A Century of Olympian Architecture

Take a tour around the world to experience the spectacular architecture of stadiums for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

By Royal Institute of British Architects

LIFE Photo Collection

History of the modern Olympic Games

The first modern Olympics took place in 1896 in Athens. It featured 280 participants from 13 nations, competing in 43 events across nine disciplines: track and field, gymnastics, swimming, wrestling, cycling, tennis, weightlifting, shooting and fencing.   

By James WhitmoreLIFE Photo Collection

The architecture of the Olympics is much more than a sporting venue. From lavish opening and closing ceremonies, the stadiums express national identity, cultural values and political agendas through built forms. They are the showstoppers of the host countries.

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Similarly, the stadium is an opportunity to demonstrate pride and innovation within construction and engineering. Over the years, stadiums have transformed immensely, from the earthen sloped stands in ancient Olympia...

National Stadium, Olympic Green, Beijing (2012) by Photographer: Andrew CrothallRoyal Institute of British Architects

...to the award-winning National Stadium in Beijing, nicknamed the 'Bird's Nest', by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. These structures create visually exciting structures, that need to be both efficient, functional and create a legacy after the main event.

Olympic Stadium, Amsterdam (1928) by Photographer: Chester HenryRoyal Institute of British Architects

Amsterdam 1928

Designed by architect Jan Wils, the shape of this red-brick building was informed by the 500m cycle track, with a double balustrade separating the track from the spectators. The arena also includes a football pitch, a 400m running track and parking for 2,000 bicycles and 3,500 cars.

The Marathon Tower is built 20 metres from the stadium on the walkway outside. It towers 46 metres high to break up the horizontal lines of the building. A symbolic fire burned at the top of the tower throughout the Games.

The stadium is built in the style of ‘the Amsterdam School’, uniquely expressing Dutch culture and identity. Influenced by Expressionism in the early 20th century, the style was dominated by decorative brickwork, towers and figurative sculptures integrated into the buildings.

Olympic Stadium and Physical Training Centre, Berlin (1936) by Architect: Werner March (1894-1976)Royal Institute of British Architects

Berlin 1936

In 1936, the Olympics became entangled in politics and propaganda. Bigger, better, stronger – the Olympiastadion, part of an impressive 131 hectares Olympic site, became synonymous with Adolf Hitler’s ambitious political project of world dominance.

Designed by Werner March, the Neoclassical stadium embodies the severe authority of Nazi-era architecture. A large opening, the Marathon Tor, is flanked by two 48-metre-high towers, where the Olympic flame burned in a tripod throughout the Games with the Olympic rings suspended.

Olympic Stadium, Berlin: the peripheral colonnade (2009) by Photographer: Mikael SchillingRoyal Institute of British Architects

The internal structure, ceilings, and stands were built of reinforced concrete whereas Franconian limestone was used for the façade and other visible parts. A colonnade of 136 pillars make up the outer façade and support the top of the stands. These neoclassical features with strict geometric shapes give the impression of order and regularity. 

Olympic Stadium, Berlin: Raked seating (2009) by Photographer: Mikael SchillingRoyal Institute of British Architects

Ordnung muss sein. German efficiency was applied throughout the building with access to the stadium designed to allow an impressive 100,000 people to buy a ticket and go inside within one hour.

Wembley Stadium, London. Including view of the twin towers (1948) by Artist: Albert OppenheimRoyal Institute of British Architects

London 1948

London was one of the first cities to host a modern Olympics back in 1908. 40 years later, the Games returned to the English capital with events centred in and around Wembley Stadium, originally built to host the British Empire Exhibition Stadium in 1924 and now demolished.

Wembley Stadium, the twin towers (1999) by Photographer: Janet HallRoyal Institute of British Architects

Two 38-metre-high square towers, made in concrete, became an architectural emblem of the stadium built in a pseudo-Moghul style. Topped with a cupola reminiscent of the Viceroy’s House in New Delhi, the building is a tribute to the British Empire, although ironically its head engineer, Owen Williams, is better known as a pioneer of the Modern Movement in England. 

