Identity and the Olympics

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

Identity and

Above left Stadium Australia by Bligh Lobb Sports Architecture, a joint venture between Bligh Voller Nield and Lobb Partnership. Above right Olympic Park Railway Station by Hassell: photograph Patrick Bingham-Hall.
the Olympics

This analysis and pictorial record of Sydney’s Olympic achievements - the buildings, planning and infrastructure - reveals Sydney’s identity as pragmatic, open, and always new.

Text by Harry Margalit.

For Sydney residents, the Olympic facilities seem to have been in place for some time. Perhaps it is because of the publicity, or the staggered completion schedule, or the desire to smooth out any problems well before the Olympics. The stadium has been tested almost to capacity by the football codes, and the other major venues have all hosted significant events in the past few months. It is a tribute to the organising bodies that the construction and commissioning of the facilities has passed with an orderliness which may be unique in recent Olympic history.
What, on reflection, could be read into this process and its products? There emerges, for me, a picture of competence and sobriety that is perhaps unexpected in its pervasiveness and highly significant for the architecture of the event. Whatever cost and time overruns Sydney might have, they seem unlikely to approach the almost mythical magnitudes of those of Montreal or Barcelona, or of the last-minute construction frenzy of Atlanta. In the end, corporate and quasi-corporate Sydney has proved itself capable of avoiding ridicule – or even much criticism by international standards – through an orderly construction schedule and through sensible site and planning decisions. In the end, sensitivity to international opinion and public fiscal rectitude has set the tone for these games.
What seems most surprising is that we have become, somehow, a benchmark. The lack of progress made by Athens in their preparations for 2004 highlights the tricky process Sydney has now successfully negotiated. It confirms the relative sophistication of Australian institutions and our construction capabilities, a point which can be overlooked in the critical, piecemeal, comparisons sometimes made with Japan, the US, or Europe.
The Olympics, through their concentration of effort and resources, also highlight other aspects of contemporary Sydney identity. The first is the
triumph of a particular pragmatism. Many of the new venues, and some of the older ones, rely substantially on the techniques of steel construction, the quintessential Australian building material of the moment. Steel elements can be fabricated off-site, reducing construction time and effort and allowing precise tolerances. The tensile qualities of steel make it suitable for covering large areas with suspended or stayed structures, and steel trusses and space frames also permit large spans with few points of support. These practical advantages have asserted themselves across the Homebush site, and follow the tenacious arguments mounted by Philip Cox in the 1980s that, first and foremost, the obvious should be addressed. Cox prefigured many Olympic buildings in the first major venue to be completed, the Sydney Aquatic Centre, and in his earlier Sydney Exhibition Centre at Darling Harbour. Steel – stayed, trussed or bowed – has emerged not as the preferred method of large-scale construction but as the only method of construction. This is a telling comment on the dynamics of the building industry and the tight parameters it operates within. After Homebush, one need only skirt the springing points of the Opera House shells to be struck by how improbable the whole saga of its construction seems now.
The second aspect of identity which the Olympic venues delineate is Sydney’s attitude to space, expressed through density and form. The original decision to centralise the Olympics at Homebush – and to use the event to remake and repair the area – bore all the hallmarks of Sydney’s pragmatic populism. This has an affinity with Barcelona’s use of the Olympics as a catalyst for the improvement of sections of the city. In Barcelona, though, the effort was spread across several precincts, each of which was subject to the constraints of the city’s great density.
Top left Overview of the Homebush Olympic site. Master planning by Bligh Voller Nield and overlay master planning by Bligh Lobb Sports Architecture: photograph John Gollings. Bottom left White Water Stadium, Penrith Lakes by Grose Bradley and Bligh Voller Nield: photograph Anthony Browell. Below State Hockey Centre by Ancher Mortlock and Woolley: photograph Patrick Bingham-Hall. Bottom State Hockey Centre Olympic overlay by Scott Carver: photograph Geoff Ambler.

Sydney, by contrast, has found itself with a site so large that it is relatively free of topographic or urban constraints. The consequence is a simplified axial arrangement holding a series of architectural set pieces with large, intervening, public overflow spaces. These have been designed to hold the 300,000 visitors expected during the Olympics, and no doubt the crowds will find ample space to circulate among the various venues.
Again, this experience of uncompressed space (the possible overflow areas appear, on a quiet day, almost boundless) is distinctly Australian, even though it may seem unremarkable to the average Sydneysider. Sydney may have experienced a boom in higher density units and we may (with the rest of Australia) have welcomed a plethora of outdoor cafes and other signs of a new urbanism, but we have yet to develop a cultural language that assimilates these. The Olympic venues will reinforce some achingly traditional aspects of Sydney life.
One of these is the desire to make things new. For the most part, the Olympic venues were constructed within the last decade. In terms of resources, the argument that triumphed was not the adaptive reuse of facilities (as in Barcelona’s Olympic stadium, inserted into a 1929 shell), but the desire to produce a Green Games based on current technology and building practices.
Somewhere in all of this is curious reaffirmation of an identity that is both humdrum and yet resolutely convincing. As in Barcelona, the buildings of greatest architectural distinction in Sydney – judged by their conscious play against convention – are the smaller facilities where the logistics were less daunting. Yet there is something stirring about the fact that the Stadium, very much a machine for sporting events, is the largest Olympic facility ever. The newness, the symmetry, the comfort and the sheer scale get to the heart of the matter even if the building holds few architectural surprises (although its flexibility incorporates some engineering ones).

