Athens starts a high-end trend in stadium architecture.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Aug. 25 2004 10:24 AM

Stadium Club

Athens starts a high-end trend in stadium architecture.

Picture postcard perfect
Picture postcard perfect

Remember the Olympic stadium from the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona? What about Atlanta's Olympic stadium, or the one from Sydney? It would be surprising if you did because the organizers in those cities didn't make the architecture of the main venue much of a priority. The only really memorable Olympic stadium of the last few decades is the hulking concrete one in Montreal, and it's famous only for being so dismal.

This time around, though, tourists, TV viewers, and locals alike have been captivated by Santiago Calatrava's design work on the Olympic stadium in Athens. Calatrava made over an existing stadium built for the 1982 European track championships, most notably adding a roof secured by a pair of huge steel arches. Using his trademark white-on-white palette and precise, skeletal forms, he also revamped the stadium complex at ground level, introducing a central pedestrian axis to go along with a picturesque shaded arcade, reflecting pools, and a new cover for the velodrome. The renovation has turned a serviceable collection of buildings into postcard material and will likely stand as the architect's best-known work until his commuter station at the World Trade Center site is finished toward the end of this decade.

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As I wrote during the 2002 Winter Games, each Olympics has an architectural icon, a building NBC loves to show as it cuts to commercial. But usually it's some already famous local attraction, like the Buddhist shrine in Nagano. This year, the new Calatrava stadium is getting as much screen time as the Acropolis. All the positive attention must be especially sweet for the hosts given that the stadium was a symbol of Athenian procrastination for much of the summer—lifting the heavy arches into place turned out to be a huge technical challenge, and work was delayed by several months. Rather than a gigantic albatross, the Olympic stadium has turned out to be the Greeks' most powerful antidote to all those stories doubting that the facilities would be ready for their big unveiling.

The Athens approach—making an architecturally bold, camera-ready stadium an Olympic focal point—is less an anomaly than a sign of things to come. In the past, many host cities simply added a few thousand new seats to the biggest stadium they had; others used the games as an excuse to build a new home for a local pro franchise, as Atlanta did for the Braves with the less-than-exciting Turner Field. But these days, every potential host city's Olympic plan seems to include an attention-getting stadium designed by a well-known firm.

Beijing's bird's nest
Beijing's bird's nest

For Beijing 2008, the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have designed an exquisite (and expensive) structure wrapped in a delicate-looking tangle of concrete columns. (The Chinese call it "the bird's nest.") It looks like no stadium you've ever seen and has the potential to be one of the most significant pieces of architecture built anywhere in the world in the next five years. Leipzig, Germany, a onetime 2012 hopeful, enlisted the New York architect Peter Eisenman to design its proposed Olympic stadium. Eisenman, also at work on a new home for the Arizona Cardinals, suggested an innovative twist on the genre that would have included detachable sections, allowing the capacity to be reduced from 80,000 to a more practical 50,000 once the Olympics were over.

Model for New York's new stadium and London's Wembley (lower)
Model for New York's new stadium and London's Wembley (lower)

The centerpiece of New York City's Olympic bid for 2012 is a huge new stadium/convention center on the West Side of Manhattan that would become the home of the New York Jets. Designed by mega-firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates—better known for huge commercial projects than avant-garde ones—the stadium, with its squared-off exterior, promises to be much cooler-looking than the average U.S. sports facility. It would be flexible enough, the KPF Web site crows, "to host the Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four Championships and Olympic Track and Field all in one building." Then there's Norman Foster's forthcoming Wembley Stadium, whose billion-dollar-plus design could help London win the 2012 games. [ Clarification, Aug. 26: While Wembley would be a venue for certain events if Olympics were in London, the city plans to use a different venue for the main Olympic stadium.]

In a post-Bilbao world, it's hardly surprising that celebrity architects are being asked to give Olympic bids a dash of high-design glamour. When you're hosting an event televised around the world, it's only natural that you'd want your city to look, well, telegenic. While planners and politicians can't possibly rebuild an entire metropolis in time to host the games (although the Chinese seem to be trying), a few well-composed shots of a gleaming new stadium can go a long way toward suggesting cosmopolitan sophistication. And if there is one quality that connects the most famous architects, brilliant or overrated, working since Bilbao, it is an emphasis on what you could call pictorial quality—the impression a building makes on the page or on the screen.

Calatrava has taken this emphasis a step further in Athens—he has created a stadium whose most flattering profile is seen through a camera looking down. "I want the design to convey a powerful image not only for pedestrians but also from the air," he said before the Olympics opened. After watching NBC's countless fly-by shots of Athens' stadium, many viewers, even architecture buffs, still aren't aware that Calatrava's work extended below the roof line. Sure, you could complain that Calatrava was more concerned about how the design would look to us, sitting on our couches, than to the athletes and fans who are actually using the stadium. But you're not going to hear any NBC producers or Greek politicians raising that particular issue.

Christopher Hawthorne is the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times.