The games were over in a matter of weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds—and won in ever-finer spans that follow decimal points as a testament to our technological prowess—but the buildings themselves abide. London is just one of the dozen cities featured in filmmaker Gary Hustwit and photographer Jon Pack's ongoing project to document a representative sample of former Olympic sites in an effort to understand "what happens to a city after the Olympics are gone?"
We're still six months shy of a definitive answer, at least if we're holding them to their Kickstarter reward delivery dates, but seeing as the conversation will surely have shifted by then, Hustwit and Pack are presenting the work-in-progress at New York City's Storefront for Art and Architecture. If the salon-style presentation of the work—around 40 photos depicting half the cities in the final tally—is unbiased, the title of the exhibition betrays a hint of an answer.
Where the working title of the project was "The Olympic City," a strategically-placed prefix both clarifies and reframes their efforts in terms of bygone glory. (Tonight's panel discussion with the artists and several architects is a sporting play on 'aftermath.') The so-called "Post-Olympic City" comes in many shapes and sizes, but I was initially struck by how the sites (iconic landmarks notwithstanding) look remarkably similar, distinguished mostly by telltale signs of age and local graffiti tags. [NB: Those of you who can't make it to the exhibition before it closes this Saturday can see some of the work here.]
Indeed, the stadiums and facilities take a broadly modern aesthetic—ever ambitious if often tempered by bureaucracy, budget woes and deadlines, yet enduring despite these constraints—duly optimistic about the potential for both athletes and architects to change the world for the better.
The former are individuals whose talent and ardor elevated them to the status of 'Olympian,' a designation that lives on in recorded history (i.e. Wikipedia) for all posterity... and if our obsession with their fully-disclosed biographies and stats are an Information Age phenomenon, it's worth noting that the participants are most fondly remembered for specific events—in other words, as a lived experience for athlete and audience alike.
We imbue our Olympic heroes with the singular pride of the international cynosure, but Hustwit and Pack's photos suggest that our relationship to the venues in which they compete is more complex, our memories of them at once more explicit and less so. Unlike the athletes, the places bear both the burden of time and that of space—or, to put it bluntly, of real estate—and the images depict sites that are retrofit or repurposed, or simply ignored to the effect of ruinous perdition.
If the suggestion that time ultimately renders the utopian mundane seems unduly pessimistic, it's worth noting that the photos obliquely illustrate the premise that the Olympics are largely disconnected from reality, at least to the extent that the games themselves are inventions (the standardization of the events also informs the broad congruity of venues across different dates and cities). Yet the actual production of an event in time and space—to make it real—is an undertaking of unparalleled scale, with major socioeconomic implications and a cumbersome footprint to boot. The athletes carry the spirit of the games, but it is the host cities that must flex their muscles in order to realize the opportunity for individual or team glory.
In other words, these buildings, parks and neighborhoods are intended to be 'anti-apocalyptic,' places that are consecrated with the purest form of greatness. The athletes honor the buildings with their efforts as much as they earn the honor of competing on the hallowed grounds of these sites. This sanctity comes at the expense of the venues' legacy: the former sites are a sort of anti-memorial, neither looking forward nor looking back.
Olympic architecture is by definition destined to outlive is purpose, no matter how sustainable or versatile the edifices may be. They are built expressly for the present—or rather, a specific present that recurs every four years—and they ultimately have no meaning in the past or the future: the buildings embody singular instances of the Olympics writ large as soon as construction begins and ever after. There are no ghosts here, only the sentiment of a Robert Frost poem and a return to life after the Olympics.
The Post-Olympic Cityis on view at Storefront for Art and Architecture until Saturday, August 18. In conjunction with the exhibition, Gary Hustwit and Jon Pack are hosting the "After-Match," a panel discussion with Noah Chasin (Professor of Urban Design, Bard College and Columbia University), Grace Tang (Field Operations, Project Manager, London Legacy Queen Elizabeth Olymipic Park), and Ellen Dunham-Jones (Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Georgia Tech, co-author Retrofitting Suburbia), tonight, August 14, at 7PM.
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