faster – higher – costlier

In a time after the big financial crisis of the western world and in global economic and social insecurity huge international sports events face numerous problems and public critique. Already Caesar in ancient Rome knew that panem et circenses are an efficient way to maintain people busy and distracted. It was a fix social event and people still do not want to miss those kinds of happenings. But nowadays those events seem to race out of any relation. In the last years the IOC (International Olympic Committee) as well as FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) have to cope with rising criticism. Cost of the events explode more and more with each time, the Olympic motto faster – higher – stronger seems to turn into faster – bigger – costlier. The host countries usually remain on a mountain of debt after a few days of fame. The image benefits for them remain marginal.

A lot of questionable countries are keen to use events like the Olympic games or Soccer Championships to show off their modernity or ‘open democracy’ on the international stage. Meanwhile behind the scenes the population is being repressed because governments do not want negative headlines in media, relocated in order to create space for the giant stadiums, exploited to pay the costs, nature is destroyed. Architects play an ambivalent role in those affairs. In order to design another awarded and prominent project they are happy to serve those events without questioning them much. They let themselves be utilized for critical projects as well as they use them to increase their prestige.


Olympic Summer Games Beijing 2008 – decay or reuse?

The Olympic games in Beijing in 2008 had to face multiple of the problems mentioned above. Critique for human rights was repressed. 1,5 million people where relocated in order to create space for the Olympic infrastructure. Architects did not seem to have a problem with that. Renowned Swiss-based Herzog & de Meuron won the competition for the Beijing National Stadium – better known as Bird’s Nest. Definitely the design is very poetic but is it 100% good architecture? Is it reasonable to build a 293€ million building for an event of 16 days duration? 110.000 tons of steel where used for the construction, during the Olympic games it could hold 91.000 people. After the event the buildings capacity was reduced to 80.000 but it is rarely used at its capacity. If – IF – Chinas application for the Olympic Winter Games in 2022 is successful, it could be reused. Meanwhile there are some plans to convert it to a shopping mall… It seems like if urban planners do not know what to do with something anymore, it often ends up as a shopping mall….

A more sustainable example from the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 is the Beijing National Aquatics Center nicknamed Water Cube. With total construction costs of 94 millions euros it seems like a bargain compared to the Bird’s Nest. The design of the building focuses on ‘green’ aspects. Therefore the building features various technologies: solar energy is used to heat the interior; there is a system to reuse the water of the facilities; the façade material is self-cleaning with rain. During the Olympic games the building held a capacity of 17.000 seats. After the games the venue was reduced to 7.000 seats, which is less than half. The building was converted into a public leisure aquatic park. This may seem like a trivial reuse but there is a reuse and the building has a new life after the Olympic games. An economic use it important to maintain the buidlings sustainability. Architects should think ahead more often and not just design single-use architecture.



Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014 – faster, higher, most expensive

The Olympic Winter Games in Sochi last year remain in history as the largest yet most expensive ones in history so far. The estimated cost ranges up to 41 billion euros. Only the Fisht Olympic Stadium planned by Populous and Buro Happold cost 628 millions euros. At least it is going to be reused for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. Severe damage to the environment had been done by the event; again people were displaced. The architects of the facilities were happy to serve as uncritical accomplices to those topics. The value for the population of Sochi remains little. The image benefit for Russia is diminished by international crises like in Ukraine. If Sochi will remain an international attraction for tourism seems doubtful.


Olympic Stadium Tokyo 2020 – big, bigger, the biggest?

The Olympic games of 2020 in Tokyo are still in planning stage. But one object is already highly criticized: the Olympic National Stadium by Zaha Hadid. Located in the historic outer gardens of the Meiji Shrine, on the site of the 50.000-seat capacity Olympic National Stadium from 1964, Hadid’s 80.000-seat venue is planned with arches rising up to 70m high. After massive public criticism it had been downscaled by a quarter in order to reduce the budget for 40%. Still it is estimated to cost 169 billion yen  (1.14 billion Euro). The reduction did not affect the public opinion. Opponents still label the building as too big and too expensive.  Hadid’s statement ‘…we don’t make nice little buildings’ does reveal the attitude a lot of (star-)architects have nowadays. Sure it is the dream of an architect to design a landmark, not a building, no matter what it might cost to eternize their delusions of grandeur. But is that really necessary. Sometimes yes. Nobody would question Sydney’s opera house despite all the struggles, delays and cost explosions. But still, if there exists already some infrastructure, would it not be possible to adapt, reuse and rebuild the existing facilities? Of course they are not up-to-date but wouldn’t it be more sustainable to alter them? It might be less prestigious but maybe more reasonable.


