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Games Lessons at the Soane Museum

Joseph Rykwert reviews an exhibition on sports buildings, from the Colosseum to the modern Olympics

Even Sir John Soane’s venerable Museum has joined the Olympic brouhaha. Spurred on by Populous, an international consortium which specialises in sports installations all over the world, they have inaugurated their new exhibition space (which has just been elegantly kitted out by Caruso St John) with an exhibition about building for sport, from that original stadium at Olympia up to their own accommodation for the forthcoming London Games.

The first, ancient Olympics had − according to one account − started with Herakles: he paced out the 600 foot stadium at Olympia when he founded them. Heraklean feet, of course − not that Greek cities ever standardised their foot which varied around 295/6mm; and works out at 177 metres to a stadion (this was also a familiar measurement). At Olympia the stadium was 192.3 metres, which makes Herakles’ foot 320.5mm and therefore his height about seven feet and 10 inches; you may well agree that it is about the right height for such a great hero.

Such speculations are not for this show, which starts with a very bare CAD reconstruction of a 600 foot ancient stadium in the style of Soane’s own RA lecture illustrations, though without all the elaborate installations Pausanias described on his visit there. At the centre of the first room − and in itself justification enough for holding the show at the Soane − is the large, red-figure krater showing the alternative myth of the origin of the games as a horse-race, the subject of the legend of Oinomaos, Hippodamia and Pelops. The vase, which had been found near Lecce about 1790, was bought for a princely £1,000 by the Earl of Cawdor (whose name it bears) only to be knocked down to Soane for a paltry sum a few years later.

And indeed a whole variety of installations are included under the label Stadia: hippodromes for horse-racing, notably the one in Istanbul/Constantinople; amphitheatres for gladiatorial fights and simulated hunts, like the Colosseum; naumachiae for water-battles; bull-rings; temporary structures for tournaments, including the fatal one in which Henry II of France was killed; and so on. All this is tentatively fleshed out with objects (mostly borrowed), as are some drawings of which many are from the British Museum, while others are lent by private collectors. The splendid miniature of the druggie aesthete Sultan Murad III inspecting a procession of the guild of loin-cloth makers (sic!) in the Istanbul Hippodrome and showing some of the trophies on its central spine still intact is notable.

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That miniature is in fact labelled a facsimile, but the Soane was able to put on show one of its original treasures: Carlo Fontana’s extraordinary project (done for Sixtus V to expiate the decidedly indecorous spectacle that had taken place in it) to transform the Colosseum into a textile factory, and its arena into an oval colonnade with a circular domed shrine at the eastern end. They have the original drawings − though unfortunately they missed the opportunity of comparing the autographed with the engraved version. If Soane did not have it himself, they could surely have borrowed a copy.

When it comes to recent times, the show seems more wilful: Boullée’s gigantic watercolours of a circus have been borrowed from the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and there are some curious sketches of Corbusier’s for a stadium in Baghdad, as well as a photograph each for Nervi and Piano; but the enormous impact of the Berlin Olympics of 1936 (which have left us with all the ritual of lighting the flame at Olympia and the running of the torch) is barely mentioned, though another curiosity is a grotesque project for a Boullée-scale ‘Foro Imperiale Germanico’ (the title of the drawing was erased in shame or embarrassment by his familiars), the work of the overvalued Armando Brasini. For the recent Olympics, there are three small sketches by Herzog & de Meuron of the famous ‘Bird’s Nest’ which they did for Beijing with Ai Weiwei.

The rest of the exhibits are products of the sponsors, Populous, and are mostly connected with the current London Games; they include a large partial model of the 2012 stadium − though the largest drawing is a project for a future many-functional sports installation (a sin palace? A sports ghetto?) by Peter Cook, a member of the original design team.

I certainly left the show much better informed − but also a bit confused. Are we to see the London Olympic Stadium as a culmination of a historical process? If so, it certainly is not a smooth one. And the place of sport in the modern city needs a more searching view than it is getting here.

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