Beyond Buildings


Spectacular Failure

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Can’t we even get decent spectacle anymore?  Not only do the Vancouver Winter Olympics not sport any decent new sporting venues of note—and have the Olympics in every city since L.A. in 1980 cut what used to be a vital cultural program out of their schedules almost completely?—but this year’s opening ceremonies reached a new nadir of spatial and visual awfulness. You would think that the roughly $40 million reportedly spent on those few moments watched by millions could produce at least a few memorable moments, as they did in Athens and Beijing, but here all we got was the gently discoing babes and boys in white sweaters welcoming athletes into a dime store version of the “Circle of Life.”

These ceremonies did prove that these days you do not need any physical structure to create space. Seventy projectors turned the stadium floor into a giant projection screen that could even transform into a pretty good facsimile of the open sea, complete with orcas spouting. The audience was told to wear—and dutifully complied—white ponchos so that they could become a part of the projection surface. As such, not only architecture, but people as well, disappeared.

And what was the content? Vague reminders of Canada’s inhabitants, from the First Nations to recent immigrants, the nature that is so beautiful there and the global warming trends that are threatening that inheritance. Not on view were either the city’s junkies, another famous group, nor the needle towers that contribute to Vancouver’s experiment in view-based urbanism. A kind of pabulum of possibilities and white-wash of realities washed over the sea of eager tourists and athletes alike.

Imagine if they had let OMA or MVRDV loose on these events, or had Diller, Scofidio + Renfro do one of its data visualizations, like the one the firm just created for the Cartier Foundation in Paris. Imagine even what David Rockwell, architect-manqué and genius of the Oscar’s transformation from trad theater to semi-hip happening. I do not think we need great buildings to make for a great opening spectacle—though I do miss the Bird’s Nest, not to mention, say, Kenzo Tange’s 1964 Tokyo effort—nor do we desire the kind of tightly controlled geometries that made the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Berlin so powerful. What we do need is something that is something that uses all that wonderful technology to create spaces, however temporary, that celebrate the gathering of people from all around the world to, well, I guess compete, but more than that, to be together.

Four years ago I happened to be in Turin, Italy, for one day during the Winter Olympics. Walking the streets of the city with the architect Winy Maas and his family that evening, I suddenly felt as if I was part of that cliché, the global village. The lights and spectacles being performed in the city were excuses for communal experience and excitement. It was the act of coming together that mattered.

Perhaps those in Vancouver are experiencing that right now. I hope they are. I just wish we could have a televised taste of it. But maybe it is true that to experience great architecture, the making of a true (temporary) community, you have to be there and have the experience. Obviously, television is still the enemy at every level of such a communal reality.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.