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Vancouver, Canada – The anti-design Winter Olympics

The Winter Olympics may be anti-design, but there are redeeming moments

You have to look back half a century or more to find an Olympic Games as architecturally unambitious as Vancouver’s. Breaking with modern Olympic practice, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) sponsored no architectural competitions at all. Vancouver is the largest city ever to host a Winter Games, so much of the construction work focused on adapting existing facilities. Any commissions went to bland corporate practices, with the best Canadian designers, such as Bing Thom and John and Patricia Patkau, not even getting interviews. Moreover, as the first global sports event entirely planned after 9/11, VANOC spent more on security than new buildings.

In the one instance where VANOC ran a design contest - for the design of the Games logo - the results were farcical. Elena Rivera MacGregor’s winning design brightly recolours an inukshuk - way-finding cairns constructed by Canada’s arctic Inuit people - and caps it off with a head borrowed from the videogame PacMan, intended as a tribute to local high-tech industries. Wags have suggested that a ‘stoner into computer games’ is a perversely appropriate symbol for a city with serious drug and youth-unemployment problems.

VANOC’s design-hostile corporate culture had more serious implications, notably a deadly luge track that was too steep and too fast, and a decision to keep snowboarding events at Cypress Bowl (instead of moving them to ever-snowy Whistler) in an El Niño year, when Vancouver’s always mild climate tends sub-tropical. That said, the Games did have a handful of design triumphs.

Vancouverite Omer Arbel’s architectural training is evident in the medals he devised for the Games - undulating, amorphous and beguilingly tactile. With a motif by First Nations (Canadian aboriginal) artist Corinne Hunt laser-etched on to their surfaces, each is punch-cut from sheets that have been worked and warped - no two medals have the same shape. Equally seductive are the Olympic torches carried by over 10,000 cross-Canada runners in the months leading up to the Games, designed by engineers at aircraft-maker Bombardier.

Engineers were also central to the stand-out built creation of the Games - the Richmond Olympic Oval for speed skating. The roof design by Vancouver engineers Gerry Epp and Paul Fast is epochal, pointing at the role that sustainably harvested wood will play as the construction material of the future.

The engineers were given two enormous challenges: fashion a large clear-span structure almost entirely out of timber, and make much of this roof out of small dimension studs (two-by-fours) salvaged from climate-change-killed British Columbia pine.

The Oval’s roof curves dramatically upwards along its north elevation, admitting stable light and magnificent mountain views. But this was stymied by VANOC’s covering-up of all windows, worried that outside views would permit ‘ambush marketing’ by companies not on their sponsorship list. London, beware…

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