Olympic Stadium, Paavo Nurmen tie, Helsinki (2009) by Photographer: Robert ElwallRoyal Institute of British Architects

Helsinki 1952

Designed in 1938, this complex was built to host the 1940 Summer Olympic Games, which were cancelled due to World War II. It finally played host to the event in 1952, accommodating 70,000 spectators. With its pure lines, ribbon windows and rendered concrete walls, the stadium shows the influences of modern and functionalist architecture.    

Olympic Stadium, Paavo Nurmen tie, Helsinki: the tower (2009) by Photographer: Robert ElwallRoyal Institute of British Architects

A tower joined to the west façade of the stadium is 72 metres high. Although originally intended to serve as a landmark for the marathon runners, it quickly became a symbolic monument, featuring on the Games emblem. The top of the tower was chosen as the place for the Olympic flame to burn.     

Palazzo dello Sport, Rome under construction (1952) by Architects: Pier Luigi Nervi (1891-1979), Annibale Vitellozzi (1903-1990)Royal Institute of British Architects

Rome 1960

It was in Rome the Paralympics was presented for the first time, attracting 400 athletes with a disability from 23 countries and competing in eight sports. The Games were staged throughout Rome within 34 different venues. The architect and engineer Pier Luigi Nervi worked on the two buildings featured here, Palazzo dello Sport and the Palazetto dello Sport. 

Palazzetto dello Sport, Rome (1970) by Photographer: Edwin SmithRoyal Institute of British Architects

Nervi applied his engineering skills to the concrete dome roof on both venues. The indoor Palazetto dello Sport, translated as ‘Little Sport Palace’, is described as an enormous jellyfish based on its wavy shell. 

Palazzetto dello Sport, Rome, under construction (1952) by Architects: Pier Luigi Nervi (1891-1979), Annibale Vitellozzi (1903-1990)Royal Institute of British Architects

The shell dome is 61 meters in diameter, made of 1,620 concrete pieces and braced by concrete flying buttresses. Much of the structure was prefabricated, so that the dome was erected in only 40 days.  

Palazzetto dello Sport, Rome (1960) by Architects: Pier Luigi Nervi (1891-1979), Annibale Vitellozzi (1903-1990)Royal Institute of British Architects

The many unique architectural features of this dome structure include the perfect contrast between the smoothness of the outside and the embellished ridges of the inside. Its use of innovative techniques and materials presented a new, economic and scalable way of building. 

Olympic Park, Munich (2003) by Photographer: Gerhard BissellRoyal Institute of British Architects

Munich 1972

The award-winning park in Munich was designed by German architect and engineer Frei Otto. He was known for creating temporary tent structures and together with Günter Behnisch created the largest and most durable structure for the 1972 Munich Games. 

He created the lightweight canopy across large areas of the complex, pioneering tensile and membrane architecture. Sadly, the Munich Games are remembered more for the deadly terrorist attack on the Israeli team, making the Games once again an epicentre for political conflicts. 

Moscow 1980

The Lenin Central Stadium, the largest stadium in Russia was originally built in 1955 and later upgraded to stage the first Games in a Communist country. The façade retained its neo-classical appearance, with pillars evenly spaced around the edge. Reinforced concrete features with intricate sculpted tiles paid homage to traditional Soviet architecture. The stadium included multiple facilities for the athletes five levels below ground.

Peix' (fish sculpture), Hotel Arts and Torre Mapfre, La Marina 19, Villa Olimpica, Barcelona (2008) by Photographer: Christopher Hope-FitchRoyal Institute of British Architects

Barcelona 1992

The capital of Catalan took advantage of the Olympics-Paralympics as an opportunity to reinvent itself as a global city, boosting its tourist appeal. Its infrastructure was upgraded and a number of iconic buildings were commissioned by well known, often international, architects. The outcome was spectacular sports venues all over the city.

The striking 52-metre-long steel fish sculpture, El Peix, was designed by American architect Frank Gehry and built as part of the urban transformation to create a new skyline for the waterfront district. The gold stainless steel surface changes appearance depending on the angle of the sun and the weather conditions. 

