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Looking Forward to Rio

RUTH SLAVID, Images courtesy of AECOM


The challenges and the culture of Rio are very different from those of London, but some of the approaches will be the same — or better

Should you be lucky enough to get tickets for the Olympics in Rio in 2016, don’t expect to loll around the park in the informal way that visitors to London 2012 did.

That was a very British way of behaving, and not how people act in Rio at all. What the Cariocas like to do is to promenade, to see and be seen. The city has processional streets and beaches where this can happen, and that is also what visitors to the Olympic site will be able to do. ‘You get huge collections of people getting together to chat and hang out,’ said Jason Prior, AECOM’s chief executive of planning, design and development. ‘You see things you don’t see in public here — workout stations on the beach, rollerblading on the pavements. The Olympic Park will have huge processional spaces that you didn’t get here, with gardens to retreat into.’

AECOM, of course, is the practice that, under its previous name of EDAW, led the masterplan for London. If winning the competition to masterplan London was a delightful surprise, then winning Rio is even more of a triumph. Although AECOM is a global organisation, Prior’s team is based in London, so the achievement seems even greater than winning in a home country. AECOM is the first practice to masterplan two successive Olympics and, lest one suspects favouritism, it won Rio in an international, anonymous, open competition.

‘We don’t typically enter anonymous design competitions,’ said Bill Hanway, executive director of operations, planning, design and development, but this was too great an opportunity for the practice to miss. There were 59 entries, of which, said Hanway, around 10 contained very strong ideas and about five looked as if they could really deal with and carry through the commission.

So there was a sense of self-selection — a knowledge that there just weren’t that many practices around the world that would be up to the challenge.

In some ways Rio is simpler. There is none of the remediation work that was needed in London since the site, which formerly served briefly as an F1 motor-racing track, is level and ready. It will also contain less, since Brazil already has the Maracanã stadium, which will be used for the 2014 World Cup and is nearby but not on the Olympic site. Nevertheless, the density of seats within the site will be greater.


Brazil’s very different climate and topography will have a major impact. The city is sandwiched between the mountains and the sea, and so expansion tends to be linear, around a series of sculpted bays. It is a strip of city carved out between those two beautiful environments, a duality that the Olympic Park design recognises. Hanway describes it as ‘arguably the most beautiful city in the world’. No challenge there, then.

Development on the site is relatively recent. Unlike the Lea Valley in London, where there had been centuries of development, including a great deal of industrial pollution, the Rio site was almost entirely undeveloped until the 1950s and use has been sporadic up until now. But the Baja area within which it sits is the next slated for development, so post-Olympics it will be built on. As in London there are three stages to design — a games mode, a transition mode while development is taking place, and a masterplan for the final, legacy mode.

The communal domain will be very much in the form of a crafted landscape, but drawing on the plants of the Atlantic rainforest, with around 40 per cent of the planting being indigenous. The intention is that the forms of the plants will inform the planting and the buildings of the common domain. ‘We will use it as
a memory of what was there before,’ said Hanway, ‘and to educate people about the forest. In part we will be letting it grow back into the rainforest.’

AECOM prides itself on gaining knowledge of the places where it works. It already has some large projects in Brazil and, with the knowledge that an Olympic competition would be coming, Prior also deliberately spent some time in Rio to get the feel for the place. In addition it worked with a local practice, DG Architecture, on the bid. And, said Hanway, ‘we are looking forward to working with local architects and landscape architects to develop the ideas.’

Despite the very different conditions and response to those conditions, some ideas from the London Olympics are certainly being carried through, and developed. In particular, the sustainable agenda and the commitment to using temporary buildings will be important. ‘We have gone to the next step with the temporary venues,’ said Hanway. ‘The tennis, handball and a great number of other venues will be temporary. There was a request from Eduardo Pais, the mayor of Rio, not just to look at venues that could be taken away, but to look at creating modular buildings from which the components could be reused by the community. For instance we are looking at a handball arena from which the elements could be used to create a school.’ So AECOM will not be simply rolling out the ideas from London, and nor would it want to. ‘People hire you to push the agenda,’ said Prior.

AECOM is a massive organisation, and it includes a sports division that was greatly strengthened when J Parrish joined from Arup Sport. But however much strength there is within the organisation, Prior believes that working with others outside is crucial to bring in new ideas.

If Rio is a great success it will be largely thanks to the masterplan, although one of the biggest issues, of how the public transport system will cope with delivering people to the Olympic site, is beyond AECOM’s areas of responsibility. The hope is that that will be sorted for the 2014 World Cup, and that the Games will be as much of a success as London. There is not a lot of time — the masterplanner was appointed only five years ahead of time compared to seven in London — but the easier site conditions should help make up for that. As in London, a core of buildings has been designated for a sports legacy, and the future use of the site has been considered as carefully as it was here. Unlike Stratford it is already subject to development pressures, which may or may not bean advantage.

Olympic legacies have a mixed history at best. Even Sydney, which held one of the most successful games, has struggled to find a viable use for its park afterwards, and neither Athens nor Beijing seems to have derived much long-term benefit. London has been a game-changer in the way it has informed thinking, and for some of the intelligence behind that to help inform Rio is an excellent idea.

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