Here′s what we know so far about hosting the Olympics: (1) It′s all about showing off your city to the world. Just think back on the coming-out party for Beijing, summer 2008. (2) It′s really, really expensive. Beijing′s party cost some $40 billion. (3) It lasts just three weeks, after which you′re left with a bunch of buildings you′re still paying for but maybe can′t use. Montreal spent thirty years paying off its Debt of ′76. And since Athens 2004, "like Greeks need a baseball stadium" is my go-to analogy for how urgently fish require bicycles.
So it′s settled then. The Olympics are a super-expensive three-week advertisement for a city, with decades of financial hangover.
Wrong, say the organizers of London′s 2012 summer Olympics. It doesn′t have to be that way. Well, it′s still going to be expensive (although not Beijing-expensive). But since London doesn′t really need a public-relations fest to attract global attention, it′s spending less, and putting what it does spend to lasting use. Instead of building everything brand new, it′s using existing buildings as much as possible. Instead of taking undeveloped land and plopping an Olympic city on top, it′s reclaiming Stratford, a poverty-stricken part of East London.
London′s Olympic Delivery Authority sees every Olympic venture as having a Games Mode and a Legacy Mode. Any venue that doesn′t have a lasting use, a Legacy Mode, will be built not to last. The basketball stadium, for instance, built of steel tubing covered in PVC skin, with temporary seating and a portable court, will be completely dismantled after the games. And anything built to last will be built with an eye to its future, its legacy. The Olympic village will become low-income housing; the Olympic media center will become an office building.
And then there′s the building we came to see: the Olympic Aquatics Centre. Its stunning, attention-getting design by groundbreaking architect Zaha Hadid, is fully attuned to both the Game Mode and the Legacy Mode.
Zaha Hadid—the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize—is an Iraqi-born genius whose designs have sometimes been so far ahead of their time, they′ve won awards and then . . . were never built. And this Aquatics Centre does look more like an art project than like a sports venue: it′s essentially a gigantic steel roof in the shape of a hyperbolic curve—meaning it curves in two directions at once. It has no columns and rests on just three concrete supports, between which are walls of glass. It′s been described as looking like a manta ray or crashing waves.
But the gorgeous curve of that roof is highly functional. A dip down of the roof defines the divide between the diving and the swimming pools; a curve up creates space for the fans and directs their sightlines. And the roof of the training pool doubles as a bridge and the main pedestrian access to the Olympic Park.
Hadid—whose interests run beyond architecture to jewelry, interior design, and even shoes—has designed the interior with equal care and imagination. You wouldn′t think you could do that much with two pools and some diving boards, especially since certain standards must be followed rigorously for the sake of the athletes. Despite the double-curved roof, for example, the boards in the ceiling have to converge in straight lines to keep the backstrokers from running into each other. Still, Hadid found ways to heighten the experience of the events. Like diving platforms made of curved concrete that look like cresting waves. The diver climbs to the board not by ladder, but by a dramatic series of stairs that turn approaching the dive into an event in itself.
And Hadid has not forgotten Legacy Mode. London, incredibly, has but one Olympic-sized, competition-level pool in the city. Paris, by comparison, has eight. So after the Olympics, the Aquatic Centre will be transformed—with the removal of two sides and lots of temporary seating—from the most high-tech, architecturally significant aquatic center ever built into a community swimming center, where families will come to spend time at the pool and kids will learn to swim—having been inspired by the Olympics, of course. That would be quite a legacy.