Ephemeral Architecture: What Happens to Olympic Villages After the Games?

Consider five cases of post-games Olympic Village transformation in Munich, Beijing, London, Rio and Tokyo.

Tian Wang Tian Wang

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As the 2020 Tokyo Games approached (in July 2021), the Olympic Village became a focal point of discussion. However, while the design of the ‘anti-sex’ cardboard beds reigned in the headlines, less often mentioned was the design of the village itself. As a large scale project in central Tokyo, the Tokyo Olympic Village cost an estimated $2 billion to build. It temporarily accommodated more than 11 thousand athletes and provided them with everything they may have needed for a long visit: from a post office to a 24/7 dining hall to the scenic spot, a playground shaped like a pirate ship.

Now, as the Games have come to a close, the question remains of how these 21 buildings can be given a second life that may benefit the local community, economy and urban landscape. Historic case studies of post-games Olympic Village transformation around the world may offer some clues. The afterlives of previous olympic villages also hint at ways that architects and local government can cooperate and negotiate for giving back to the community with a limited budget.

Rebuild for the community: Munich (1972)

In 1969 architect Günther Eckert took a radical approach in designing a high rise concrete block of apartments as part of the Olympic Village. The 801 apartments, are externally represented through stacked, exposed concrete frames. The interior of the block, is free of supports, allowing optimal space for the apartments. As recently as 2013, his structure was converted into accommodations to house around 2,000 students. Insulation and safety were renovated to modern standards, with each apartment made even more spacious.

Street view of Beijing Olympic Village

Street view of 2008 Beijing Olympic Village, photo via hnjgbj.com

Well Executed Rebuilding Plan: Beijing (2008)

Now a high-end residential district, the 2008 Beijing Olympic Village consists of 42 buildings of six or nine stories, accommodating more than 60,000 residents. Four underground lines and several bus lines passing by the Village made travelling to inner Beijing easier. Followed by schools, hospitals, other facilities and immediate access to green areas, the Beijing Olympic Village made itself popular in a city with huge housing demands.

olympic village East Village aerial view

Aerial photo of the East Village, photo by EG Focus on Flickr

Rebuild to Boost the Local Economy: London (2012)

London used their successful bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games as an opportunity to redevelop the entire neighborhood of Stratford. At that time, not only were the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the East Village built, but all adjacent streets and blocks’ façade were also refurbished to make Stratford appear decent when welcoming visitors from all around the world. Well before the Games there were plans for apartments in East Village to be advertised and sold as modern homes ranging from one-bedroom- to four-bedroom-apartment with nice view and immediate access to the Olympic Park.

Everything went smoothly until last year. The Village was discovered to have its cladding partly built in the same deadly material as that of the Grenfell Tower. This resulted in buyers failing to mortgage their apartments and possibly paying repairing fees themselves as the government funding for removing the claddings might not be enough to cover all of them.

olympic village Vila Olímpica aerial view

Aerial view of 2016 Rio Olympic Village, photo by Gabriel Heusi via Portal Brazil 2016

Unfinished Rebuilding Plan: Rio de Janeiro (2016)

In many cases, the Olympic Games seem unbelievably anti-sustainability. Stadiums and large scale residents are planned and built for a festival that lasts no longer than a month. Afterwards, many of them are abandoned immediately after the games, leaving structures to rust and all the money spent to evaporate into thin air.

One miserable example is the Rio 2016 Olympic Village. The Village built on a favela was originally planned to be renovated into luxury apartments for sale. In the end, however, only 7% was sold. The Olympic Park next to it was nearly vacant as well, with “…arenas shut, no shade, no food and nothing that attract tourists or locals” — as tweeted by Stephen Wade one year after the game.

olympic village Harumi Flage interior render

Interior render of the 95TYPE apartment in Harumi Flag, image via 31sumai

Rebuild to earn back: Tokyo (2020)

After their sale was paused in 2019 due to the outbreak of Covid-19, apartments in the former Tokyo Olympic Village are now anticipated to once again be put for sale beginning in mid-November 2021. The site, Harumi Futo, used to be a dockland where trading goods were unloaded and entered railway transportation starting from the post-war 1950s. In the 80s, it became the site of some large-scale events and festivals while some industrial buildings still stood. Gradually transforming into another area of high-rises, the redevelopment of this artificial island will likely be bolstered by the post-Olympic renovation.

Located about 2 miles from the Ginza CBD, the temporary accommodation for the 11,656 athletes will be transformed into a huge waterside residential complex with 5,632 apartments and facilities including schools, parks and commercials. An estimated move-in date is expected for late March 2024. The Harumi Flag is not the first Olympic village turning into a residential unit. After all, Olympic Games are expensive and governments would love to remedy the bills by making use of the built structures.

To Conclude

Previous examples demonstrate that post-Game rebuilding can become shortcuts to the local urban problems. There are obstacles for these large-scale transformation projects, such as insufficient funding, changes to the design due to changing regulations or simply contexts of the project altering that no longer fit the design.

Architects can offer a temporal design and follow-up adjustments to the design, but it takes effort from all the others (the local government, residents as well as NGOs) involved to optimize and realize the design. From the successful cases above, we can see how temporal design could rewrite the story of urban redevelopment in an entirely different way. In many cases, Olympic Games are tremendously beneficial to the host city by stimulating the local economy.

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Top image: Aerial view of 2021 Tokyo Olympic Village via Getty Images

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