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Sydney’s Green Games?

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

Another Olympic Eco Logic
Despite the of key Australian environmentalists from advisory panels, Sydney’s ‘green Games’ strategies have been praised in audits by overseas ecologists. But Sydney eco-design specialist Dr Tony Fry argues that the Games concept itself is unsustainable.

Undoubtedly the arrival of the new millenium will be a moment for looking back and looking forward. This moment will converge with the terminations, re-evaluations, openings and endings that are summoned up under the names of postmodernism, deconstruction and poststructuralism. It will also be a moment when the question of sustainability is just starting to be posed as the largest critical question human beings have so far confronted. This adds up to a confrontation with a time of absolute responsibility; which means that humanity only has the time it can make for itself (and its others). In this respect, duration and sustainment are the same thing and time is relative to us for us. Creation will perhaps always remain a theological issue, however, the sustainment of what has been created now rests unambiguously in our hands. The agenda of sustainability is far larger than generally acknowleged, even within the most informed positions in architecture and design. Sydney has placed itself on the global stage by gaining the Olympic Games. The ‘green’ card was skilfully played to win this prize. For all its contradictions, an opportunity to make a statement to the world about sustainability has been gained.

The Sydney Games stands to be judged as either a beginning or an ending. Are they to be the last Olympic Games of the 20th century or the first of the 21st?

For most of us, the Olympic Games are contradictory; they generate fascination and recoil. One can be captivated by the extraordinary feats of athletes and, at the same time, be totally alienated by the event’s monstrous material and media excesses, as well as by the awful machinations of institutionalised Olympic politics.

Notwithstanding any claim of ‘greening’, the Olympics are enormously ecologically destructive. Just consider the volume of greenhouse emissions from the non-renewable energy expended for the manufacture of materials and products, infrastructure and building construction, promotion and media coverage, catering and hotel accommodation and air, road and rail transport—and for what sustainable gains? Obviously it is worthwhile to mitigate these negative impacts but they pale against the price paid. The only ecological gains come from attracting a world audience; but this depends on having the right message, the ability to deliver it and an audience willing to (re)act.

These observations lead to discussion within three contexts. Context one brings the history of unsustainability into view; context two exposes fundamental questions about the design of the Olympics; and context three leads to a historical overview of what is beginning to arrive in Sydney (a detailed examination of particular elements awaits). Before considering these contexts in turn, it needs to be noted that beyond the recent revelations of the questionable environmental history of the site, there is almost no critical debate on the Olympics in Australia. Is criticism deemed an act of national treachery? One suspects that some politicians have a very short answer. Certainly the economic significance of the event for the architectural profession has generated self-censorship.


Context 1: The History of Unsustainability
The history of Western architecture, design and technology transpires to be a significant part of the history of how the modern world was made unsustainable; and all in the name of progress. The Olympic Games is part of this. One can contrast its past and present, consider its designing (as action, form, culture) and measure its environmental costs against unmet existing and future needs. Two thousand and eight hundred years ago, the Games were a total participant exercise—either directly or through active athletes learning by watching the highest-level performers. The aim was instruction by example (see pages 11-12 of Allen Guttmann’s Sports Spectators, Colombia University Press, 1986). Now, as a global ritual of construction expenditure, it has become a sponsor-driven spectacle of consumption that employs athletic content as loss leaders to get brand names in front of markets. The case of evolution as progress is given little credence by the comparison of ancient and modern. In its present excessive form, and irrespective of all efforts to ‘green’, unsustainability will remain a meta-message.

Everything ‘we’ design goes on designing (here is a statement of the determinate consequence of all the objects, structures, images and messages we make). The first Olympic Games exemplified a practice that was sustainable. The modern Games designs the reverse. It drowns in the efforts of individual athletes to win with the help of performance-enhancing drugs, scientific sports management, media hype and competitive monumentalism. Reified bodies, commodities, nationalism, competitive aggression, media hype and fractured images (as an event it is unable to be viewed as anything other than fragments), mega construction projects: unsustainability speaks with many signs and voices.

Spoil sporting? Yes of course, but blame it on the discomfort of a retained ethics!


Dome of the Ancher Mortlock & Woolley exhibition centre; it will be supported by timber trusses.


