Style versus synthesis: two Olympic arenas and two very different design strategies go head-to-head
Considering the constraints of brief and budget, the Olympic Arena is an admirably efficient and effective design, albeit underwhelming, especially in comparison with Beijing’s Bird’s Nest (AR July 2008). But although the Bird’s Nest is a memorable iconic design, for many architects it is also irrational and wasteful in its structural solution and its huge members. In London, instead of the Arena, it is the Aquatics Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) and the Velodrome by Hopkins Architects, both for sports Britain excelled at in the Beijing Olympics, that now vie for attention and admiration. Besides making for an interesting comparison, like the Bird’s Nest they polarise opinion and raise questions pertinent to these confusing times about relevant approaches to design and architectural quality − even as to what constitutes real architecture.
The Aquatics Centre was winner of an architectural competition even before London’s Olympic bid and opting for a low-cost ‘austerity Games’. Despite the lavish cost and constant budget overruns, it went ahead, justified as the iconic building that would provide, in that desperately overworked cliché, the ‘wow factor’, as the signature building giving memorable identity to the games. In its post-Olympic form, it might have done that. But the original design seated many fewer spectators than required for the Olympics. Although the interior remains undoubtedly spectacular and telegenic, providing the extra seating capacity for the Olympics required clumsy temporary stands of seating on its two long sides, utterly spoiling how the building looks.
Crowning a low hill away from the other permanent sports buildings, the Velodrome (a commission also won in competition) displaced an existing outdoor cycle racing track, which though not widely known was popular with aficionados. To compensate, post-Olympics the Velodrome and BMX course will be part of a velopark with an additional 6-7 kilometre outdoor track. The building was thus designed for this permanent condition. Only a minimal alteration, adding a café to the concourse, will be required after what Mike Taylor, the Hopkins director in charge of the project, describes as a housewarming party − the Olympics.
The pools of the Aquatics Centre are organised in a row, with the two competition pools (a 50m racing pool and 25m diving pool) in the main hall and a 50m training pool under what will become the entrance forecourt (for the Olympics, spectators enter the stands from the sides). To either side of the competition pools are the permanent seats and below these and the pools are the changing rooms and a vast amount of mechanical plant. All of this is in a concrete substructure and is straightforwardly and logically organised. Once the temporary stands are removed, glass walls will rise to the distinctive, dominant element of the design, particularly when seen from outside: the swooping liquid form of the roof. Its elegantly expressive form − inspired, says Hadid, by a diving swimmer − is quite arbitrary and unrelated to structural logic or economy. The lines of the roof finish and the ceiling of grey-stained timber slats are unrelated, the latter dipping down between racing and diving pools. In the resulting large void are three huge longitudinal trusses and 3,000 tonnes of structural steel.
Neither the presence of the structural elements nor their organisation is apparent, although looking around it gradually becomes clear that the roof must be supported at only three points − to either side of what will be the entrance and on the concrete wall behind the shapely concrete diving platforms. But there is no visual or empathic sense of loads being transferred down to the ground. Instead the huge roof floats (maybe metaphorically apt) above the interior, while the exterior seen from the sides flops down to the ground on either side of the future entrance like an ungainly beached whale − another aquatic reference, but hardly apt. Clearly Hadid devised the shape first and then the engineer had to figure out how to construct it. Not only achieved at considerable structural and economic extravagance, the result appeals to the eye alone, not the mind or empathic engagement; this is more scenography than architecture.
The Velodrome design was developed through an almost antithetical approach: it emerged in slow synthesis as the simultaneous inputs of the various members of the multi-disciplinary ‘integrated design team’ were accommodated to the inputs of the others. Apt to programme, and with Mike Taylor a keen cyclist, the inspirational ideal for the design was the bicycle, not for its form but for its economy and efficiency, and for being stripped of anything extraneous to performance. Taylor had also been the architect in charge of Kroon Hall, housing Yale University’s School of Forestry, directly across the street from Eero Saarinen’s ice rink, with its roof supported on steel cables, clearly another inspiration for the Velodrome. As at Kroon Hall, every measure was taken to achieve sustainability as currently conceived, a feature of all Hopkins’ architecture and a field in which the firm leads. Another primary design goal was providing ideal conditions for racing and watching the races. An ambition for any Olympic facility is to be a venue in which records are broken, and a velodrome’s design can contribute to that.
