Material Interrogation: The New Olympic Infrastructure

Perhaps reflecting on infrastructure failures in cities like Montreal and Athens, planners for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics sought to embrace the temporality of the event and extend its repercussions to Olympic architecture. The London Olympic Basketball Arena by Wilkinson Eyre Architects was designed as a series of modular, relatively uniform components constructed in such a fashion that the entire structure could be disassembled and transported to other locations or stored for later use.
The arena consists of an inner aluminum frame supporting seating on precast concrete slabs. Glazed in lightweight polycarbonate sheeting, this frame also supports the inner envelope. An additional outer steel frame provides support for a secondary, architectural skin consisting of stretched PVC membranes that extend upward and also form the roof.

Cross section, from arena to PVC skin.

The double envelope is designed in such a way that light diffused through the polycarbonate sheets from the inner arena structure will combine with lighting just behind the PVC to create dynamic effects on the inside of the membrane. As a result, the structure has a translucent appearance at night, and an opaque matte appearance when daylit.

Skin condition, from day (left) to night (right).

Choosing to explore this effect via model, I created an inner envelope of clear PETG backed by translucent trace paper to simulate the frosted polycarbonate effect. This was combined with spandex/cotton blend fabric stretched over a matte painted MDF frame. Lit from behind with a halogen bulb, the assembly was photographed with and without the translucent inner layer, and then lit from the front to simulate the “daytime” appearance.

Model, with diffuse backlighting (left), direct backlighting (center), and exterior lighting (right).

As a material precedent, the London Olympic Basketball Arena succeeds in the sense that it embraces rather than disguises the insubstantial thinness of its exterior. The shift from exterior to interior lighting of the PVC as night fall represents a significant transformation in the appearance of the building. Ironically, it is darkness that is necessary to give the enormous structure a light, airy glow. In contrast, it is heavy and stucco-like during the day, seeming much more substantial and permanent.
Underscored by the particular attention paid to the design of the roof, this is all well-suited for the Olympic flyover and interior views that television demands. But what is the experience as the Olympic goer transitions from skin to arena? While honest, the space is not so well considered.

The PVC skin’s understructure.

Here, the “guts” of the understructure do their work away from the cameras. Like peeking behind the curtain of a stage production, it becomes clear that this is a utilitarian purgatory we are asked to ignore. The modern reality is that events here are not held for the ticket holder, but rather the millions of television viewers worldwide and the advertising dollars that rely on them. This revenue makes the Games possible. Good or bad, the Olympics are beloved because of the personal, athletic, and infrastructural spectacle that is brought to whomever can access a broadcast signal or internet connection. The camera makes this extraordinarily expensive event possible, and for the camera architecture will be created.
Maria Silvia Bastos, president of the Company Olympic Hall (an agency responsible for 2016 Olympic preparation), is considering the possibility that the structure will be moved to and reconstructed in Rio de Janeiro. While the complexity and cost of this maneuver may make the arena’s reuse impossible, it presents some interesting possibilities. Will a traveling Olympic infrastructure someday open hosting duties to more cities worldwide? Moreover, will we as viewers tolerate a “recycled” Olympics?

Gomes, Alaric. “Three Points for Largest Venue.” Gulf News. Al Nisr Publishing, 23 July 2012. Web. 05 Oct. 2012. <>.

Griffiths, Alyn. “Pop-up Stars: Temporary Contemporary Architecture.” Architonic. 04 Oct. 2012. <;.

London 2012 – Basketball Arena.” Detail Magazine. 05 Oct. 2012. <;.

London 2012 Basketball Arena.” Wilkinson Eyre Architects. 06 Oct. 2012. <;.

London 2012 Olympics Basketball Arena By Wilkinson Eyre Architects – Structural.” Designalmic. 05 Oct. 2012. <;.


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