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White Elephants or Crystal Palaces?

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Rio GraphicThis Friday, the lights of the world stage will come on in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. It will be the first time the Games will be held in South America, and the first time the “Summer” Olympics will actually be held during the winter. This latter fact, one that many have perhaps not considered, should serve as a reminder for all of us watching to remain cognizant of the discrepancies between the manner in which this event is broadcast and discussed in the international media versus what it is actually like “on the ground.”

When Rio won the Olympic bid back in 2009, it did so with the promise of showcasing a vibrant culture, burgeoning economy and strong democracy to the world. Now, facing a complex web of challenges, any of which would be cause for great concern on its own, the enthusiasm of most cariocas (Rio natives) has turned to cynicism before the torch has even been lit.

Many wonder how many white elephants will remain when the Games are over: those architectural and infrastructural remnants that come as a result of prioritizing a singular event (and an image to the world) over the long-term needs of local citizens.

They are unfortunately not uncommon specimens. The Bird’s Nest in Beijing, widely considered an architectural masterpiece, is now most frequently used by small groups of tourists on Segway tours. Throughout Brazil, many of the stadiums constructed for the 2014 World Cup now stand empty, in a state of decay.

So, what will happen after the lights go down? Although there is certainly a great deal of cause for concern, billions of dollars have been invested in the name of creating “legacy” projects, the impacts of which are alleged to continue long after the Games end.

This leads us to another “first” that the Rio2016 organizers claim: the use of “nomadic architecture” for Olympic structures, as the Handball Arena has been designed to be deconstructed following the Games and reassembled into four elementary schools. While the details of exactly how this will happen remain worryingly vague, the intention of elongating the life cycle of this otherwise extremely specific and limited use structure is a promising one (if we leave aside the $77 million dollar price tag).

Although this may be the first time an Olympic stadium has been purposefully designed to be disassembled, the idea of reconfigurable megastructures dates back to the Crystal Palace, a remarkable feat of design and engineering completed for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The immense (almost 1 million square feet) structure was designed as a modular, pre-fabricated building system (based on the largest available glass panel) that was relatively inexpensive and quick to build. Its “nomadic” character was demonstrated when it was fully dis- and re-assembled across London following the Exhibition. Strangely enough, the first mention of the term “white elephant” in the English language (the term originates from Thai lore) can be dated to the same year as the Great Exhibition, when Geraldine Endsor Jewbry wrote in a letter: “His services are like so many white elephants, of which nobody can make use, and yet that drain one’s gratitude, if indeed one does not feel bankrupt.”

We won’t know for some time if the Rio projects will turn into Crystal Palaces or White Elephants, but we can take this opportunity to reflect on the way that we build. As architects, the choices we make about building materials, structures and systems are inherently linked to technical and economic concerns: How do we build it? How much does it cost? Where do the materials come from? With the increased attention to sustainable building practices, terms like “triple-bottom line,” “life-cycle analysis” and “cradle-to-cradle” have become commonplace. But in many cases, the specifics regarding a building’s end-of-life are either not considered or are discussed in vague terms. Perhaps, even for buildings with much longer lifespans than a mega-event, we should also be asking the questions of: How do we take it down? How do we measure those costs? Where do those materials go next? Imagine if we designed how buildings should get taken apart with the same degree of specificity we use when designing how they should be put together. Might our buildings be better if we did?

- Caroline Shannon

Caroline Shannon, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP is an architectural designer at Shepley Bulfinch. She recently returned to Boston after spending three years based in Rio de Janeiro, working on design and research projects related to informal urbanism and urban integration in Latin America.

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