Centre column top to bottom Sydney Showgrounds Exhibition Halls, overlay for handball by Bligh Lobb Sports Architecture. Olympic overlay for volley ball, Darling Harbour by Scott Carver. Yulang Shelter by Denton Corker Marshall: photograph Tracey Symons. Sydney Indoor Sports Centre by Pavilion Architects: photograph Geoff Ambler. Sailing Shoe Base, Rushcutters Bay by Scott Carver: photograph Geoff Ambler. Olympic Softball Facilities, Blacktown by Michael Davies Associates: photograph Brett Boardman. Right column top to bottom Olympic overlay, Darling Harbour by Scott Carver. Homebush Ferry Terminal by Alexander Tzannes Associates: photograph Bart Maiorana. Yulang (Station Square West) by Denton Corker Marshall: photograph Maria Rigoli. Sponsor Hospitality Centre, Homebush Bay by Scott Carver. Olympic Boulevard Bus Shelters by Denton Corker Marshall: photograph Tracey Symons.
Below left top WRAMS – Water Treatment Plant by Woods Bagot: photograph Martin van der Wael. Bottom Sydney International Regatta Centre, Penrith Lakes by Woods Bagot: photograph Patrick Bingham-Hall. Below right top Sydney International Athletic Centre by Philip Cox Richardson Taylor and Peddle Thorp: photograph Patrick Bingham-Hall. Bottom Bruce Stadium by Cox Richardson: photograph Patrick Bingham-Hall.
The projection of an identity through an Olympic Games involves a paradox. The event is too large to imbue with the sort of density of coordinated decisions that constitutes a cohesive cultural event. Yet the outcomes of the many tasks undertaken do represent Sydney in that they give an insight into our institutions, our political processes and that pervasive sense of how things are done here. We may wish to project ourselves otherwise, but it takes more than a changing design culture to shift the way weighty decisions – such as the location and nature of Olympic facilities – are made. A more fundamental shift is required. One only had to have heard Oriol Bohigas talk, in the late 1980s, of the glorious humanistic anarchism underpinning some of his strategic thinking in Barcelona to realise that a similar attitude could not conceivably represent Sydney. Barring infrastructure collapse, I imagine the Sydney Olympics will be hugely successful. We will demonstrate how to view sport in comfort and safety: visitors will be struck by our hospitality, impressed by the quality of our food, humbled that our spring is finer than many a Northern summer. On the architectural front, we can demonstrate how to build large free-standing structures well in steel. Despite moments of self-doubt, all of this may yet prove surprisingly convincing.
Dr Harry Margalit is a lecturer in architecture at the University of Newcastle

Above left top to bottom Olympic Hotel by Travis McEwen Group: photograph Bart Maiorana; Newington Apartments by HPA Architects Planners and Interior Designers in association with Bruce Eeles and Associates, Vote Associates, Peddle Thorp & Walker and Hassell: photograph Patrick Bingham-Hall; Newington Homes by HPA Architects in association with Howard Tanner & Associates, Order Architects, Gordon & Valich, Virginia Kerridge, Grose Bradley, Tonkin Zulaikha: photograph Patrick Bingham-Hall. Right top to bottom Dunc Gray Velodrome by Ryder SJPH Architects: photograph Peter Hyatt. Sydney Superdome by Cox Richardson: photograph Patrick Bingham-Hall. Sydney Showgrounds Main Showring by Cox Richardson, Peddle Thorp and Conybeare Morrison: photograph Patrick Bingham-Hall. Sydney Football Stadium by Philip Cox Richardson Taylor: photograph Patrick Bingham-Hall.
Top Olympic Polyclinic (school) by Clare Design: photograph Bob Peters Far left Volley Ball, Bondi Beach by Daryl Jackson Robin Dyke: photograph Ian Smith. Left Main Press Centre by Scott Carver: photograph Geoff Ambler. Below left Pavilion, Sydney International Regatta Centre, Penrith Lakes by Conybeare Morrison: photograph Michael Nicholson. Below Sydney International Equestrian Centre, Horsley Park by Equus 2000 Architects: photograph Geoff Ambler.
Above row left to right Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre, pre-function space and glass wall by Ancher Mortlock and Woolley: photograph Eric Sierens. Sydney Media Centre, Darling Island by Scott Carver: photograph Geoff Ambler. Tennis Centre bridge decking by Denton Corker Marshall: photograph Tracey Symons. Sydney International Tennis Centre by Bligh Voller Nield: photograph John Gollings.
Bottom row left Fig Grove and Water Feature by Hargreaves Associates in association with Schaffer Barnsley, Land Thing and New Ground: photograph John Gollings. Centre Dome interior of the Sydney Showgrounds Exhibition Halls by Ancher Mortlock and Woolley: photograph Patrick Bingham-Hall. Right Sydney International Tennis Centre Olympic overlay by Scott Carver: photograph Geoff Ambler.

Left top to bottom Sydney International Aquatic Centre by Philip Cox Richardson Taylor and Peddle Thorp: photograph Patrick Bingham-Hall. Sydney International Aquatic Centre, Olympic expansion by Scott Carver: photograph Geoff Ambler. Ryde Aquatic Centre by Peddle Thorp Walker: photograph Patrick Bingham-Hall. Sydney International Archery Park by Stutchbury and Pape: photograph Patrick Bingham-Hall. Centre top Olympic Plaza Pylons by Tonkin Zulaikha: photograph Patrick Bingham-Hall. Bottom Olympic Amenities Blocks by Durbach Block: photograph John Gollings. Right top to bottom Olympic Park Railway Station by Hassell: photograph John Gollings. Sydney International Shooting Centre by Group GSA: photograph Patrick Bingham-Hall. Finish Tower, Sydney International Regatta Centre, Penrith Lakes by Conybeare Morrison: photograph Michael Nicholson.



Published online: 1 Sep 2000


Architecture Australia, September 2000

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