This article was originally published on Domus 960 / July/August 2012
In a letter dated 2 April 1906, Baron Pierre de Coubertin questioned "to what extent and in what way art and literature could be included in the celebration of the modern Olympiads". Elaborating on his intentions, he added, "In the high times of Olympia, the fine arts were combined harmoniously with the Olympic Games to create their glory. This is to become reality once again."
Baron de Coubertin had single-handedly revived the Olympic Games just years earlier, when the inaugural Olympic Congress was declared open and the first modern Games were officially, and unanimously, approved in June 1894.
To fully reawaken the spirit of the Olympics as they had been held centuries ago — a celebration of body and mind — Baron de Coubertin envisioned a global event that gave equal value to athletics and arts, such as painting, literature and even architecture.
He called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to examine several critical pedagogical themes. After having successfully discussed the integration of education and science at two previous meetings, Coubertin turned his attention to the arts. The official subject of the 1906 Congress, hosted at the Comédie- Française in Paris, was the "Incorporation of the Fine Arts in the Olympic Games and in Everyday Life".
To realise Coubertin's vision of promoting a unity of
sports and art, going forward the Olympic Games
would consist not only of athletic events, but also
organise art competitions, offering prizes in five
categories: architecture, sculpture, painting, music
and literature. Accepting only works that had never
previously been published, exhibited or performed,
an international jury picked gold, silver and bronze
medal winners for art that showed a direct and
thoughtful connection with sports.
As such, the IOC's first architectural competition brief, announced in 1910, requested proposals for a model of a modern Olympia. The results of the competition were supervised by the College of Architecture in Paris, which after a review in May 1912 awarded the first ever Olympic gold medal in architecture to Swiss architects Eugène-Édouard Monod and Alphonse Laverrière for their plan of a modern stadium.
Exhibited alongside the other art submissions at
a museum in the host city for the duration of the
Games, the winning architectural proposals ranged
from athletic schools to parks, and even to ski-jumps.
While the overall format of the competitions remained largely unchanged as they travelled from city to city, the process evolved during the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, where the architecture competition was divided into two subcategories: architectural design and town planning. Moreover, whereas in the previous three Games medals had been given only for proposals, 1928 marked the first, and only, time that a medal was awarded for a realised building, with a gold medal going to Jan Wils's Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, the structure in which many of the sports events were hosted.
Unfortunately, this was also the first year in which
artists were permitted to sell their submissions — a
decision that ultimately conflicted with the
required amateurism of the competitors, something
which had been of central importance in Baron de
Coubertin's vision for the modern Games. As a result,
the last medal-awarding architecture competition
was held at the 1948 London Games.
Today, as we see yet another Olympic complex rapidly taking shape in London, it is clear that architecture is nevertheless still a central component of the events. Not only do cities continue to compete for the opportunity to host the Olympics, but the architecture of the Olympics itself has evolved beyond the amateur competition of merely showing models and plans.
At a time when the competitive edge has become
increasingly dominant in architecture as a whole,
constituting a key factor in the process of winning
new projects for many practitioners, it comes as no
surprise to find architects vying for the chance to
build one of the Olympic structures. As a carefully
curated selection of some of the most ambitious
contemporary works, the Games have become an
architectural showcase for the international public.
Perhaps it is thanks to Baron de Coubertin's passionate efforts to celebrate the body as well as the mind that the Olympics continue to evoke a highly competitive race between some of the world's bestknown architects, even when there are no longer any medals up for grabs. Julia van den Hout, Architecture writer and curator