Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Using what Mayor Eduardo Paes calls “nomadic architecture,” the city plans to dismantle one of its arenas and turn it into schools.
After August 21, the medals will have all been won. The excitement will die down and the crowds will disperse as the 2016 Olympics draws to a close. And if history is any indication, Rio’s Olympic venues, once filled with the finest of athletes and most passionate of fans, could lie dormant.
That’s been the case for most host cities. Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium racks up $11 million in maintenance fees each year, despite sitting virtually empty. The venues for the 2004 games in Athens have become aging reminders of money that could have been better spent. But Rio, determined to leave behind a more successful and sustainable legacy, plans to make some of its venues transformable through what the city’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, calls “nomadic architecture.”
Rio’s Future Arena, which hosts the Olympic handball and the Paralympic goalball games, will be repurposed into four state-run schools in the nearby neighborhoods of Jacarepagua and Barra, and in São Cristóvão on the eastern coast. Each school will hold 500 students. The arena was designed to be dual-purpose from the get-go, says Manuel Nogueira, the managing director of AndArchitect, the U.K. firm behind the design. “The way everything gets moved from place to another is a bit like Lego,” he adds.
The arena is made of smaller modular parts that are bolted together. When the games end, these parts—including the roof, the panels of the facade, and the vertical columns that hold the place up—will be dismantled, stacked, and moved to the three neighborhoods. “The plumbing components and the wiring are all designed so that you don't rip it out,” says Bill Hanway of AECOM, the U.S. firm that designed the master plan of the Barra Olympic Park, which includes the Future Arena. “You unbolt it and remove it, and reapply it to these four schools.”
The nearby Aquatic Stadium, which is also a temporary venue, will be dismantled and reassembled as two community pools. And the 300-acre Olympic Park, which houses a total of nine venues, will be turned into public parks and private development. The International Broadcast Center will also get repurposed, according to Next City, as a high-school dormitory.
Essentially, Rio is employing the use of “temporary architecture,” a concept that’s growing increasingly popular in the urban landscape. And the city isn’t the first to do so. Back in 2012, the late architect Zaha Hadid designed London’s Aquatic Center so that the temporary spectator stands on either side could easily be detached from the main building to make it smaller and more manageable after the games.*
“There's been a move toward more temporary venues in major sporting events and the Olympics,” Hanway says. “When we started working in Rio, the mayor became ever more conscious about the cost of everything, from the permanent structures to the more temporary ones. He came back with a [challenge]: Is there a way of reusing those materials at a modular level?”
Indeed, sustainability has been one of Rio’s major themes in its bid to host this year’s Olympics, calling it the "Green Games for a Blue Planet.” It made ambitious promises to ease traffic congestion by pumping up the public-transit infrastructure, and to clean up its toxic waterways, among other things. So far, though, Rio has fallen short of delivering on those promises, even as the estimated price tag climbs to $12 billion.
Given all that, and the poor track record of cities honoring their Olympic legacies, Jay Coakley says he has his doubts. “It looks and sounds great, but we don't know for sure if it's going to happen,” says Coakley, a retired professor from University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, who studies the sociology of sports and the impacts of sporting mega-events. “The city of Rio … is so far in the hole financially that it's very tough to honor their legacy promises. After the games are over, the organizing committee disbands, and its very difficult to know who will actually pick up the tab and do this particular change with the buildings.”
In his critique of sporting mega-events, written with social researcher Doralise Lange Souza at the Federal University of Paraná, Brazil, Coakley writes that despite good intentions, the benefits rarely trickle down to “socially excluded populations.”
“The problem is that the legacies haven’t been planned for,” he says. “Turning things into a school when you can't hire teachers, or when you haven't already started training teachers, creating the curriculum, or working with parents—unless they have things planned out and budgeted for, it isn't going to happen.”
Hanway acknowledges the economic challenges, but also says that the nature of the private-public partnership that the Olympic was delivered as puts pressure on developers to fulfill their post-games promises. Only by developing the sites, he says, can the developers make back the money initially put in to build the park for the Olympics. He also credits Rio’s mayor for making education a priority, adding that his vocal support for the “nomadic architecture” scheme will also put pressure on him to keep his words.
But right now, Coakley says, it’s all up in the air.
*CORRECTION: London’s Aquatic Center was designed to become a smaller building, not a soccer venue, after the 2012 Olympics.