Wizard of Oz

Words: Andy Tongue
Images: Nick Wilson

“It’s amazing,” exclaims Rod Sheard. “There are hundreds of people here. When we first started coming out here to begin work on the Olympic Stadium, it was just an old rubbish dump and we were the only people around.”

The senior principal of Populous, the multi-award-winning design practice  responsible for the stadium, is right—the place is teeming with people; groups of excited schoolchildren walk along in pairs, monitored by slightly anxious-looking teachers; clusters of foreign tourists follow their guide, cameras at the ready to get their snaps of what is clearly London’s new must-see attraction.

We settle into the homely café next to Pudding Lane Docklands Light Railway station, which offers the best view of the stadium in Stratford, east London, from outside the tightly protected Olympic Park.

“It’s always a nice moment when the DLR comes round the bend and the Stadium comes into view,” says the affable and urbane Australian, whose portfolio of iconic venues also includes Wembley, the Emirates, Wimbledon’s Centre Court, the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, and the Sydney Olympic Stadium.

“We used to come in and out of here from Stratford until somebody said we could get the train to Pudding Lane. So we started coming in from that direction, which meant we could see the stadium building up out of this huge morass of rubble. We’d admire it from the station platform each time we caught the train.”

The stadium looks resplendent in the clear blue sky and bright autumnal sunshine; Sheard could be forgiven for feeling rather self-satisfied about how this potentially tricky project has turned out. Much to the chagrin of the Daily Mail and other cynical elements of the British media, the stadium was completed ahead of schedule and on budget.

“On time and on budget, indeed! Wembley got a disproportionate amount of attention from the fact that it overran, although since it was a fixed-price contract, from the client point of view it was on budget. It just wasn’t on budget from the builder’s point of view!

“Most, if not all, of the buildings we get involved with are on time and on budget. Arsenal, Wimbledon and Ascot for instance were all bang on, but that doesn’t make such a good story for the media. The Olympic Stadium, though, was truly exceptional; it was pretty good going to finish it early.

“We specialise in sports stadia so pretty much every project we are involved in has a clear end date. When  you’re designing offices or residential buildings, you’re working towards your client’s opening date, which can be flexible, but with sport you have a competition date, be it the first game of the Rugby World Cup or the Opening Ceremony at an Olympic Games.”

Given there was a strict budget—though one that was increased from the rather optimistic figure quoted at the time of the bid in July 2005—how did Populous approach the daunting task of following the Bird’s Nest, the magnificent centrepiece of the 2008 Beijing Olympics?

“Those Games were an important moment in the history of the Olympics because first, they were the most expensive ever, and second, never before had the state been so heavily involved. Normally, it’s cities that bid for the Olympics—though the nation needs to support them—but with the Beijing Games it was as if the whole of China was making a statement rather than the city on its own. There was no way of competing with that. Beijing was spectacular but London needed something different.

Sheard says that London’s approach was the right one not just for the 2012 Games but for the future of the Olympic movement. “There was a feeling the Olympics didn’t need to be that big to be successful. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) hates white elephants so Seb [Coe, chairman of the 2012 Games] and his team came along with this notion that athletics has forever been the poor man out, the one sport that doesn’t get any facilities at the end. The cyclists get a velodrome and the swimmers get a permanent pool but track and field end up with nothing, even though they’re the biggest attraction at the Games. So Seb said rather than changing the sport after the Games, let’s change the venue’s use, something we embraced—it seemed like a really sensible piece of thinking for the 21st century.

“If you can hold the Games without needing a massive injection of capital, then it opens up the Olympics to many more bidders. Cities realise they don’t need to build multi-billion-pound stadia to host them. This is very important to the IOC as it means the pool of potential hosts for future Games suddenly grows a lot bigger. So the IOC was very supportive of our plans from day one.

“Chicago’s bid for 2016 took London’s idea even further and was fully temporary. It showed how the Games could be held in park areas in the centre of town—without that as an option, you would have had to look at out-of-town sites as the only places with the necessary space.”

So Populous had to design a stadium that would hold 80,000 spectators for the duration of the Olympics and the Paralympics and then revert to a 25,000-seat athletics stadium afterwards. “Architects always try to solve problems mechanically, and that’s what we did. We all love Transformers and in a ‘boys toys’ sort of way we came up with a couple of designs which we branded with code names. One group was called the ‘Blofled’ solution, after the James Bond baddie who could press a button and whatever he wanted would happen. On our design, you would press a button and the hydraulic upper tier would fold down into the lower tier. We tested it and proved it could work but felt it was overly complicated.

“So then we started thinking about having a temporary building with a permanent core—everything else would come down. If it’s temporary you don’t need fixed facilities (food/drink kiosks, toilets etc) inside the building—you can pull all those things outside onto the concourse.

“Taking this on-board, we decided to design it as a whole island (it’s surrounded by rivers on three sides) rather than just a stadium. The moment you walk across the bridge you enter the stadium—you’re not under cover but actually in part of it.

“All of the cafés, bars, restaurants are scattered around the main venue and are visible from the main walk, so even if you haven’t got tickets for the actual stadium you are a part of it—it’s going to be party central during the Games, it will be brilliant.

“Once the landscaping is complete it will be a park venue the like of which doesn’t exist anywhere else in London. It will be a superb location for concerts, festivals and similar events. Most of our other stadia are surrounded by dense urban areas, whereas this is the centrepiece of what is now one of Europe’s biggest parks; the possibilities are endless.

