they will continue to be the buildings where we see the best of mankind, where we applaud their skills, keep the memories and cherish being part of it.

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