Soccer World Cup Qatar 2022 – call of duty?

Another big sports event which is planned to happen in 2022 is already prominent in nowadays newspapers. The Soccer World Cup in Qatar is highly criticized by human rights activists. Although there are still some years to pass until the event, more than 1.000 Indian and Nepalese workers already died on the construction site. Accommodated under terrible conditions and without any papers they have no choice to leave. There are already plans to build a monument for the victims but this is not a war, it is simply the construction of a soccer stadium. So would it not make more sense to focus on the conditions of the workers that are still there and assure them proper work circumstances? When star-architect Zaha Hadid who is in charge of the design for the al-Wakrah stadium was interviewed she pointed out that she has ‘nothing to do with the workers.’ She stressed that this is the duty of the government and not the duty of the architect ‘to look at it’. Furthermore this would not concern her more than the deaths of the war in Iraq. Of course it is not her fault. But is it that easy? Architects sell the design and what happens with it is none of their interest anymore? Can we just close our eyes and ‘not look at it’? This unattached view of an architect is critical. It should not be that architects make sumptuous designs no matter at what cost – may it be money or lives. It would be cynical to talk about sustainability when facing over 1.000 deaths for an event eight years ahead during preparation. But that something went terribly wrong in the planning of this world cup is obvious. Architects are not responsible for everything but by the choices they make, which project to plan, with what companies or countries to cooperate and for whom to work they have some influence. After international and prominent critique conditions for the construction workers are being improved. Architects involved remain silent collaborators by saying ‘it is not my duty’.


Olympic Games 1992 – Learning from Barcelona

The Olympic Summer games in Barcelona in 1992 had a huge impact on the city. The general urban plan for the games is still influencing the city nowadays, the method was so successful that it got its own name: the Barcelona model. Although more than twenty years ago, it is still a role model and quoted in other ambitious Olympic ‘plans’ like the Games in London. During the rule of General Franco Barcelona had become and industrial backwater. By the time Barcelona was voted to host the Olympic games in 1992 it was still suffering form the consecutions of that time. But once the decision for the Olympics was made, the planning started carefully. Urban planners started to increase the city’s qualities already years in advance by small urban interventions. More public spaces where created, sometimes just as simple as boulevards with palm trees or a few benches in public space. Aware that the Olympic games often leave host cities with numerous abandoned and sumptuous structures, facilities in Barcelona where created for further use. Football games still happen in the Olympic stadium, but it is capable of doubling its capacity for concerts or shows. But the planners were not afraid to face big infrastructural projects as well – despite the costs they were going to face already for the Olympic infrastructure. The city created a whole new beachfront by demolishing the industrial buildings on the waterfront at marina. A new promenade was created at the beachfront, setting new landmarks as Frank O. Gehry’s giant fish. It became a magnet for tourism; one restaurant is neighboring to the other at the beach boulevard. Nowadays the beach is a main public attraction for tourists as well as for locals. By the time the project was realized people probably were shaking their heads in doubt about the costs and the magnitude. But today no one could think away the beach from Barcelona. It is one of the most precious parts of the city and a main economic drive. The Olympic infrastructure created for the games is thought to have provided over 20.000 permanent jobs for the city. Therefore although costly it remained sustainable.




In connection with careful urban planning the city experienced a huge image benefit from the Olympic games and remains one of the most popular European cities. Architects and urban planners should consider more thoughtful those big events. If planned carefully they can have a massive sustainable effect for decades. But if just planned in short term view the host city usually remains financially ruined, whole neighborhoods abandoned and in worst case society is destabilized and the environment damaged.  Nowadays political pressure of these events is increasing: bigger – faster – more sensational. But architects should consider if they want to be a accomplice in that system. By planning the buildings as well as playing a role in the master plans of those projects they can have some influence. Architects should reflect their social responsibility. Of course it is tempting to plan an iconic landmark when costs do not matter. But somebody has to pay the bills and it is usually the people of the particular country. Reducing some extravagancies and finding a reasonable scale is one way. Thinking ahead about the use of the building is the even more important part. It is absolutely not sustainable or economic to construct a million heavy blown up stadium to leave abandoned and unused ever after. This should be already an important part in the architectural competitions and to be considered in the choice of the awarded projects.  But as long as the juries and committees of those yearly sensations do not reflect those topics, it will remain to the architect to be self-responsible. Architects cannot teach governments or society to act sustainable. But they can use those events to show how things can be done. In a time when world seems to become smaller and smaller anyways, it is important to show new ways to give those architectural giants a second life after their main purpose and stay at least to a certain way economical with the recourses and space.

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