Jim Heverin, project director, Zaha Hadid Architects, on the Stirling Prize-shortlisted Aquatics Centre
What was your initial concept?
To create an experience of swimming in natural light close to nature. We proposed a large roof, undulated to differentiate the three pools - for diving, competition and training. Ancillary facilities such as a gym and changing facilities were housed in a podium upon which the roof rested. The 15,000 temporary seats for the Olympics would be covered by the permanent roof. Once that seating was removed, the pools would be enclosed with glass facades so that the experience focused on our original concept of swimming close to nature.
Did the executed project differ from this initial concept?
The permanent roof and footprint were reduced and combined with a bridge, with the training pool underneath. The roof was reduced to cover only two of the three pools. The temporary seats were covered by a temporary roof, reducing the permanent roof. This meant that in Olympic mode the venue’s external expression was dominated by the two temporary seating stands, with the permanent roof only visible from inside.These stands are now gone and the roof is fully visible.
What was the client’s input?
The London Development Agency’s brief in 2004 promoted the need to design for long-term legacy, converting the facility for the Olympics on a temporary basis. The Olympic Delivery Authority redefined the site available, so that facility became more compact and efficient.
What was the most challenging aspect of the project - and why?
Putting the training pool under a bridge because it would have no direct daylight. To avoid it being a dark tunnel-like space, we introduced glazed screens to borrow daylight from the main competition pool hall, and we used the void formers in the concrete bridge structure to create a diffuse light source for the space and conceal acoustic absorption for the space.
What is the most important lesson you have taken from this project?
That the fundamental things we want and love about buildings cannot be easily measured by metrics or determined by process maths. It is the intangible qualities such as the quality of the space and the built materiality that make the difference in the end.
Where does this building sit within the evolution of the practice?
It was our first sports project and the experience allowed us to bid for stadiums. We have since had two stadium commissions: the Al Wakrah stadium in Qatar; and the national stadium of Japan.
How do you think the building has adapted to its post-Games use?
It’s only when you see it in operation that you appreciate the legacy of the Olympics - its generosity of space. And the public is responding to it as a place of memories of the Olympics but also a very generous and accessible facility.