Designing a venue for the Olympic Games—when millions of eyes across the planet are fixed on mammoth stadiums and impressive arenas—is a task fit for architectural Olympians. In fact, designers and architects once received medals for their accomplishments, when the Olympics celebrated the arts between 1912 and 1952.
Some of the world’s most distinguished starchitects—the late visionary, Zaha Hadid, Santiago Calatrava, who designed New York’s winged Oculus—have been tapped to transform and imagine memorable, groundbreaking Olympic venues.
In 2012, for example, Hadid designed the Aquatics Centre for London’s Olympic Games. The fluid, undulating concrete structure represented flowing water, and boasted removable seating for after the event.
Artists and architects (Herzog and de Mueron, Li Xinggang, Ai Weiwei) worked together on Beijing’s National Stadium—best known as the Bird’s Nest—for the 2008 Olympics. It was a triumph for Chinese design, with a woven metal exterior evoking Song-dynasty crazed pottery.
Some of the sports centers made history (Melbourne’s Olympic pool was the first fully indoor swimming venue of its kind). Others witnessed history (the largest number of world records ever set at a single event happened inside the Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City).
For two weeks every two years, we are captivated by the most athletic, relentless, and committed athletes on the planet. As these archival photos prove, the structures of the Olympic Games are pretty enthralling too.