Cox Architecture has harnessed the full potential of parametric design to create a “taut and elegant” velodrome at Brisbane’s Sleeman Sports Complex, inspired by the speed, precision and expertise of track cycling.
In 1982, Brisbane hosted the Commonwealth Games. The effects of preparing the city for the competition were transformative and long-lasting. Now the south-east Queensland region is again transforming itself, this time to accommodate the 2018 XXI Commonwealth Games. While the majority of events will take place in the host city of the Gold Coast, track cycling will be held in a major new building at the Sleeman Sports Complex, in the southern Brisbane suburb of Chandler.
The Sleeman Sports Complex is a gathering of several facilities built for the 1982 games’ swimming, gymnastics and cycling events. The newly completed Anna Meares Velodrome by Cox Architecture is an important building that not only anchors and invigorates the southern precinct of the Sleeman Complex for the 2018 event, but is also conceived to have wider effects in the community during the decades ahead.
In the context of the Sleeman Complex, the new velodrome promotes reflection on the progress of thirty-five years, not only the development of the region of south-east Queensland, but also the increasing sophistication underpinning the procurement, design and delivery of large sporting facilities. While budgets are still lean (this velodrome cost around 33 percent of London’s 2012 Olympic cycling facility), governments have embraced thinking beyond the singular event, toward planning for legacy and a continuous-use case.
Of course, effective architects think readily through the “not only but also” scenarios that give any brief an interesting complexity and the added delight of anticipating the unanticipated (think of Alvar Aalto’s lion). While it may be challenging to account for multiple-use cases for such a specific structure, the design of the velodrome embraces these challenges by engaging with and activating a range of conditions, including those of its setting.
A refined object in its “bushy” landscape setting, the parabolic “Pringles chip” roof of the velodrome connects to the ground with canted steel columns. The form is clad in a membrane, faceted through its application to structural panels enclosing the volume. The tense wrapping is all-white – an expectant canvas for dynamic effects of light and shadow as the sun throws the shapes of surrounding trees onto the surface during the day and projected imagery enlivens events at night.
Set into a sloping terrain, the velodrome maintains a concourse-level connection to ground so that access is maximized around a large arc of the perimeter to manage the flows of significant events. An arc of the south-eastern perimeter is accessed at the ground level, used by athletes and broadcast media in event “overlay” and by the users of the velodrome in “legacy” mode. Here, banked up over four levels, a fitness centre, a specialized sports physiotherapy clinic, office tenancies and a function “pod” have an address.
This lower entrance to the building introduces the raison d’être of the velodrome in a novel way. Framed by an opening in a painted masonry wall, the underside of the cycle track – of trussed supports and slender planks of Siberian pine – is revealed in gloriously crafted detail. Third-generation track designer Schuermann Architects, led by Ralph Schürmann, was the specialist contracted to the project. A veteran producer since the 1920s of over 125 tracks and velodromes worldwide, the practice holds its intellectual property close, yet this underbelly “sneak preview” gives a rare glimpse into the slow traditions of track construction.
This revelation underlines the track as the crafted heart of the building around which everything else takes shape. In designing the velodrome hall, the architects worked with the specifics of overall dimensions and angles – a 250-metre track with near-forty-five-degree banking turns – but were never privy to Schürmann’s detail. When the time came for installation, a team of German carpenters, in a fine demonstration of skill and expertise, systematically realized its construction in a matter of weeks. The pale, efficient beauty of this engineered timber form is a jewel encased by the complementary and equally materially adept steel-and-membrane structure.
The architects’ characterization of the building as a “glorified shed” belies the effort through which the focus on maximum efficiency has become a fulcrum of architectural expression, much as a racing bicycle exacts the greatest beauty and performance from the least material means. “It’s all about the track as a crafted thing,” says Cox Architecture director Richard Coulson, “and the velodrome roof is crafted in response – one in timber, one in steel, and with equal rigour. There is little that is decorative apart from the expression of the membrane, with its facets that show strongly in the sunlight, which is simply the effect of pushing and pulling the fabric.” Further embellishments are limited but striking and make the most of few elements. A masonry wall facing the ring-road is made visually impressive by sequencing courses of cut and rotated blocks, catching the sun and graphically underscoring the datum of the main concourse. Subtle uses of colour in public and circulation areas reference the technical signals of the track: the blue of the “Côte d’Azur” apron, the black of the line that marks the length of the track and the red of the “sprinter’s line.”
Cox Architecture harnessed the full potential of parametric design to create the optimum velodrome. Similar to Hopkins Architects’ design for the London Olympic Velodrome, the hyperbolic paraboloid or “Pringles chip” roof is most synergistic with the form of the track and associated spectating, pulled up over the straights and pulled down on the banks. Cox used Grasshopper, the Rhino-integrated graphical algorithmic editor, to tease out the full range of opportunity within the constraints. Manipulation of the structure was tested through a range of lenses, from rainwater flow to air movement and sightlines for all settings (1,500-person legacy seating mode to 4,000-person event overlay mode). Working through these factors in search of deep understanding, the architects moved through iterations toward the final elegant sufficiency of structure, material and volume.
Iterative cycles of calculation-based modelling also enabled the achievement of beautiful diffuse daylighting through the enclosing membrane, ensuring that the track is shadow-free, which is necessary for rider concentration and safety at speed. Considering the extent of structure exposed to the interior, this is a feat, with no shadow cast between the opaque central “oculus” ring and the translucent part of the roof, nor between the membrane and the steel elements. Daylight is instantly boosted for broadcast via permanently installed LED sports lighting, the first to be fitted in a velodrome.
With the optimal temperature for track cycling around 28°C, interior comfort in the velodrome hall is managed through natural ventilation, supported by large fans over the infield, with additional fans “bumped in” as required for spectator comfort. The track infield supports the legacy function of ball courts (e.g. futsal), which are expected to be used several nights a week. The installation of partition netting enables simultaneous use of courts and track, further maximizing the ongoing viability of the facility.
The velodrome’s siting within the Sleeman Sports Complex sets up a “cycle precinct” (a vision akin to the 2012 London Olympic legacy of a “Velopark”) by making a macro connection to the adjacent BMX Supercross Track. A portion of the south-eastern edge of the velodrome perimeter is formed as an amphitheatre of stone and soft grasses, a great prospect for viewing BMX events. The related concourse operates as a cafe plaza that serves both velodrome and BMX events.
The Anna Meares Velodrome renders the ethereal allure of the crafted track and the speed, precision and expertise of track cycling within a taut and elegant architecture of inspiring quality. During the project, Schürmann shared an insight with the architects that took hold in their imaginations through their parametric quest for the best by the least means. Despite his professional pursuit of the design of the fastest track, tweaking each one for anticipated gains, Schürmann offered that a great space will arguably have the more significant effect on an athlete’s performance, an excellent thought to hold in mind as aspiring athletes experience this new arena in the years ahead.