London's Olympic Games are in full swing, the hard-won result of years spent on the Games' planning and execution. After the spectacle produced at the Beijing Games in 2008, the team behind the London Games faced a challenge, as Danny Boyle, the film director behind London's Opening Ceremonies, explained to NBC News: "You can’t compare [these Olympics], in an obvious way, to Beijing," he said. "You have to try and think differently about it — and being part of the spirit of it is to be optimistic, as well."
That spirit also extended to the design of the Olympic Stadium, and the surrounding Village. As they planned for the Olympics in the midst of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the architects behind London's Stadium did not have Beijing's budget. They couldn't compete with the Beijing Bird's Nest, built for the 2008 Games — and, because the Chinese stadium is hardly used these days, they didn't want to try.
London’s Olympic Committee wanted a new kind of facility, an arena that could be completely transformed after the Games. And that was the challenge facing architect Rod Sheard, when his firm, Populous, was commissioned to design the Olympic Stadium.
"In recent Olympics, the problem has been not so much that the buildings have been transitory, but in actual fact the exact opposite," Sheard says. "They've been big monoliths which cities have felt necessary to build, and then [the] Olympics leaves town and the buildings are left with nothing to do." He says that Sebastien Coe, the Olympic chairman, wanted the buildings to be more temporary.
The challenge of building a temporary structure is daunting, as the greatest test for a building is that of time. Permanence is an architect's primary goal, and so Sheard and his team had to readjust their mindset.
"We started to see the temporary nature of the building as an asset," Sheard says. "Not something to be worried about as a hindrance, but something as an opportunity where we could use different materials and different colors and different approaches to design than we would ever do if it was going to be a fixed, permanent building that would never change."
Another challenge for the architects was to remember that the focus was not supposed to be on the building itself, but on the events that would transpire within it. "The building is, in many ways, a neutral backdrop to [Olympic] events, because the amount of work we've put in compared to the athletes dedicating the first 25 years of their life just to be the best of the world, pales in insignificance in many ways," the architect says.
The future of the building is in question, but what is certain is the stadium's versatility. Sheard's team designed it to be a modular construction, so that entire pieces can be lifted away without affecting other components.
"The whole environmental sustainability agenda is incredibly important for these buildings," Sheard says. Forty percent of the 80,000-seat venue's concrete is recycled aggregate, and the stadium is one of the lightest of its size. "If you build less, you've got a smaller carbon footprint," the architect says. Built with just over 10,000 tons of steel, the stadium is far lighter than similarly sized buildings, which normally require five to ten times as much.