Palau d'Esportes Sant Jordi, Barcelona (1995) by Photographer: Robert ElwallRoyal Institute of British Architects

Barcelona's largest covered sports facility, Palau d'Esportes Sant Jordi, was designed by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. Both its use of materials and structure are a masterpiece of engineering. The dome was raised from the ground using innovative hydraulic technology and underpinned by a base connected by a curving element, creating a harmonious effect to the architecture.  

Stadium Australia, Olympic Plaza, Olympic Park, Homebush Bay, Sydney (2007) by Photographer: Danielle TineroRoyal Institute of British Architects

Sydney 2000

Introducing environmentally conscious design principles to Olympian architecture, this multi-purpose stadium seats 80,000 spectators. Its design resembles a traditional Australian Akubra hat. The 30,000m2 roof, at a height of 58 metres, is supported by huge white arches and structures behind the stands. It uses transparent polycarbonate to reduce glare and shadow on the track.

Stadium Australia, Olympic Plaza, Olympic Park, Homebush Bay, Sydney (2007) by Photographer: Danielle TineroRoyal Institute of British Architects

The stadium is built to maximise ventilation and natural light. Rainwater is collected from the roof and stored in tanks for irrigation of the pitch all year round. The use of PVC was kept to a minimum.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Newham, Greater London (2012-09-29) by Damian Grady, English HeritageHistoric England

London 2012

The Olympic Park is home to eight of the venues that hosted the 2012 Games. The 2.5 sq kilometre site was originally industrial land and has been a catalyst for regeneration and transformation of the area. The stadium was constructed using eco-friendly materials and technology.

London Aquatics Centre, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Newham, Greater London (2012-09-29) by Daman Grady, English HeritageHistoric England

Inspired by the fluid geometry of water in motion, Zaha Hadid’s design for the Aquatics Centre features a 525-foot-long undulating roof, seen from above on the right of the stadium. Hadid is one of the few women commissioned to design architecture for the Olympics-Paralympics.

Tokyo 2020

The stadium for the Olympics-Paralympics in 2020 has been rooted in controversy from its inception. The Japanese architect Kenzo Kuma has created a elegant and reactive structure challenging the conventional use of building materials. Wood from disaster-hit regions of Japan has been used to construct the National Stadium, which will now open its doors in 2021.

Yoyogi National Gymnasia, Tokyo (2012) by Photographer: John BarrRoyal Institute of British Architects

However, it is not the first time Tokyo plays host to the Games. In 1964, Japanese architect Kenzo Tange designed Yoyogi National Gymnasium for the first Olympics-Paralympics held in Asia. The design for this indoor arena was celebrated at the time for its unique engineering and will be used again for the 2021 events.

This clip of Kengo Kuma  reflects back on the concrete buildings that defined the 1964 Games in Tokyo. He emphasises the importance of creating wooden architecture as a sustainable building material and symbol of this era.

Credits: Story

Explore more from RIBA Collections here  
All images are from the RIBA Collections unless listed.    

Image: Cenotaph, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Image rights: John Barr / RIBA Collections Image: National Stadium, Beijing. Rights: Andrew Crothall / RIBA Collections 
Image: Olympic Stadium, Berlin: the peripheral colonnade and seating. Rights: Mikael Schilling / RIBA Collections 
Image: Wembley Stadium, the Twin Towers. Rights: Janet Hall / RIBA Collections
Image: Olympic Stadium, Helsinki. Rights: Robert Elwall / RIBA Collections 
Image: Palazzetto dello Sport, Rome. Rights: Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections 
Image: Olympic Park, Munich. Rights: Gerhard Bissell / RIBA Collections 
Image: 'Peix' Fish sculpture, Barcelona. Rights: Christopher Hope-Fitch / RIBA Collections Image: Palau d'Esportes Sant Jordi, Barcelona. Rights: Robert Elwall / RIBA Collections Image: Stadium Australia, Olympic Park, Sydney. Rights: Danielle Tinero 
Image: Yoyogi National Gymnasia, Tokyo. Rights: John Barr / RIBA Collections

Curation and Interpretation by RIBA Public Programmes.

With special thanks to SCCI - The Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas, for the film on Kengo Kuma's stadium for Tokyo 2021.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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