“Open-air amphitheatres in the US are one of the biggest money-makers about. You could hold all sorts of huge events in the Olympic Park without having

to close down the centre of London. It’s got all the infrastructure, services, safety systems and links to the transport system. It will offer Londoners something quite different to anything they’ve had before.”

This all sounds well and good but clearly there is a problem: during construction, the government decided that the stadium would need a permanent tenant afterwards—most likely a football club.

Sheard feels this has clouded the issue and blinded people to what a superb venue it will be and the different possibilities it will offer.

“I think we need to look beyond simply having a football team here—there is so much more the venue has to offer the people of London. In politics there’s a tendency to think about what’s established, which is professional sports, and to think that that’s the only solution. Once you involve professional sports, things get complicated—they have very strict ways of doing things, for a start. A football team’s stadium is a home to its supporters so it’s very difficult for them to share it with other teams or sports. Anyway, it wasn’t designed as a football stadium.

When you look at the distances, the average seat here is 10 metres further away than at Wembley

“Ironically, when we built Wembley, people criticised it because they thought it was just a football venue, even though it could accept an athletics event. Once the hype about the Olympic Stadium has settled and people look at the distances involved—which is the only analytical way to judge it—they’ll see that the seating here is about 10m further away than at Wembley. It’s a distance but when you’re sitting 40 or 50m from the centre line of a pitch, does another 10m make such a difference? The sightlines are designed to give perfect views. The challenge was to make sure that the outside lane of the track is visible from every seat.

“A lot of it is perception. Nobody wants to play football inside a ring with lines around it—that would kill the atmosphere at a football match. But you can dress the pitch, to cover up track.”

Sheard points out, quite correctly, that the move by FIFA and UEFA to allow bigger advertising boards around the pitches is having a massive effect on football grounds around the world, but particularly ones in Britain. “With more and more onus on advertising hoardings we’re finding that the distance between the white line

and the first row of seats is growing anyway to accept the UEFA rules. The height of their hoardings is increasing, and this is dictating where the first row of seats can start. While British football stadia were the envy of the world in terms of closeness and atmosphere, we’re finding that technology and the demands of sponsors are starting to push them further away.”

With the wonderful benefit of hindsight, should Sebastian Coe have asked Sheard and his team to design a stadium that had retractable seating, such as the Stade de France in Paris? “We’ve done that in several stadia around the world. It works but it’s not cheap and it would have been a significant on-cost with no certainty at that stage that a football club would have wanted to move in,” he says. “If a football club wants to make it work, they can make it work.”

Football, of course, provides a sizeable chunk of Populous’ portfolio, but it’s not Wembley or the Emirates that Sheard talks about first when asked to list some of his favourite projects.

Huddersfield Town may have won the old First Division three years in succession in the 1920s, but these days they are to be found battling for promotion from League One into the Championship. However, the club’s Galpharm Stadium (formerly the McAlpine Stadium), which Sheard designed during Populous’s former incarnation as HOK Sport, won the prestigious RIBA Building of the Year award in 1995.

“Huddersfield is a relatively small town and had pretty poor facilities up until then. But our clients [the stadium was a joint venture between Kirklees Metropolitan Council, Huddersfield Town FC and Huddersfield Rugby League Club] showed such imagination and vision that it was a real inspiration to us.”

Huddersfield is a relatively small town but our clients showed such imagination it was an inspiration to us all

Another favourite is Sydney Olympic Stadium for the 2000 Olympics. “This was massively important because that was the biggest project we’d ever worked on at that stage. It was a real game-changer in terms of environmental sustainability and the like. Greenpeace acted as a consultant on that one.

“Over here, the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, really set the bar—the first with a closing roof. Wonderful client, but such a tight budget and a very difficult site, right in the middle of the city. But when the roof closed and the 75,000 Welsh rugby fans started singing—that was a moving moment!”

“Wembley and Arsenal we did at the same time, which was interesting because they are two such different buildings. One is a national stadium, the other a club stadium. So we had to think about their individual purposes and how to reflect those architecturally.

“The Emirates Stadium is buried in that urban grid of north London, and doesn’t sit very high. You’re not really aware of it as you’re walking through all these residential backstreets. And then you turn a corner and there it is, suddenly bursting into your sight. Wembley was the total opposite—you can see it from miles away and the arch was a fitting replacement for the twin towers, which everybody seemed to think were wonderful!”

Things aren’t slowing down much either for Populous—the practice is the main designer for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, as well as the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

With our guide from the London 2012 Organising Committee due soon to help get us through the heavy security so we can take some pictures in the stadium, I ask Rod to look ahead to the Opening Ceremony on 27 July and imagine what he’ll be feeling—assuming, of course, he has a ticket. “I got four tickets for the Ceremony. Didn’t get any other sports but did get the Ceremony!” he laughs. “I’ll always remember the Opening Ceremony in Sydney—it was a magical night, the kind that seems to live with you forever. I’m sure the guys putting on the show here in London will do just as good a job.

“Remember, it’s not just about the stadium. Populous is also doing the archery at Lord’s and the beach volleyball at Horseguards Parade, which will both be transformed into fantastic arenas. It takes a very self-confident city to do what Seb and his team have done. London is probably the only city in the world that could say ‘this can work’.”

He reminds us that all the talk about football clubs and legacy shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the main reason the stadium was built. “All the discussions from an architectural or legacy point of view pale into insignificance compared to how it turns out for those two weeks of the Olympics and the Paralympics, a few weeks after that. If it forms a fitting backdrop for the Games, then it will all be worthwhile,” he declares.


Rod Sheard, the Australian who designed the Olympic Stadium in London, gives his verdict on the legacy it should leave for the British capital

Images: Nick Wilson