Context 2: The Form of the Olympics
In terms of the health of the human body, sport, sponsorship, the environment, resource management, political ideology, information and media, organisational and economic management, as well as ethically speaking, everything about the Games needs to change. The stance of the International Olympic Committee, and compliance with the bidding process itself, negates the ability for this to happen. Even so, the event will change; not as a result of a moment of enlightenment, but through force of circumstances.

The Olympic Games faces two major threats: one from terrorism, the other from its ecological impact. How the event’s organisers deal with these situations over the next decade will decide its future.

On the first count, to play down the dangers, and thus perpetuate a public perception that Australia is immune from outrages (such as occurred at Atlanta) is naive in the extreme. Port Arthur graphically illustrated that madness can happen anywhere.

Cast in the shadow of Munich, the violent events in Atlanta have already had a significant impact on the management of the Olympic Games. A gigantic gathering of people, a vast spectacle and the world’s media en masse is an explosive and misguided mixture: the event is now well established as a major potential target for terrorists. The reaction to this situation is constant escalation of security. Such an approach will ultimately fail. Cities cannot be totally battened down, fully monitored and be made absolutely safe. Risk can never be completely eliminated and although risk reduction is not futile, it is not the solution. Instead of more security, the logical anti-terrorism strategy is actually detargeting (this notion will be elaborated in a moment). It is important to note here that the ecological impact of the event may seem a quite different issue from the dangers of bombers but, as we will see, it is not.

The Olympics is still framed within the rubric of modernist architectural space. However this is not the space of today—we now inhabit immaterial as well as material space. Today, we have a deep crisis of space. We no longer live with a clear articulation between space and place or between perception and experience. Modes of occupation of socio-cultural and bio-physical space are inseparable from ecological consequences. The ecology we exist within is social and symbolic (and thus immaterial) as well as bio-physical (and thus material). When breakdowns occur in either sphere, so does our ability to cope with resultant crisis.

What would a relational and more global ecologically sustainable development (ESD) approach to space look like? Can another approach to Olympic design be contemplated?

The Olympics could easily be envisaged as a reuse/recycle event. From an ecological point of view, it is blatantly irresponsible to go on building stadium after stadium, sports hall after sports hall, athletes’ village after athletes’ village and so on. This global perspective exposes the absolute flaw of a localist attempt at site and building-based efforts to deliver ESD. The basic problem does not rest with architects, designers and engineers, who mostly endeavour to deliver within the limits of their brief. Rather it sits squarely with the power of the perpetual coterie of sponsoring corporations and the lack of ecological foresight of Olympic officials and politicians. The implication is that if the lesson of Sydney’s attempt to ‘green’ the Games is taken seriously, then from 2004 onwards the Olympics should become decentred, with the major event blocks—swimming, athletics, gymnastics, water-based sports, cycling, boxing etc.—being conducted in existing facilities in different parts of the world. Venues could easily change in an event cycle.

Such a physical de-location acknowledges that the familiar modernist construction of space and time is now coming to an end. Even in its infant stage, electronic space continually redraws our place in the world.

Delocation has many advantages. In bio-physical ESD terms, it would eliminate a vast amount of materials and energy expenditure. From a cultural-ecological perspective, it would allow the event to be recoded as ecologically responsible—the ‘greenest’ building solution is without doubt a ‘no build’ option (bringing the architectural challenge of learning and of advancing retrofit capabilities). From this foundation, it would become possible to re-code the games as having a new spirit—one reborn out of the death of the old; one appropriately postmodern. For all the tokenism of Olympic ideals, the event has degenerated into a professionalised, absolutely commercialised, enhancement drug-managed, cynical exercise. Decentralisation would make it possible to increasingly democratise the event within the orbit of international politics—it should be perfectly possible to be proud of one’s nation without the crass nationalism of symbolic built forms that has been the hallmark of the Olympic movement.

Delocation is the key to detargeting and thus creating the possibility of effective security. In the age of electronic media, delocation does not mean a fragmented representation of the event. It is already a massive media circus—that itself needs to be far more redesigned. Another major advantage of decentering would be a dramatic reduction in the energy expended on travel (air, road and rail). Globalised events would work across many time zones, which itself would assist programming.

