Stadium Australia, How an Olympic Arena Got Built

Architects Faced Tough Challenges When They Designed Stadium Australia

Close-up of exterior architecture of Stadium Australia, Sydney
Close-up of exterior architecture of Stadium Australia, Sydney. Photo by Robin Smith / Photolibrary / Getty Images

Long before the athletes arrive, architects are engaged in their own competition for Olympic commissions. Even before the host city is announced, architects from the bidding cities have their "what if" caps on. What if the seats are removable? What if the roof is retractable? What if the egress is compartmentalized? Architects are always sketching out their ideas—sometimes on paper, but always in their heads.

The Olympic games have become huge—physically, the number of events, athletes, and venues has grown precipitously in the last decades. "A form of Olympic sprawl now accompanies this burgeoning Olympic program," claims one Urban Planning scholar. "In providing Olympic infrastructure, host cities are contractually obligated first and foremost to the technical requirements of a set of main stakeholders," Judith Grant Long goes on to say. Stakeholders not only include the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but also the governing bodies of each sport, the sponsors of the individual athletes from individual countries, and the local organizing groups (and government entities) from the host city.

If an architectural firm ever had issues working with a needy client, multiplying that need ​several fold would keep that firm from jumping off the cliff of Olympic commissions. Then, again, it is a high-profile gig.

Sydney, Australia was granted the Summer Olympic Games of 2000. The architects' challenge: Build a stadium for the 2000 Olympics.

The Architects Compete

Rules of the game were tough. Competing architects were asked to design a stadium large enough to seat Olympic crowds, yet capable of scaling down (without reconstruction) after the games were over.

What's more, guidelines for the Sydney Olympic Stadium competition specified that the structure should be in keeping with "ecologically sustainable development." Somehow, the facility should accommodate a hundred thousand spectators without draining environmental resources. And finally, the stadium should look good. The structure should reflect the dignity and importance of the events which would take place there.

The Critics Complain

Architects from around the world vied for the prominent stadium construction prize. And, when the winner was announced, losers let out a yelp. Designed by the prominent Australian firm Bligh Voller Nield with the Lobb Partnership from London, the proposed Stadium Australia was oddly shaped by 1999 standards. To some, the swooping, translucent spectator roof looked like a saddle or a boomerang. The spiral stairways outside the arena looked like the giant coiled springs of a spaceship (see image). Noted Australian architect Philip Cox told reporters that the stadium's design resembled a Pringles potato chip.

In the world of sports architecture, Philip Cox is in the big leagues. His firm at the time, Philip Cox Richardson Taylor, designed the Sydney Football Stadium, a roller-coaster like structure with curved forms and a sweeping steel roof.

Cox and Company were also responsible for the semi-submerged Sydney Maritime Museum, which includes earthbound displays, underwater walkways and a series of ship-like structures with fabric roofs. Nevertheless, plans submitted by Philip Cox Richardson Taylor did not make the final cut in the Olympic Stadium competition. Nevertheless, Cox continues to take credit for Sydney's successful Olympic bid with the early completion of his Sydney Aquatic Centre being "a chief ingredient."

Olympic Power

If the stakeholders of architecture can make demands, Olympic Game regulators are in the position to change the way structures are made. A dozen years after Sydney, London hosted the 2012 summer Olympics and brought to everyone's attention the green ideas that can help reclaim a brownfield and save the environment.

If authorities require and enforce builders to use environmentally and socially responsible building materials, it shall be done.

Although Sydney's winning stadium may have looked strange to some viewers, there was a method to the design—it was meant to be repurposed. By 2003, thousands of seats had been removed and the roofing had been improved (view photo). The stadium has also gone through some name changes—Stadium Australia from 1996 to 2002; Telstra Stadium from 2002 to 2007; and ANZ Stadium from 2007.

Olympic venues can be role models for smaller designs. Why can't we build all structures to be flexible, adaptable, and green?

Sources: Rethinking Olympic Infrastructure by Judith Grant Long, LSE Cities; Sydney Aquatic Centre, Cox Website [accessed October 31, 2016]; Close-up of spiral walkways of Stadium Australia Photo by Robin Smith / Photolibrary / Getty Images; Aerial photo of 2003 Stadium Australia by David Wall Photo / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images