With its twisting steel sinews and bold red seating bowl, Beijing National Stadium is a daring, modern, feat of architecture and structural engineering. It is also quite possibly the most beautiful building ever created for the Olympic Games. It is hard to say though. Just how many Olympic Stadiums can you remember? The stadiums are one of the most important buildings in the world while they’re in use but, slowly fade from collective consciousness in the four years to the next games. So, to jog your memory (or to introduce you, for those not born in 1896), I have created a list of my five favorite Olympic stadiums in the history of the summer games.
#5 Memorial Coliseum: Los Angeles 1932 and 1984
I will admit it, this selection might be the result of bias. I grew up in Los Angeles and remain an ardent fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who once used Memorial Coliseum as their home field. To me its monumentality and classical details make it the epitome of the Olympic stadium. This is fitting since it is the only stadium in modern Olympic history to be used twice. It hosted the 1932 and 1984 games.
Despite doing double duty the stadium wasn’t built specifically for the Olympics. It was designed as a memorial for World War I veterans more than a decade before the games by John and Donald Parkinson the architects behind Los Angeles’s first skyscraper. Small changes were made to the moderne design after LA won its first Games. The most notable of these additions is the now iconic Olympic cauldron above the main entrance. The cauldron still finds use at USC Trojan football games and was recently lit in memoriam of the death of former president Ronald Reagan. In the years between the Games the Coliseum was host to a smattering of sports teams including the aforementioned Dodgers, after they moved west from Brooklyn in 1958.
The site became a National Landmark on July 27th, 1984 the day before the stadium’s second Olympic Games. The games were given to Los Angeles again after the United States boycotted the previous 1980 games in Moscow. One assumes this decision was because of US pressure on the IOC. Whatever the reason, Memorial Coliseum provided an Olympic tested, ready, solution to the need for a stadium. It remains in use to this day and very recently was the site where 115,300 watched the Los Angeles Dodger’s 50th anniversary game. That number set the single game attendance record for Major League Baseball.
#4 Olympisch Stadion: Amsterdam 1928
I have never been a huge fan of the Dutch. I think their language sounds silly and I have never really appreciated their off-kilter sense of humor. I don’t even really care for the color orange. I have to hand it to the nation that gave us Rem Koolhaas when it comes to architecture though. The Netherlands are home to two of my favorite contemporary architecture firms (UNStudio and MVRDV) and appropriately, to one of my favorite stadiums of the Olympiad.
Olympisch Stadion in Amsterdam broke ground in 1927 not to long before the city hosted the 1928 Games. The ’28 Games were the first to to include the now familiar Olympic flame and relay. The inclusion of the flame required that a cauldron be included in the stadium design. The basin and its tower became the most prominent element in architect Jan Wils design, the Marathon Tower. The brick clad spire with dusty blue accents looks like a giant art-moderne light pole and is beautiful example of the Amsterdamse School style. According to Wikipedia the Dutch call it “the KLM Pilot’s ashtray” (there is that sense of humor). The tower is complimented well by the smooth, curved brick facade of the actual stadium beside it. Both take brick into a realm of expressionism, not usually seen in masonry, and I appreciate the move away from purely classical details and the use of a local design ethic. The Olympics are after all a nation’s chance to show itself off to the world.
Despite its understated beauty the stadium was nearly torn down by the city in 1987. Concerned citizens stepped in to save the structure and it is now a tourist attraction and is the centerpiece of a recent mixed-use development.
#3 Olympiastadion: Stockholm 1912
At first Stockholm’s relatively small Olympiastadion is unimpressive but with closer inspection and time you begin to realize; it is oh, so cute. The merlon topped towers, brick clad walls and red tiled roofs make it appear like a small medieval castle. It feels permanent but homey not overwhelming.
The original plan for the stadium was an unremarkable wooden structure designed to be dismantled after the close of the Games. Instead, Troben Grut designed an unmovable looking brick masterpiece that ended up being used twice in Olympic competition when it held the 1956 equestrian events instead for the Melbourne ’56 Games. Australian quarantine rules were too stringent and required the rider’s beasts be taken elsewhere.
Sweden, always a leader in the green movement, built the stadium entirely from local materials. Both the structural stone and the cladding around it were quarried from genuine Swedish towns with lots of A’s in their names. Those stones remain in use today where the stadium is used as a soccer arena and venue large summer concerts.
#2 Olympiastadion: Helsinki 1952
Helsinki’s Olympic bid got off to a rough start. Olympiastadion broke ground in anticipation of the 1940 games which were then awarded to Imperial Japan (right after the games were in Nazi Germany, good job IOC). The Japnese then lost the Games when the invaded China starting the second Sino-Japanese War. Helsinki, the runner up, was the awarded the games only to have them canceled soon after due to the escalation of the Second World War
It wasn’t until 1952 that the modern, gleaming walls of the stadium made their Olympic debut. As with Amsterdam’s stadium, the tower is the most striking part of the complex with its wide, smooth face. The pronounced coil-binding like spiral-staircase that rises to the top of the tower surely made for a dramatic conclusion to the Olympic relay as the 1952 torch bearer climbed round and round to the height of the cauldron and deposited the flame. Despite the prominence of the tower the stadium itself more than holds its own with gorgeous stair-stepped white walls that surely compliment Nordic winters and look striking against a bright blue summer sky.
The stadium remains in use today and hosts several rock concerts a year for the Metal-loving Finns, including Iron Maiden just last month.
#1 Panathinaiko Stadium: Athens 1896
Panathinaiko Stadium is not only first on my list, it was the first in Olympic stadium in history. Even in its current form it actually predates the modern Olympics and is built on the site and from the 2500 year old ruins of the arena that hosted the first games. The Greeks call it Kallimarmaron which means “beautifully marbled” referring to its completely white marble composition which was excavated and refurbished in 1870 for Greek national games that preceded the modern Olympiad. The success of those games inspired their founder Evangelos Zappas and Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin to create the modern, international, summer games which first took place in April of 1896.
The structure as it stands today is massive, seating 80,000 on its beautiful but not likely comfortable stair-step, marble seating. The large size is partially the result of the long hairpin style track it surrounds, a throw-back to the ancient games. Sadly, this oddball track may have been why the stadium was not the main venue for Greece’s second Games in 2004. Olympic planners that year did put it to use as the archery venue (taking advantage of its long narrow dimensions) and as the finish-line of that year’s Olympic marathon. I cannot imagine a more appropriate and beautiful place to end.
Feel free to comment with your favorites or even criticisms of mine. It can be a difficult process choosing as even the ugly-ducklings have a certain monumental splendor to them. You can find a list of each year’s stadium with links to more information on each on Wikipedia’s Summer Olympic Stadia page