A reorganised, respatialised Olympics would require that the whole enterprise be reinformed. This means that the dawn of the new millennium should be advantageously used to restructure the event for the future. Delocation planning (which includes security management) and information management are put forward here as the most appropriate drivers of this exercise. Can any thinking person doubt that there is now an absolutely enormous need for a new global model? Can it be doubted that a practical example of what it would take to create a safer, just and ecologically responsible future is not needed? What is not required is more exhausted humanistic rhetoric—the kind of hyperbole that the United Nations already drowns in. For all its limitations, there are some starting points to be found in Sydney’s effort.


Roofing an animal pavilion designed by Scott Carver.

Context 3: Benchmarking The Sydney Olympics Sydney 2000 has put the ‘green Games’ imperative on the agenda. Environmental guidelines (Sydney Bid 2000, September 1993) and development guidelines (Environmental Strategy, Olympic Co-ordination Authority, September 1995) were created and put into practice. They have been used normatively and, from their almost exclusively bio-centered perspective, are enabling modest, sometimes useful, technocratic measures to be taken. However they dramatically under-achieve; due to their limited scope, gesturalism, lack of rigour and methodological underdevelopment. But most of all, the guidelines manifest a lack of will to adequately develop an advanced understanding of ESD (one that ranges across bio-physical, socio-cultural, symbolic and informational ecologies; that grasps the full complexity of sustainability and understands the significance of post-Euclidean space). They also fail to fully encompass relational understandings of ‘systems and environments’ and to put measures in place to ensure planning directed by the imperative to sustain.

Notwithstanding the frustrations of seeing major opportunities evaporate, the experience of working on a number of Olympic projects can be affirmed as one in which a good deal is being learnt. Certainly the culture of Sydney architectural practice has changed. The old guard is being displaced by dynamic teams that are less centred on the hero architect. The complexity demanded by the agenda of sustainability, even in its nascent stages of delivery, means that architecture becomes its consequence rather than a prefigurative ordering principle that has to accommodate sustainability. The requirement for creativity increases, while its expression in just an aesthetic form diminishes.

The clash of cultures indicated above is symptomatic of a larger set of contradictions. The Sydney Olympic project has not had a clear design vision informed by an understanding of the relational complexity of sustainability (which is so much more than existing ‘ESD requirements’). Outdated modes of planning have not served us well. The overall project direction echoes the anti-intellectualism that has been a significant part of the history of the architectural profession and Australian culture in general. This has meant that the possibilities of new forms of practical reason (a total bonding of theory and practice) have gone unrecognised. Many local talents have gone undiscovered, under-challenged and under-utilised. A cringe reflex still reaches out for overseas expertise. And a modernist disposition towards style (read as popularist postmodernism) has meant that aesthetics has been given a directive rather than subordinate place. Recognition of the absolute importance of sustainability means that the rules have to be rewritten. Which means a new foundation for aesthetics rather than their abandonment.

Pragmatics is now in the driving seat. The construction industry will deliver. The PR machine will be briefed to hype the whole enterprise off the planet. However, history may well judge the Sydney design attainment as ordinary and the environmental goals as compromised. However, one last really big opportunity remains.

What Sydney says to the world will either negate or create the value of the Sydney Games. The learning experience can be foregrounded, drawn on and mobilised. If the lessons are learnt and offered with honesty, if the benchmark is claimed as the laying down of the last failure of the old and the faltering beginnings of the new, then a major exercise in world environmental citizenship will have been performed, of which the nation might be truly proud. If local self aggrandisement overrules, then the opportunity for making a statement of international leadership on sustainability will have been squandered. The nation’s position on Greenhouse has coloured overseas perceptions of Australia’s commitment to ‘the environment’: much now hangs on how the Games are handled!

In the end the issue comes down to action to try to sustain the unsustainable versus a fundamental reconception to establish a basis on which to strive for sustainability. This is what I have been trying to confront here.

Dr Tony Fry is Director of the EcoDesign Foundation in Sydney and has consulted to the Olympic Co-ordination Authority on several projects. As Visiting Professor of Design at UTS, he this year delivered 10 public lectures titled ‘A Total Rewriting of the History, Present and Future of Design’ (to be published in 1998).

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Published online: 1 Sep 1997

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Architecture Australia, September 1997

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