Though Beijing proves otherwise, the Olympic Games don't always require fireworks encapsulated in building form. Sometimes a quieter approach is called for. When working on the London bid in 2003, Populous, the architecture firm that lead the design of the games’ infrastructure, decided that as London already had many historic, iconic landmarks, it would let the city—and not a show-stopping new building—take center stage. Beach volleyball events, for example, occur at Horse Guards Parade, where Queen Elizabeth I's birthday was celebrated annually. Architect Jeff Keas, project design lead of the 2012 Olympics, says that the Kansas City, Mo.–based firm only built new buildings where they would serve a direct, lasting purpose. In total, the firm had a hand in 35 competition venues and over 100 non-competition venues, such as the press center, transportation depots, and training venues—many of them flexible and temporary structures. As Keas says, “There is life after 2012.” ARCHITECT caught Keas in the middle of Olympic festivities—weeks before he moves back to Denver, after five years of living in London—to tell us how Populous designed for the paramount sporting event in the world’s cultural capital.
You were at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. How did the stadium look that night filled with people and finally doing what you had designed it to do?
It was just fantastic. You know it was a made-for-TV show, but being in the stadium was so nice. And it was very creative, very innovative, whimsical; I was in tears when Rowan Atkinson was doing his "Chariots of Fire" bit. It was just magical at night to see this decade of work that we had been doing.
Populous has designed three Olympic Stadiums—Sydney in 2000, London in 2012, and Sochi, Russia, in 2014—and countless other Olympic structures. How does it feel to be the unofficial architecture firm of the Olympics?
We think we’re creative and innovating. If you look at the three Olympic stadiums we’ve done, they are drastically different and they really say something about the time when they were built. The Sydney Stadium was at the cutting edge of sustainability at the time, harnessing water for toilets and graywater in the late '90s. No one was thinking about that stuff then.
After designing so many stadiums, how do you recreate the wheel each time? Where do you get your inspiration for the initial stadium concept?
We really wanted to showcase London. London is an internationally known city. And as simple as it may sound, when you work with temporary structures, you can build in places you could never build permanently. We were able to build in some historical places: Horse Guard Parade, Greenwich Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site—that’s where we’re placing the equestrian venue. We are not only putting a focus on the field of place and the athletes, but we’ve been able to design a lot of venues in such a way to show off the existing architecture. Most of the time, architects are trying to build something that shows themselves off. We’re allowing the existing architecture to be the showcase, for London to be the showcase, and allowing that what’s important isn’t necessarily what we build.
The Olympic Stadium is designed to go from 80,000 seats to 25,000 seats after the games. How does the relatively new concept of teardown structures help with sustainability goals?
The most sustainable games you could have is one where you use all existing facilities. But even a city like London doesn’t have all the facilities it truly needs. So, the second thing you do is say, if they don’t have an existing facility and I need it, I can go two ways: I can build new or build temporary. London said, we’re only going to build new if it’s going to be long term. Now, there’s only about a half-dozen [new structures] built. The rest are existing, a refurbishment of existing, or a massive amount of temporary. The amount of temporary being used in London is equal to the three previous games’ temporary venues. As for the stadium, one of the ways you can help yourself from a sustainable or environmental point of view is to reduce your utilities and energy consumption. Hospitals or schools or houses get used more or less on a daily basis, but stadiums get used a lot less, so really, the big win is with using embodied energy to make your material. We reduced our carbon footprint drastically—we used a lot less concrete and steel.