Several factors are critical, not least the design and construction of the track, here by Ron Webb on whose tracks more world records have been broken than on those by anyone else. The temperature on the track is critical too, cyclists preferring hot conditions so that diminished air density minimises resistance. Providing this while keeping spectators comfortably cool and minimising energy consumption was thus another design determinant. And racers report that they are spurred on by having cheering spectators ringing the whole track, rather than being omitted from the tight bends, as so often happens because of the difficulties in ensuring unobstructed sightlines above the steeply banked curves.
The seating is in two tiers surrounding the entire track, the lower one close to the track in a concrete bowl sunk into the bermed-up earth and surrounded by a glazed circulation concourse. This gives racers glimpses outside when high on the banked curves, and after the Olympics will give those outside glimpses of those racing or training and so entice them in. Above this is the upper tier of seats, under which are the air-handling units that supplement the natural ventilation when required, the whole enclosed outside in red cedar cladding that will weather to grey. Around the top of this tier is a ring beam, from which is suspended the net of steel cables supporting the saddle-shaped roof, the cables in one direction hanging down while those in the other direction pull down to stabilise these. This distinctive Pringle-shape minimises the volume of hot air above the track and conducts it up, above the heads of spectators cooled by air admitted under the seats, to exhaust at the top of the roof, the whole being driven by the natural displacement of air of differing temperature and density.
For energy efficiency, the roof has 300mm of insulation in the sandwich panels sitting on the visible cables, with occasional strips of rooflight between them, and supporting the waterproof membrane. In contrast with the 3,000 tonnes of structural steel in the Aquatics Centre roof, here there are only 1,000 tonnes, the whole roof weighing only 60kg/m2 in comparison with the former’s 220kg/m2. This is not a petty distinction because it summarises the very different attitudes that provoke questions as to which is the more relevant approach to design.
Beyond both being visible in the round in a park-like setting, context is not a major determinant of these designs that serve tightly prescribed functions: competitive sports and watching them. Both respond with what could be seen as sculptural forms, but are the consequences of contrasting design approaches that could be summarised as styling versus synthesis. As a corollary, the Aquatics Centre seems the product of an essentially sequential process of design development − architect determining form, engineer making it feasible − and the Velodrome of an integrated simultaneity of process with all disciplines working closely together and all forms the product of everyone’s input. Patrik Schumacher, Hadid’s co-director at ZHA, in his two volume The Autopoiesis of Architecture (AR March 2011), is a staunch advocate for the virtues of style, particularly of Parametricism, of which the Aquatics Centre is an example, as the inevitable long-term successor of Modernism − for whose practitioners style had originally been anathema.
But style and styling are not the same and what bothers many architects and critics about a design like the Aquatics Centre is the wilful arbitrariness of its forms − at least of those of the steel and glass superstructure. Elegant and excitingly expressive they may be, but there is nothing to be grasped intellectually or subliminally, no revealed structural or other design logic to read and relate to, no empathic sense of forces in action, whether of a heaving arched action or of loads being brought down to ground. It is in these terms, as well as for its elegant economy of form, that the Velodrome is so satisfactory.
You can see and feel the structural solution − with the upper tier of seating leaning outwards to counter the inward pull of the weight of the roof on the cables, and with the different structural roles of the two directions of cable easily read − you can quickly intuit the movement of air, rising up to and being guided along the curving ceiling, and so on. More than that, all the different aspects of the building − functional, structural, environmental − are so intimately integrated and accommodated to each other, that this too offers great intellectual satisfaction.
Some may say that if they were to be judged merely as buildings, the Velodrome is clearly the superior, but architecture is something different and that if thrilling enough it transcends the narrower, pragmatic limits by which buildings are assessed. Yet there is another way of judging the relative merits of these buildings as architecture, by asking which will be judged better in the long term. Style and styling, like fashion, quickly dates. But the understated product of synthesis transcends fashion and satisfies in the long term as well as now.
Architects: Zaha Hadid Architects, Hopkins Architects
Photographs: Edmund Sumner, Hufton + Crow, Richard Davies, Bryn Lennon/Getty Images