The Architecture Olympics

Between 1912 and 1948, the Olympic Games incorporated not only athletics but also art competitions, giving equal importance to works of architecture, painting, music, sculpture and literature.


Architecture / Julia van den Hout

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".

Top: The Amsterdam Olympic Stadium, designed by Jan Wils, won the architecture category of the 1928 Olympic Art Competition. It was the first and only time the prize was awarded to a realised work. Above: The Art Competition announcement, issued for the 1924 Paris Olympics

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.

Covers of the catalogues of the Olympic Arts competitions and exhibitions from 1928 to 1948

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.

Baron de Coubertin envisioned a global event that gave equal value to athletics and arts

The pages relating to the architecture competition issued for the 1924 Paris Olympics

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.

Model of a timekeeping pavilion, designed by Guglielmo Giuliano for the 1936 Berlin Olympics competition

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