From White Elephants to Sustainable Venues: The Evolving Story of Olympic Architecture

From White Elephants to Sustainable Venues: The Evolving Story of Olympic Architecture

For cities, hosting an Olympic event represents both an honor, an important opportunity for growth, and a significant challenge. With over 200 nations taking part in the Games, the Olympics are the largest sporting competition in the world. Adapting the public and sporting infrastructure to accommodate this sudden influx of people and the scale of these events runs the risk of misunderstanding the cities’ needs after the closing ceremony, often producing “white elephants” that struggle to adapt to the rhythm and necessities of everyday urban life. Urban transformations are often cited as an advantage of hosting the Olympic Games, as cities are incentivized to invest in their traffic infrastructure, housing, and public spaces. One such example is the city of Paris, which introduced its first metro line on the occasion of hosting the second edition of the Olympic Games in 1900.

When it comes to the venues, however, the issue of adaptive reuse becomes a pressing one, as the architecture is challenged to find solutions to transform, accommodating thousands of people during the Olympics, then scaling down to become a financially sustainable part of a city’s sporting offering. Across the world, several Olympic venues have managed to extend their usability after the closing of the games, opening themselves to the local communities and welcoming a more diverse programming of sports and leisure events. While the high construction costs are often difficult to justify, these venues have become markers of local identity and attractive tourist attractions, extending their use decades after welcoming the Olympic crowds.

Read on to discover 5 sporting venues built for the Olympic Games that have survived the test of time.


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Yoyogi National Gymnasium / Kenzo Tange

Tokyo 1964 Summer Olympics

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Located in Yoyogi Park in Shibuya, Tokyo, the Yoyogi National Gymnasium was designed by Japanese architect and Pritzker Prize laureate Kenzo Tange and built between 1961 and 1964. Taking inspiration from Le Corbusier and Aero Saarinen, Tange together with engineer Yoshikatsu Tsuboi created a tensile structure suspended from a central structural spine. When completed, the gymnasium was the largest suspended roof structure in the world. The 13,000-seat arena was built to serve as the aquatics center during the 1964 Summer Olympics and features an additional smaller pavilion of 9,000 seats, also designed by Tange.

Designs of purely arbitrary nature cannot be expected to last long. – Kenzo Tange

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While formally complex, the structures have a subtle presence within their context. The well-adjusted scale allowed for the arenas to be continuously in use since 1964, acting as an Olympic venue again in 2020, and hosting a wide array of sporting events throughout the years. Nowadays, the main arena is primarily used for ice skating, volleyball, and basketball. According to the Japan Sport Council, the second arena is currently undergoing seismic renovation works.

Olympiastadion, Munich / Behnisch and Partners, Frei Otto

Munich 1972 Summer Olympics

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Constructed for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, the Olympiastadion was designed to showcase post-war Germany’s new identity and optimistic outlook. Behnisch and Partners, a Stuttgart firm, created a design inspired by the nearby Alps, with tent-like canopies reminiscent of mountaintops. Engineer Frei Otto collaborated with the architects to create the suspended roofs of steel cables and acrylic panels. This translucent roof protected athletes and spectators while maintaining clear sightlines and preventing shadows from affecting televised footage. The stadium’s concept was also influenced by Eastern European ‘earth stadiums,’ which involved carving the field and seating for 90,000 out of the ground.

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After the closing of the Olympic Games, the stadium became the home of football team FC Bayern Munich, hosting several large-scale football championships. The stadium was also adapted for other sports, including an air and style snowboard event and the Tour de Ski cross-country skiing competition. The venue continues to be in use, with several concerts having been announced this year, including performances from AC/DC and Taylor Swift as part of the Eras Tour.

Beijing National Stadium / Herzog & de Meuron

Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics and Paralympics

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The National Stadium in Chaoyang, Beijing, China, was designed to become one of the main arenas of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron was awarded the commission in 2003, while Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was the artistic consultant for the project. With a capacity of 91,000 spectators, the arena is the largest stadium in China and the largest steel structure in the world. In 2008, it hosted several of the main athletic events, including the football final, and the grandiose opening and closing ceremonies. After the Games, the stadium continued to host sporting and entertainment events, but not at a sustainable rate. In 2022 it returned as an Olympic venue for the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, becoming the first venue to host both summer and winter opening ceremonies. Despite being underused for large-scale athletic events, the Bird’s Nest still attracts large numbers of tourists every year.

London Aquatics Centre / Zaha Hadid Architects

London 2012 Summer Olympics

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Designed by Zaha Hadid, the London Aquatics Centre was one of the main venues of the 2012 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. Featuring two 5-meter swimming pools and a 25-meter diving pool, the arena was used for swimming, diving, and synchronized swimming competitions. The floors of the pools feature movable boons that can reduce the depth and size, allowing for more flexibility in its future uses. The center was designed before the Olympic bid was won by the city of London, so the original design has a reduced capacity. After winning the bid, the design was altered to include two temporary “wings” to increase the capacity to 17,500 spectators. The arena was completed in July 2011,

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After the Games, the temporary seating structures that flanked the center were removed, reducing the number of seats to 2500. Additionally, the adjacent Water Polo Arena was also dismantled after the games, leaving the Aquatics Center as the only swimming venue in the park. It reopened for the public in March 2014 and continues to be frequented as one of London’s leisure centers open to the public. By becoming available as a public pool, the center reimagines the legacy of event-specific architecture that can be transformed for the benefit of its local community.

Yves du Manoir Stadium, Colombes / Louis Faure-Dujarric, Renovated by OLGGA architectes

Paris 1924 Olympics

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One century ago, the Paris suburbia of Colombes became the main area to host the Olympic Games in 1924. The main arena was organized on the site of a former racecourse, following the design of architect Louis Faure-Dujarric. Accommodating a maximum capacity of 45,000 spectators, the arena served as the venue for the rack and field, football, and rugby competitions in 1924. Now, exactly 100 years later, the stadium returns as an Olympic venue for the Paris 2024 Games, scheduled to host the field hockey events. In 2023, the historic stadium was renovated by OLGGA architects, to provide the necessary facilities to host the Olympic events of this year.

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This article is part of an ArchDaily curated series that focuses on built projects from our database grouped under specific themes related to cities, typologies, materials, or programs. Every month, we will highlight a collection of structures that find a common thread between previously uncommon contexts, unpacking the depths of influence on our built environments. As always, at ArchDaily, we highly appreciate the input of our readers. If you think we should mention specific ideas, please submit your suggestions.

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