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Temporary basketball arena for the London 2012 Olympics is a winner

December 1st, 2011 / By: / Fabric Structures

Faster than you can yell “foul,” sports venues are shooting up in London’s Olympic Park in anticipation of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympics Games. This past June, the Olympic Basketball Arena, one of the largest temporary sports venues built, was the fourth structure to be completed more than a year before the international athletes land to flex their collective muscle.

And big it is. Sporting 12,000 black and orange seats (the colors of a basketball), the expansive arena commission was awarded in November 2007 to the collaborative project team of Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) engineering, Wilkinson Eyre Architects and the sports stadia guru KSS. Initial construction began in October 2009, and construction of the 1,000-ton steel frame began in March 2010—and the arena was finished within budget. Subsequent overlay work was completed for the August 2011 London International Basketball Invitational, a trial run event featuring six top men’s teams from Great Britain, Australia, China, Croatia, France and Serbia.

A moveable fest

In addition to the arena’s seating capacity, the venue measures 35m high (as high as the Tate Modern), and longer than a football pitch at 115m. Venue facilities, including elevators, bathrooms, corridors and VIP access areas, are all installed beneath the venue-seating frame. Its structural steel frame is wrapped with 20,000 square meters of recyclable PVC Type 2 membrane from Verseidag. Tension is created by stretching the fabric over three different variations of arched panels in a pattern of edges and planes that suggests a sculpted mattress large enough for Brobdingnagians. During the Games the membrane will be used as a dramatic backdrop for innovative lighting design projections.

According to the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), the PVC was chosen as a lightweight and cost effective material, which created a unique effect when stretched over the steel substructure. In actuality, the ODA is renting the arena from Barr Construction, a Scottish-based company that owns the structure and fabric. Post-2012 Games, Barr will dismantle the arena and identify a new owner. Interest in the structure has already been shown, including from Rio de Janeiro, the site of the 2016 Games.

According to Richard Arnold, the ODA project manager for the arena, “Renting the basketball arena for the duration of the Games is the most cost-effective solution and includes the cost of dismantling the venue after the Games. The cost of constructing and maintaining the facility as owners would be considerably higher. Across the project as a whole we are continuing to make savings where possible, saving over £830m to date to keep us on track and within budget.”

Sustainability matters

Early in the design process, the design team and the ODA clearly identified sustainability as a project goal. According to Wilkinson Eyre, sustainability is a challenge and an opportunity to “mitigate future climate change,” and designing a mammoth sports arena is not mutually exclusive of treading lightly on the land. The biggest challenge was ensuring that the venue, given its scale, could be delivered as a temporary arena and completely dismantled after the Games. “We don’t believe that this has ever been achieved before for a venue of this size, and the International Olympic Committee is now very keen to see this model being rolled out in future Games,” Arnold says. “The decision to make it a temporary arena goes some way to helping the ODA achieve its aim of ensuring that no white elephants are left in place after the Games have finished. After next summer, the venue will begin to be demounted and potentially reused elsewhere in the U.K. or internationally.”

According to ODA Chief Executive Dennis Hone, “Completing construction on the basketball arena delivers another striking Games-time venue for the Olympic Park, and it is an innovative structure that can be re-used elsewhere after 2012. As the fourth Olympic Park venue completed and one of the quickest to finish construction, the basketball arena is another milestone for the Olympic Park ‘big build’ and a tribute to the companies from across the U.K. involved in its delivery.”

Sports spectacular

During the 2012 Games, the arena will host men’s basketball preliminary matches, women’s basketball quarterfinals, men’s handball quarterfinals, and all semifinals and medal matches. It will also host wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby during the Paralympics Games.

Although the 2012 Games have yet to begin, accolades about the Basketball Arena are already flowing. Seb Coe, the London 2012 Organizing Committee chair, comments, “Basketball is one of the most popular Olympic sports, and spectators will be able to see the game played out in spectacular surroundings. It is a superb venue which will be the center of some of the best team action during the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

Hugh Robertson, Minister for Sport and the Olympics, says “Basketball is one of the most atmospheric competitions of the Games, and this has been captured by the artistic design of the arena. The speed with which this venue has been constructed is a tribute to the ODA and the architect whose design means this facility can be re-used after the Games.”

Mason Riddle is a contributing editor to Fabric Architecture magazine.

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