15 Unforgettable Feats of Olympic Architecture
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.
For the 1968 Olympic Games, hosted by Mexico City, a 16-year-old multi-purpose stadium was refurbished. A vibrant apron directed spectators to the entrances, and seating was increased for 83,7000 spectators.
Annibale Vitellozzi designed this—the Sports Palace—for the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Engineer Pier Luigi Nervi more or less invented reinforced concrete for the stadium’s 200-foot-wide domed roof.
Nervi’s ingenious roof was beautifully detailed with a paper lantern-inspired white design. Boxing and basketball were both watched here by some 3,500 people for the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Bird's Eye View
Nothing shows off the scale of Australia’s Olympic venues quite like John Dominis’ black-and-white aerial shot from 1956.
From the nearly 1,000-foot-tall Olympic Tower, built for the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, photographer Dmitri Kessel was able to capture the 740-acre Olympic Park. From here, you can even see the Alps on a clear day.
Art Rickerby shot the sun rising over the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, which was designed by Kenzo Tange for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. When it was completed, the pagoda-inspired, ultra-modern structure it was the largest suspended roof in the world.
Parks and Recreation
The Olympic fields for the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne, Australia where shot by John Dominis. The grounds between the Yarra River and Melbourne Park have been designated for sports, recreation, and play since 1910.
Sailors participating in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin had these Olympic ring-shaped windows in their hostel to peer through.
Here, we see the initial skeleton of an Olympic venue coming to life for the 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympics.
Pools of Light
Melbourne’s Olympic pool, designed for the 1956 Summer Games, had an unusual V-shaped structure and floor-to-ceiling walls of glazed glass to let sunlight fill the venue.
Workers are pictured preparing the neon lights for oversized, Olympic circles to be used in Melbourne’s 1956 Summer Games.
Athens hosted the 1906 Intercalated Games (there is much dispute over whether or not these should be considered official Olympic event) and held many events at the Panathinaiko Stadium. The world’s only stadium built entirely of marble, it cost 1,000,000 drachmas to construct. Converted to U.S. dollars at today’s rate, it was an affordable $3,314.
Winds and Waves
The diving pool created for the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne boasted towering, glazed glass windows to protect athletes from sudden shifts in wind.
An unidentified diver is photographed preparing for the event at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. In the backdrop are the dramatic, white pillars of the National Gymnasium.
The Olympic torch and five, interlocking circles are perhaps the most recognizable symbols of the Olympic Games. Here, they’re being installed on a building face for the 1956 event in Melbourne.
School children were photographed playing on Mexico City’s 1968 Olympic logo. The Olympic rings were incorporated into the ’68, with graphic black-and-white lines echoing from the emblem to invoke Mexican folk-art and the optical art movement of the decade.